With consumers becoming more interested in sustainable agriculture and the food industry looking for sustainable inputs, Canadian organizations came together to make sure our crop industry is ready to respond, with firm answers.
“In particular, this group was interested in advancing outcomes-based metrics, where we could measure things like greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon, land use and water quality, rather than a focus on practices or systems,” says Denis Tremorin, director of sustainability for Pulse Canada.
Pulse Canada led an Agricultural and Agri-Food Canada project that included the Canadian Canola Growers Association, Grain Farmers of Ontario, Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers, CropLife Canada and Fertilizer Canada.
“The group decided to replicate the work of Field to Market in the U.S., starting first by developing national/regional metrics and then an on-farm Fieldprint Calculator,” says Tremorin.
These metrics provide a high-level assessment on Canadian crop production. Companies use the Fieldprint Calculator to investigate the environmental impacts of the crops they’re considering buying.
Field to Market Canada
Field to Market Canada is a non-profit organization that includes commodity organizations, ag businesses, retailers, universities and other organizations. Its focus is on outcomes, providing a way for stakeholders to agree on a common sustainability framework. Canada has joined the U.S. Field to Market initiative, so we will have a common understanding across the border.
“In Canada, it was largely producer organizations that were looking at what was happening and saying we need to start thinking about what we as an industry, as producers are going to do about sustainability. How do we document that we are sustainable and how do we keep improving?” says Markus Weber of Serecon consulting, which provides administration for Field to Market Canada. “Our first task was to look at how the industry as a whole was in terms of sustainability and it was clear that there has been continuous improvement over time.”
Those improvements were driven by things like improved genetics that were giving higher yields, but also management practices like reduced tillage that were affecting measurables including greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and soil erosion risk across Western Canada.
The next step was to create a tool to help motivate continuous improvement. Fieldprint Calculator is that tool. A field-scale measurement tool.
At the moment, the Calculator is being used primarily to establish some peer benchmarks.
“It’s not just a farmer looking at their own results, or their own results in comparison to a province, they’re seeing the results of the other people in the room with them,” says Weber. “So, when we do a workshop in Melfort, for example, those 20 or 30 producers in that area that have participated will see the distribution of results from the other people in that group. They’ll see some people have much higher energy use per kilogram of canola than others, or much lower, and that results in a conversation within that group about what they can learn from each other in terms of those outcomes.”
Improved market access
The benefits for the industry revolve around market access and consumer demands for more transparency about food production.
“Some people have to do the work for the entire industry to make sure that the borders stay open and we’re able to continue to supply our export markets with the product that they want, and the progressive farmers that are participating in sustainability initiatives are doing that on behalf of the industry,” says Weber. He foresees marketing channels eventually being prepared to compensate producers for this information.
“In order to be selling to certain channels where promises have been made, whether those are health claims or sustainability claims, may see some identity preserved marketing channels where a sustainability tool might be a fit,” says Weber. “We haven’t designed it primarily for that purpose, but that’s a possibility. There’s a benefit to the producer if they can get a premium for a product that they can demonstrate has been produced sustainably.”
Most farmers incorporating sustainable or regenerative practices into their farm management are doing so for a mix of environmental and financial reasons. Field to Market provides tools to help them validate the benefits they can achieve.
“It takes about an hour in the first year to gather three crop years of data, and in future years it might take about 20 minutes a year to update the information,” says Weber. “It gives them a new lens, a new way of looking at their own operation, and comparing it to other operators, without a big-time investment.”
The Fieldprint Calculator is an easy-to-use, farm-level tool that allows growers to use their field data to assess and document that their production practices are appropriate and sustainable. Users receive a confidential report showing how they are doing compared to regional sustainability benchmarks.
Basic information is collected in five areas.
1. Land use efficiency
The land-use efficiency indicator is an estimate of the amount of land required to produce useable crop product. The lower the indicator, the more sustainable the production.
2. Energy use
The energy use indicator assesses the major energy-intensive activities necessary for crop production, including fuel burned for farm field work and energy used to manufacture machinery, fuel, and fertilizer.
3. Climate impact
This measure estimates the emissions of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is produced when fuel is burned for fieldwork or in the production of inputs such as fertilizer or machinery. Nitrous oxide emissions come from fertilizers, manure, crop residues and mineralization of native soil organic matter. They also come from tillage practices, water accumulation in low spots, leaching, runoff, and volatilization.
The Calculator models direct nitrous oxide emissions (from chemical and organic nitrogen fertilizer application, from nitrogen that becomes available after crop residue decomposition, and from the additional of soil organic carbon), and indirect nitrous oxide emissions (from leaching/runoff and from volatilization).
These nitrous oxide emissions are converted to carbon dioxide equivalents.
4. Soil carbon release
The soil carbon release indicator measures net soil carbon emissions and carbon sequestration as a result of management changes. These are things like reducing soil erosion through maintaining soil cover or crop residue, adding perennial crops, reducing summerfallow, or reducing tillage.
5. Soil erosion risk
The Calculator estimates probable soil loss due to water and tillage erosion. Wind erosion does not significantly contribute to total soil erosion risk potential in Western Canada. The indicator is based on soil, topography, land use and climate data, as well as previous and current crop type, from which tillage and water erosion are calculated.