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On farm traceability

On-farm traceability, and the paperwork that comes with it, is going to become more common, whether farmers want it or not, says an on-farm auditor

It’s going to be, in the long run, more about consumer confidence. And not necessarily in regards to safety of food, but in the sustainability of the food — where it’s coming from and that’s it’s being produced in a sound way,” says Jodi Holzman, auditor with Control Union Canada.

Holzman has audited about 100 farms in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. All the farms are supplying canola to the European Union’s biofuel market.

Certification schemes

Companies that want to export canola to the European Union have to prove that they are farming sustainably by meeting certification schemes such as those set out by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) system. Every part of the supply chain is scrutinized, and farmers selling canola to these companies have signed declarations stating they meet the requirements.

Holzman assesses all the farms that have signed up with the exporter and then selects farms for on-site audits. She determines how many farms to audit by taking the square root of the total number of participating farms. For example, if 100 farms are assessed, 10 are audited. Holzman tries to give farmers a week or two notice before the audit.

All the farms Holzman has audited have passed. Holzman says farmers need to comply with at least 60 per cent of the minor principles outlined in the certification standards, such as signage for fuel tanks and chemical inventories. But if they miss one major principle, they fail the audit.

Major principle violations include practices such as farming on land that’s been cleared of trees or native grassland since 2008. Though clearing forest is now rare on the Prairies, Holzman says this principle “also applies to windrows and old farm yards. When it comes to trees, it’s not necessarily native.”

Leaving intact wetlands, peat bogs and any other habitats that have a high carbon stock are also major principles.

Farmers receive a pre-auditing checklist before Holzman arrives so they can get together documents and other information she needs. Holzman asks them about basic farming practices such as how much land they farm, soil testing, pesticide and fertilizer management, and tillage type.

“It’s very basic. How do you do things and how do you make the decisions to do them?”

If they have employees, she also checks to see that they’re complying with related provincial and federal legislation.

Farmers who have completed Environmental Farm Plans tend to score higher on the minor principles because they’ve already put certain practices in place, such as signage for chemicals and fuel.

At this time, the companies exporting biofuel are covering farmers’ certification costs.

Biofuel markets in North America

So far these audits are only required for companies selling biofuel into the European Union. Canadian farmers can also sell into the U.S. biofuel markets.

In 2010, the Canola Council of Canada began working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get canola on the approved biofuel list. The federal government then started leading the initiative so that other Canadian crops, such as wheat ethanol, would have market access as well.

Part of the approval process involved establishing a life cycle analysis number for canola. Crude oil products such as gasoline and diesel form the baseline to measure renewable fuels against. Every point where energy is used, from seeding onwards, is examined.

“So it’s really an apples to apples comparison to determine what the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be from using a biofuel, a renewable fuel, versus the baseline numbers for gasoline and diesel,” says Dennis Rogoza, sustainability advisor for the Canola Council of Canada.

Natural Resources Canada has developed a tool called GHGenius, which Alberta and British Columbia use to determine the life cycle analysis number, which can vary between ethanol plants.

“So there is established methodology. It’s adopted by regulators. It’s well-respected. It’s very thorough. It accounts for every point in the production cycle,” says Rogoza.

Right now the U.S. market is worth about $500 million. Rogoza says that number is based on existing production capacity that uses Canadian canola.

The European market for Canadian biofuel is uncertain right now, Rogoza says, partly because commodity canola oil prices are high, and partly because of Europe’s financial turmoil.

Though the big canola markets are in the U.S., China, Mexico, and Japan, the canola industry wanted to “make sure that as other markets were available, that the door’s open to the Canadian canola industry to actually put product into the market,” says Rogoza.

Rogoza says there was hesitancy to move into the certification system because of complexity and perceived cost. “The reality is that many of these systems in Europe were basically designed for application in third-world countries. So when you look at the criteria inside of that, you sort of say, ‘Well, we do that, we do that, we do that,’ you know?

“It’s because we are modern and advanced agriculture. So on a large scale we’re going to be better than a third-world country by far. So there’s less to fear about this than people might have thought.”

More certification required in future

Although the European Union is the only market that requires auditing and certification right now, Unilever intends to buy all its agricultural products from certified farms by 2020.

“So all the raw materials, feedstock materials, that Unilever gets from the Canadian supply chain will have to be certified by then. And their language is pretty stringent. They’re basically saying that if you’re not certified, you won’t be doing business with us,” says Rogoza.

Unilever has created its own certification scheme, but it will also accept products from supply chains certified by other schemes it has approved. The ISCC is working on getting their scheme approved by Unilever, which would give certified Western Canadian farmers access to Unilever as well as the European Union.

Holzman thinks western Canadian farmers are close to being ready for more traceability requirements, but will likely need to focus on better documentation. “I’ve found most farmers have some basic documentation on seeding, seeding rate, fertilizer applications, and the chemical applications.”

But Holzman says there’s often no formalized procedure for record-keeping.

“It’s mostly in a little notebook. So the amount of records and documents being kept really varies from farm to farm. And I think if the industry was able to put out — whether it’s through the Canola Council or Ag Canada or whomever — kind of a standardized document that all farmers could easily access and start using, I think that would really help.”

Rogoza says it’s unclear how far away these changes are. “Canola may be the first out of the gate on a large scale in this area. But there’s going to be a lot of things happening in due course. But when, how, what it looks like — that’s murky.”

But the bottom line is that farmers need to be aware that certification schemes are going to become more common.

“And the more that they can document what they’re doing, even if it’s in an Excel spreadsheet to start with… keeping those records and keeping those notes is going to help them down the road, even if it’s not for another five years,” says Holzman. †

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.



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