Is a National Environmental Farm Plan achievable? Representatives from all provincial EFP programs and major commodity groups attending the National Environmental Farm Plan Summit to discuss the possibilities believe that where there is a will there is a way.
The November summit in Ottawa closed with strong willingness to move ahead and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Alberta Wheat Commission volunteering to spearhead the formation of a steering committee to flesh out the concept, reports CFA president Ron Bonnett.
The steering committee will identify considerations that need to be addressed, such as how to develop a unified national program, the types of issues that should be included, and connecting with retailers to make sure the outcome will be acceptable. One of the first orders of business will be to set out a communication strategy to inform producer groups and others involved on progress as this moves along.
Bonnett, who runs a grain, forage and cow-calf operation with his wife near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., recounts the success of provincial EFP programs in Canada dating back to the first pilot program in Ontario in 1993. It started as a way to get out in front of a new government farmers feared would impose environmental regulations. The industry-led approach to developing EFPs has been to provide education and a process that enables producers of all agricultural commodities to voluntarily assess the environmental risks on their operations, identify areas that need to be addressed and outline action plans for improvements with cost-share programs available to implement projects.
The EFP idea spread rather quickly to other provinces with each adapting it to suit unique environmental challenges across diverse agricultural landscapes.
Bonnett says inconsistencies among the provincial EFP programs is one reason behind the interest in developing a national program, but at the same time producers have seen increasing pressure from society for transparency and accountability that go beyond environmental standards. Major retailers are now asking for additional information such as carbon footprints and animal welfare practices.
“The key in all of this seems to be sustainability and public trust. The challenge for a national program is how to identify what is sustainable and what’s not sustainable to put together an expanded program to address all of the public trust issues. The goal would be to have one common product for domestic and international markets instead of producers having to deal with doing different types of plans for everyone who wants one,” Bonnett explains.
The overarching question of the summit was how a national plan could serve producers as both a stand-alone EFP program with national indicators integrated into regionally based programs and/or integrated into a broader format to address a range of emerging issues.
Attendees heard about unique features of existing provincial EFP programs, such as Quebec’s on-farm verification, Alberta’s protection of species at risk, Prince Edward Island’s online delivery format, British Columbia’s EFP brand, and Ontario’s Sustainable Farm and Food Plan.
They also gained insights on identifying risks and accounting for practices to address those risks from commodity groups involved in sustainability initiatives, including the potato, dairy and beef industries; the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops; and the Alberta Farm Sustainability Extension Working Group, as well as complimentary tools such as 4R nutrient management and the Canadian field print calculator.
“We don’t want to duplicate what commodity groups are already doing. The idea is to slot what is already being done into a national framework so that producers will be able to demonstrate that they are doing the right things and communicate this with the public. I think, once again, we have to respond by getting out in front of these issues, and if we approach this in steps there’s a good chance it will happen,” Bonnett says, adding that he foresees another gathering within the year to move forward with a plan for concrete steps.