Canadian farmers, industry and governments should pay close heed to the recent announcement that one of Canada’s largest food processors has inked a deal to buy carbon credits from American farmers.
Maple Leaf Foods will pay $20 per tonne to U.S.-based Indigo Ag for carbon stored on American farms applying soil-building practices. It represents a new revenue stream for participating farmers, who in the past, would only have been compensated for yields.
It’s also a wake-up call for Canada to get organized around sustainability measures, or choke on the dust of its global competitors.
Paying farmers to store carbon in their soils is, at least in theory, a win-win scenario. It allows companies to offset their emissions liabilities by supporting farmers who are embracing practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere, converting it over time into improved soil fertility and health.
But while these concepts work well in theory, carbon-trading programs have been tough to implement because of the difficulties measuring and monitoring. For example, what if a farmer eschews tillage, collects the credit and then decides for whatever reason to start tillage again?
“The interesting thing about Indigo is that it has developed an innovative technology to measure and verify soil carbon,” said Tim Faveri, Maple Leaf’s vice-president of sustainability and shared value, in an interview. Describing it as new and game changing, Indigo relies on satellite photo imagery combined with sophisticated modelling to quantify and analyze the carbon stored.
Another benefit is that it’s a private sector initiative verified through credible agencies, and not subject to the whims of changing governments. “That makes it very simple, not only for farmers and producers but for buyers,” he said.
“Part of the challenges that I think personally Canada has to overcome is that we have a patchwork quilt of carbon pricing across this big massive country,” he said. “If the conversation were going to be directed in any one way, it would be towards standardization, harmonization, of these programs so that farmers in Manitoba have equal opportunities as farmers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, Quebec and everywhere across Canada.”
The new Biden administration in the U.S. has already indicated it will be tapping its agricultural sector to not only help fight climate change but to increase global competitiveness. If successful, Canada could be left behind.
Carbon is just one manifestation of the rising global interest in more sustainable food systems and finding new ways to trade on them.
Companies such as Maple Leaf are redefining themselves. It’s no longer iconic for its hotdogs and sandwich meats, it’s the “most sustainable protein company on earth.”
The Maple Leaf announcement comes on the heels of a new report that highlights the need for Canada’s agri-food sector to do a better job of benchmarking, quantifying and promoting itself on sustainability questions.
A coalition of 22 industry, government and non-government organizations — including Maple Leaf — are making the case for a Canadian Agri-Food Sustainability Index, which would cohesively track and tell Canada’s story to the world.
“Canada faces a changing global dynamic where countries are positioning themselves on sustainability and the irony is, that Canada is one of the safest and most sustainable, if not the most sustainable food producer anywhere,” said David McInnes, an Ottawa-based consultant working with the coalition. “And yet other countries are laying claim to that medal.
“Canada doesn’t have an integrated farm-to-fork story to tell that is backed up by proof points and validated globally so we can truly lay claim to our sustainability credentials,” he said.
The coalition’s report points out that global indices don’t always reflect Canada’s track record. While agriculture is blamed for 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, Canadian agriculture only contributes eight per cent of Canada’s total.
“Does Canada want to be a leader or follower in this new food world? Presenting the country’s agri-food credentials and leveraging its insights is the opportunity,” the report says.
“Or, does Canada forgo the value from doing so and defer to others from outside the country to largely shape its agri-food narrative?”