Sustainability is becoming a major consideration for the Canadian agri-food supply chain. In order to secure products and ingredients carrying sustainability attributes, processors and retailers will need to locate and work more intimately with the subset of producers willing to provide the desired sustainability characteristics. The purpose of this study was to explore how the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) could be used to verify or validate sustainable farm practices to participants downstream in the Canadian agri-food supply chain.
To do so, a review of existing sustainability practices and protocols used by food retailers, food service providers, and food processors was conducted. The existing Ontario EFP was profiled, including the process employed and information assembled. Interviews were conducted with a range of downstream customers for Ontario farm products. Ontario producers familiar with the EFP were consulted regarding the use of the EFP to communicated sustainability attributes.
The results suggested the following.
- In addition to environmental sustainability, there is a growing trend towards social and economic sustainability measures requested by some downstream customers. Labour, animal welfare and food safety issues are perceived as becoming increasingly important for consumers.
- The ultimate strengths of the EFP were seen as its focus on environmental sustainability, voluntary participation, and confidential nature. There was a concern that the environmental focus would be compromised if the EFP was extended to social and economic sustainability. A willingness to share EFP information with customers was indicated, on a confidential basis, if this could assist farmers in marketing.
- The awareness of the EFP program in the downstream segments of the food supply chain needs to be developed. Most of the retail and food service firms contacted were either unaware of the EFP or had heard of it but were not familiar with it. There is a need for this to change if the EFP were to have an expanded role.
- An opportunity was identified through which the information collected in the EFP regarding environmental sustainability could be accessed in satisfying customer information requirements. A type of EFP “addendum” could be developed that was designed to map the information contained in EFP’s into specific downstream customer sustainability requirements. This could benefit both farmers and their customers by making sustainability compliance less costly.
- Under the condition of a name change and refocusing of objectives of the EFP, the inclusion of social and economic sustainability could be considered as a future development of the EFP.
- There is also a need to better understand how the downstream segments would wish to use information accessed from the EFP. The prospects for uniformity across retail/food service firms in terms of the information sought from EFP’s, and whether multiple firms could use common requirements and thus a single addendum for multiple downstream customers.
- The relevant scale preferences of downstream segments must also be understood. This is critical in determining whether the EFP could be used based on the Ontario program and Ontario product volumes, or whether downstream purchasers would see Canadian volume as the threshold for participation, in which case there would be a motivation to more closely align provincial EFP programs for the purposes of designing sustainability addenda.
- Given that, for now, short supply chains are of more direct relevance to retailers, an opportunity was perceived for an exploration in the horticultural sector to develop a score card in “Environmental Sustainability".
- EFP programs are in use across Canada, but the organization and authority for the EFP is provincial, so there can be differences between provinces in EFP programs. Depending on the success of the pilot project, it could be used as a template by other provinces or be available for standardization policies, according to the drivers for sustainability, along with decisions about metrics to meet the requirements of customers.
The following next steps were identified:
- Further dialogue with food and beverage manufacturers regarding the EFP and its potential uses in sustainability is required, as the awareness of the EFP program has to be increased and an improved understanding of how the information will be used by downstream purchasers is required.
- Pilot projects should be initiated with selected food manufacturers and/or retailers to determine how the EFP with an addendum could be used with sustainability metrics and to convey sustainability information.
- A forum should be organized to bring agricultural producers together to discuss key areas of sustainability, how these are addressed in the EFP across farm commodities, and what metrics could be used to demonstrate results to others.
Partners: Claudia Schmidt, Janalee Sweetland and Al Mussell (George Morris Centre)