It’s time to take provincial farm environmental plans to the federal level to ensure consistency and simplicity for the industry.
That’s why a steering committee of agri-food representatives is in the works to guide the transition to a national program, says Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, speaking at a recent national summit on the topic in Ottawa.
“We need a work plan that sets out how we get the provincial plans consistent across the country,” he said in an interview. In addition to farm groups, food processor and retail organizations will be involved in the process. While no timeline has been set for creating the national program, the goal is to gain funding for it through Growing Forward 3, which is to launch in 2018.
“We want their participation so we end up with a tool that certifies Canadian farms for environmental sustainability programs promoted by food companies,” Bonnett said. The agreement between the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and McDonald’s Canada restaurants is an example of the kind of certification being sought for the national farm environmental plan program.
While the program will mean more paperwork for farmers, “we need to look at it as a strategic investment,” Bonnett said.
Erin Gowriluk of the Alberta Wheat Commission and chair of the summit, said EFPs have credibility with farmers and need to gain the same status with consumers. Done correctly, they encourage producers to be continually improving their farms.
Jamie Hewitt of the environmental policy division of Agriculture Canada, noted the first EFP was a pilot project in Ontario back in 1993 which “… dealt with public concerns about the environment.” It also built awareness of what farmers were doing to protect the environment.
“It was an honest look at what farmers did and resulted in an action plan for farmers to improve their environmental performance,” he added.
The Ontario plan spread to Quebec, and then Atlantic Canada in the following years and finally across the Prairies by 2006, assisted by the Agriculture Policy Framework. While the provincial programs have much in common, they do have features designed to reflect the agriculture conditions within their jurisdictions, he added.
By 2011, 35 per cent of farms covering 50 per cent of the land in production participated in EFPs, he noted. The numbers have grown since then.
EFPs are now recognized in a number of sustainability programs and are used by Dairy Farmers of Canada’s proAction program as well as the Alberta Wheat Commission.
Andrew Graham, executive director of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, said even with a national program, “80 per cent to 90 per cent of the provincial programs will remain as they are today.” He called the development of a national plan “very much a work in progress.”
He noted that Ontario’s proposed Farm Sustainability Plan “builds on the core elements of the EFP.”
There are 210 international codes and standards on environmental protections and sustainability in the food industry that farmers and food companies need to be aware of, he added. “We need to work on leveraging the information we already have on farm practices and build on the strength of the existing EFPs.
“We need a national program because food companies and consumers want more information on our food supply.”