'Sustainable' is a trendy word in the food industry — but farmers aren't getting enough credit for it
Saskatchewan has been a leader in sustainable farming practices
This piece was originally published on Nov. 29, 2019.
While grocery shopping the other day, I counted the word "sustainable" on product packaging too many times to count.
This led me to consider how interesting it is that a word with so much marketing power is so vaguely defined and understood.
One of the more commonly used definitions of the word, created by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
When applied to specific products in the grocery store, do I have any idea what that means? No.
But it is effective. Reports published in the last several years suggest North American consumers are willing to pay more for products labelled as sustainably sourced or produced.
Because of this, I have seen several major companies such as Walmart, Pepsi and McDonald's launch large-scale sustainability programs, designed to reduce waste, use renewable and environmentally friendlier products, and measure and report their progress.
As a consumer, I know this is a good thing.
But in my opinion, there is a downside to it, too.
Some industries were "sustainable" long before it was marketable but they are not necessarily benefiting from this marketing trend.
In fact, one of the more progressive industries in terms of environmental sustainability is also one being heavily scrutinized right now: agriculture. While the industry is being criticized for its practices around the use of chemical inputs, carbon emissions, industrial farming practices and more, we are casually ignoring the longer-term (and less headline-grabbing) stories.
In the last three decades, Saskatchewan farmers have been leaders in finessing, researching and implementing on-farm practices that also benefit the environment.
But these efforts are nothing new.
In 1987, when the term "global warming" was just gaining traction (but still nearly two decades before Al Gore and Hollywood celebrities launched it widely), a group of Saskatchewan farmers formed the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association. The organization's mission was to promote conservation farming practices to "improve the land and environment for future generations." Sound familiar?
A major focus of the SSCA, in the beginning, was to promote no-till farming as a practical option in pursuit of this mission. No-till helps increase carbon sequestration, prevent soil erosion, improve water use efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by not disrupting the topsoil when farmers seed and produce crops. Earlier this year, National Geographic reported that no-till farming is one of a group of regenerative farming practices that some experts rank amongst the most important solutions to climate change.
John Bennett is a Biggar, Sask.-area farmer I met a decade ago. He's also the past president of the SSCA. He said Saskatchewan had the highest adoption rate of anywhere in the world. By 2011, 70 per cent of farms in Saskatchewan were using no-till methods, according to Statistics Canada.
In the mid-1990s, the SSCA also started collecting data on the rate and permanence of carbon sequestration in the province's agriculture industry. Again, our province was a leader in this area, starting this type of project well before other provinces and countries, Bennett says.
Of course, the SSCA isn't the only force in our agriculture industry working to improve the land and environment for future generations. There are many organizations and initiatives designed specifically for these purposes.
But my belief in our province's farming practices is personal. During my time working in the industry as a writer and communications consultant, I have met many farmers who are continuously experimenting with ways to better manage their farmland while thinking about the future. Researchers in Saskatchewan (and all across Canada) are working on ways to help farmers better manage in-crop insects, weeds and diseases by using cultural, biological and structural strategies rather than synthetic inputs, such as herbicides and fertilizer.
I recently spoke with a young farmer who farms with his wife in southeast Saskatchewan. For several years now, Lee Sluser has been exploring ways to reduce his farm's use of chemical inputs and water use through methods such as intercropping, cover crops, tile drainage and composting.
Of course, there's a financial gain for Lee in lessening his dependence on inputs but, like most farmers I know, his interest in being "sustainable" runs deeper. He understands that taking care of his land, his most valued resource, means taking care of his business and more importantly, his family. The legacy of Lee's multi-generational farm is important to him and he wants to be able to leave the land in better shape for his two children and future generations, just like his parents did for him.
Maybe I'm a sucker, but I trust this type of "sustainable" food production much more than a fancy label.
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