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How it Works

What is sustainability?

When Canadian grain customers talk about sustainability, the emphasis is often on environmental sustainability. But they are referring to economic viability and socially responsibility as well.

From coast to coast, farmers are vital to the economic health of their communities and to Canada’s agriculture and agri-food industry. Canadian farmers continue to look for ways to improve their operations and their land because they depend on it for their livelihood. The ability to supply customers and to contribute to the Canadian economy depends on individual farmers to be financially viable in the long run.

Farmers have long understood that a healthy environment is necessary for farming to continue for future generations. Their sound agronomic practices contribute to improving soil health, water and air quality, and reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

As environmental stewards, farmers use agrochemicals responsibly, adopt efficient technologies, and manage land use and foster biodiversity. Along with all members of society, farmers also strive to reduce waste and pollution to reduce their impact on the environment.

Social responsibility is about how an entity, including a grain farm, acts as a member of the community and as an employer. As employers and rural citizens, farmers have a direct influence on the well-being of their families, neighbours, employees, contractors and communities. Protecting the basic labour rights of farm workers, supporting people’s health and well-being, providing competitive working conditions, and fostering harmonious business relationships within their communities are included in social responsibility measures.

Why does sustainability matter?

Grain customers, such as food processors, feed mills and biofuel manufacturers, are under pressure by their shareholders, lenders and customers to provide assurance that the grain they use is sustainable. They are being asked to provide information about the source of their inputs, including grain, and the practices that farmers have used to grow that grain. Given the current world focus on climate change, GHG emissions and preservation of biodiversity, major food brands are expected to have answers and to show that they are taking environmental sustainability seriously.

Grain customers also want to know that their suppliers are going to be able to provide grain in the future, that they are financially sound. And they are often required to provide reports on social responsibility as well, both on their own operation and those of their suppliers.

The sustainability standards that customers use reflect many on-farm beneficial management practices (BMPs) that improve land stewardship, provide a safe work environment and maintain a healthy bottom line.

Many of these BMPs such as record keeping, nutrient management and agrochemical handling and application, not only increase production efficiency, yields, soil health and water quality, but they can improve profitability. The Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool prioritize these same areas when developing grower extension and educational resources to ensure grain farmers see value in this work.

Key Sustainability Topics

Measurement of Greenhouse Gas emissions are of great interest to the grains industry and their customers. In Canada, a wide range of agricultural productions have measured their environmental impact using the Environmental Life Cycle Assessment (E-LCA) methodology (ISO 14040-14044) or their carbon footprint (ISO 14067) to, among other things, provide accurate measurements over time to provide to customers, and guide adaptation policies for the sector. In 2017, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops conducted a carbon footprint analysis for ten major grain crops in Canada: barley, canola, corn, durum wheat, field peas, flax, lentils, oats, soybeans and wheat (other than durum). Carbon footprints are measured by unit of product, for example, kilograms of GHG emissions in Carbon Dioxide equivalents per tonne of grain (referred to as “intensity”). This analysis, which was conducted by province and provincial sub-regions, was updated in 2021 and data is available on the CRSC Metrics Platform.

The Environmental Life Cycle Assessment is a formalized methodology (ISO 14040-14044) that provides a quantitative approach to understanding carbon footprint but also a wider range of the distribution of resource demands and environmental impacts along food product supply chains. This analysis is also conducted for a commodity at a regional or national scale and can lead to key levers for mitigation actions. Of interest to some is a social life cycle assessment, which is more of a qualitative and iterative approach based on UNEP Guidelines (2020). It is a methodology to assess the social impacts of products and services across their life cycle (e.g., from extraction of raw material to the end-of-life phase - disposal). This means looking not only at the factory or process that produces the product, e.g., flour milling, but also at the social impacts related to all the associated processes, both upstream and downstream (e.g., grain production), transport and final distribution of the flour (UNEP, 2020).

Regenerative agriculture is attracting a lot of attention recently, but there is still no legal or regulatory definition or even a definition that achieved a consensus internationally. None the less, most practitioners use a definition similar to that of Regeneration International: “Regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” Regenerative is used by all sorts of stakeholders in the industry (e.g., producers, retailers, researchers, and consumers, as well as politicians and the mainstream media) and for all sorts of purposes, which can make the term confusing, especially for consumers. However, by all definitions, minimizing tillage, implementing a diverse crop rotation, and increasing soil heath, are all fundamental practices within regenerative agriculture.

Several high-profile companies are engaging with the concept of regenerative agriculture. For example, the Regenerative Organic Alliance (a collaborative of farmers, businesses, and experts) has established a certification program for regenerative agriculture. General Mills, a large purchaser of Canadian cereals and oilseeds, has pledged to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. To this end, they have recently announced an investment of U.S. $2.3 million in partnership with ALUS to support farmers and accelerate regenerative agriculture in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (General Mills, 2022).

Soil carbon sequestration refers to any changes in land management that increase the organic carbon content of the soil, resulting in a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The opportunity to increase carbon sequestration in soil is seen as a promising strategy to reach GHG emission reduction goals. Alberta grain farmers, through the adoption of no-till and other conservation tillage, as well as beef farmers with pastures, already sequester a significant amount of carbon annually. However, there are still several uncertainties and limitations regarding the exact amount of carbon that can be sequestered in the soil (e.g., soils are not infinite carbon sinks; soil carbon storage capacity of a specific area depends on climatic factors, topographical conditions, land use context, the level of soil degradation, the type of agricultural practices used and the duration of the practices). So, the potential of additional carbon sequestration and its effect on the GHG emissions balance of agricultural production is uncertain. The Soil Conservation Council of Canada, in partnership with the Compost Council of Canada, has published Recruiting Soil to Tackle Climate Change: A Roadmap for Canada. This roadmap outlines possible actions to increase carbon sequestration and the steps that can be taken to support those actions.

Are you ready?

Agricultural commodities are experiencing different stages of market pressure to be certified as sustainable. For example, the potato industry is a leader in sustainability and their growers had to adapt to sell their product and maintain their contracts. Market signals to growers of cereals, oilseeds, pulses and special crops are not strong, although there are some markets that are asking for crops to be grown using specific practices. But in the future, sustainability verification will play a significant role in the ability of Canadian grain to maintain market access and public trust. The goal of this tool is to increase farmers’ readiness to take advantage of these sustainability-driven market signals through a self-assessment of their farm practices.

The Farm Sustainability Readiness Tool is intended to increase farmer comfort with sustainability certification should they choose to pursue this on their farms. This tool removes the guess work for farmers by compiling questions found in certification standards in a user-friendly format for three of the most comprehensive, internationally recognized, sustainability certification programs. The Programs are the Farm Sustainability Assessment (2.0), ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) 202 (V3.0), and Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code SAC (2017). If farmers meet these standards, then they should be able to comply with any other sustainability program that may enter the Canadian marketplace.


Goal and Scope of the Tool

The objective of this project is to develop an online self-assessment and action plan to support farmers in their preparedness to meet the requirements of various sustainability programs.

The tool provides:

1) Three self-assessment questionnaires that enable individual farmers to assess their situation against internationally recognized sustainability certification programs;

2) Learning and action-planning modules to support farmers in bridging the potential gap between their current practices and the requirements of these sustainability certification programs;

3) General information on sustainability and the impacts for farmers who expand their understanding of sustainable practices and drivers of sustainable sourcing.

The tool focuses on three internationally recognized sustainability certification programs, namely the:

• International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) EU – ISCC EU 202-2 Agricultural Biomass: ISCC Principles 2-6 version 1.1 source

• Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform – Farmer Self-Assessment (FSA) version 3.0 source

• Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code (ULSAC) – 2017 Version source

Contacts were made with program owners to inform them of the project and access the newest versions of their programs. The requirements of these programs are listed and sorted into a framework. The framework of the tool includes 3 modules, 17 topics and 88 indicators. Each indicator covers at least one requirement from the sustainability programs.

This tool is not meant to replace any of these internationally recognized sustainability programs. Similarly, it cannot be used as a substitute for an audit process or to infer compliance with the three sustainability programs.