Agricultural production used to be basically divided into two camps; conventional and organic. The two production styles have clear delineations and are pretty much exclusive of each other. Today the lines between these systems are being blurred as farmers are beginning to embrace sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.
All of these different terms can be confusing. What do we mean by sustainable or regenerative agriculture? How much crossover is there between these production systems and others, including organic and conventional?
“There’s a lot of confusion on the part of farmers,” says Ananda Fitzsimmons, president of the board of directors of Regeneration Canada. “It’s really interesting that in the regenerative movement you see organic and non-organic farmers working together, which is really encouraging. That that hard line that can sometimes exist between organic and conventional seem to be breaking down somewhat in the regenerative space.”
Let’s begin by defining “organic” production.
In Canada, the organic system is governed by the Government of Canada’s organic standards and regulations and is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It defines organic production as:
A holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The principle goal of organic production is to develop operations that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.
According to Choose Canada Organics, “Canada’s organic standards are among the most recognized in the world, and place strict limits and prohibitions on the use of toxic and persistent pesticides; synthetic fertilizers; the routine use of drugs, antibiotics or synthetic hormones; animal cloning; genetic engineering; sewage sludge; and irradiation. Organic standards also forbid the use of artificial food colours, flavours, sweeteners, preservatives and many other processing aids and ingredients in processed foods.”
A Google search will reveal several definitions of regenerative agriculture, coming from many different groups. At their core is one fundamental focus: soil health.
Regeneration Canada is a national, non-profit group that strives to raise awareness, connect stakeholders and drive innovation in regenerative land management. Its definition of the term is: “land management practices that regenerate soil health, in order to mitigate climate change, restore biodiversity, improve water cycles and support a more productive and just food system.”
“The bottom line of regenerative agriculture is improving the health of soil,” says Fitzsimmons. “We feel that the environmental necessity of changing how we manage land really means that we have to bring everyone into the game. Really, the question is, is soil health improving? Is the soil ecosystem improving? For us, it’s a results-based perspective on whatever you’re doing improving the soil ecosystem.”
Regeneration Canada isn’t trying to tell farmers how regenerative agriculture should be done. Instead, the organization is working to connect farmers. And, Fitzsimmons says, “We are catalyzing a conversation and keeping our finger on the pulse of the regenerative movement.”
There are many different pathways to regenerative agriculture. A lot of metrics feed into the system, including mitigating climate change, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services such as improving water quality, reducing the impact of droughts and flooding, increasing biodiversity and maintaining wildlife habitat.
Most farmers’ interest in regenerative production begins with the need to address a specific environmental or economic concern on their land. For example, a farmer may need to produce more, high-quality forage. Improving the water cycle to make land less prone to drought, or improving efficiency to reduce fertilizer inputs may also spur farmers’ interests. Other farmers may be looking to get more productivity out of the same number of acres, as expansion through land rental or purchase becomes more expensive.
There are no industry-wide standards or codes of practice for regenerative agriculture. Without these factors, farmers, food companies or grain buyers cannot make any claims about their products being “regenerative.”
The only regenerative agriculture certification in North America at present is in the United States, which has a new Regenerative Organic Certification.
“I think one of the problems with certification is that it can be polarizing,” says Fitzsimmons. “It can become very much a niche, so a concern is that if there’s a certification like the Regenerative Organic Certification, it sets the bar and if you don’t cross the bar you’re not in the game.”
Fitzsimmons says that’s why it’s important to try and have a system that is correlated to results. “Even in a system like the carbon sequestration credit system in Alberta, it is based on studies that correlate practices to results,” she says. “It is unwieldy to go around measuring the carbon on every single piece of land, and making sure it’s still there, so you need to have a reductionist approach in order just to make the system practical.”
Any future, voluntary certification programs for sustainable crops would likely come about only if there is demand from the industry, says Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada and chair of the Steering Committee of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops (CRSC).
In the past, sustainability was often associated with environmental management of resources such as soil, water, biodiversity, and air. This definition was broadened in a 2018 report by the Canadian Agri-food Sustainability Initiative. Now the definition includes social and economic sustainability, including farm management issues such as labour codes, training, succession planning, animal welfare, and community engagement.
So, while there are many different opinions about what sustainable agriculture means, this 1990 description from McGill University is possibly one of the most appropriate:
Sustainable agriculture is both a philosophy and a system of farming. It has its roots in a set of values that reflects an awareness of both ecological and social realities. It involves design and management procedures that work with natural processes to conserve all resources and minimize waste and environmental damage, while maintaining or improving farm profitability. Working with natural soil processes is of particular importance. Sustainable agriculture systems are designed to take maximum advantage of existing soil nutrient and water cycles, energy flows, beneficial soil organisms, and natural pest controls. By capitalizing on existing cycles and flows, environmental damage can be avoided or minimized. Such systems also aim to produce food that is nutritious, and uncontaminated with products that might harm human health.
The Canadian agricultural industry has moved beyond defining “sustainable” to developing tools that grain and livestock producers can use to assess their progress toward sustainable production systems. In some cases, farmers can use voluntary certification processes.
Several years ago, the National Farm Animal Care Council worked with the livestock sectors to develop voluntary Codes of Practice for the care and handling of animals in Canada.
“All the animal sectors have gone through this process,” says Cam Dahl.
Now the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops (CRSC) is developing a Code of Practice for sustainable crop production. “Our model is based on the process that has been used by the National Farm Animal Care Council to develop successful Code of Practices for the beef and poultry sectors.”
The CRSC’s Code Development Committee includes representatives from industry stakeholders, including producers. The Code of Practice in development will be based on international standards, and will cover areas that are the most critical in terms of market access and public trust.
The CRSC will develop sustainability guidelines for practices such as pesticide use, nutrient, water and soil management, land use and wildlife habitat, plant breeding technology (i.e. the use of GMOs), on-farm food safety and human resources issues such as health and safety and working conditions.
One of the main objectives of the Code of Practice is advancing public trust. “Farmers have a really good story to tell on sustainability but we don’t have the tools or easy ways to tell that story,” says Dahl. “One of the objectives for developing the Code of Practice is to help us tell that sustainability story, and talk about reduced fuel use, increased carbon sequestration, reduced erosion, improved soil heath and all the other good stories we have to tell.”
The Code of Practice will also help address questions about Canadian farming. “The ability to say we have a Code of Practice, it has been developed through a national consensus process, has scientific backing, and has buy-in from NGO’s around the table, that’s a very powerful response to people who are asking, ‘Where does my food come from?’” says Dahl.
The Code of Practice will involve a process to communicate with farmers about sustainable best management practices, and meeting consumer demands.
“If we don’t do this, we are going to have answers imposed on us that may not take into account the needs of Canadian producers, so it’s important that we, as an industry, including farmers, take on this initiative and provide those answers ourselves,” says Dahl.
At this point, the Code of Practice for sustainable crops is not intended to include an audit and certification process like the one that has been developed by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
“Ours is not intended to be a certification process, it is a voluntary Code of Practice and we are going to measure adherence through using the metrics platform we already have,” says Susie Miller, CRSC Executive Director. “We foresee a comprehensive, annual report in terms of how the industry is doing in terms of sustainability.
Measuring “sustainable” and “regenerative”
Sustainable Crops (CRSC) is developing a national Code of Practice, another group, the newly established Field to Market Canada, is developing tools. Farmers can use its “Fieldprint Calculator” to measure and validate the sustainability of their practices and the improvements they are implementing on their farms.
“Much like the code of practice that the CRSC is currently developing, most of the other sustainability initiatives are practice-based,” says Markus Weber of Serecon, which is coordinating the Field to Market Canada initiative. “All of those are about what has been done, they don’t measure what the outcome is. What we have done is develop a tool (the Fieldprint Calculator) based on algorithms and data sets that allow us to model outcomes.”
To date, the calculator is being used primarily for an Oats Pilot Project initiated by General Mills with 183 growers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota that covers 430 fields and 180,000 acres, although a further 47 independent farm operations are also using the Fieldprint calculator.
“The oats project is running because there is a demand from General Mills and its retail and end-use customers,” says Weber. “That’s the ultimate goal for this tool. We hear from the food industry that they are making commitments to all kinds of sustainability goals and we think there’s a good fit for this tool to bring the supply of sustainability information from the participating producers to the company that needs the information.”