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Changes coming for food production business

Posted on October 7, 2014 by 40 Mile Commentator

Garrett Simmons

Southern Alberta Newspapers

Farmers are going to have to adjust — there’s no two ways about it.

That was the message Dr. Dan Heaney brought to the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors conference on Oct. 2 in Lethbridge, as the consultant for RandomCross Consulting outlined the changes coming to the food-production business.

Those changes are based on the need for operations to become more sustainable in the future, a push which is coming from all levels, starting with consumers. Heaney added consumers in North American are typically well educated but have lost their connection to the family farm, which has shaped their ideas towards what agricultural operations should operative to produce healthy, sustainably-produced food. That has translated to pressure on retailers.

“Wal Mart wants customers to have that warm, fuzzy feeling,” said Heaney, as the push is on to adopt sustainability practices throughout the supply chain. “This whole push has been going on for the last 15 years in North America.”

Companies like Pepsico and Unilever are following suite, he added, as corporations realize the value in reducing energy costs and cutting waste, as it directly benefits their bottom lines.

“Large companies have successful sustainability programs and it saves them money, and they are bringing it back to the farm,” said Heaney.

With that in mind, the agricultural industry is taking a proactive approach through Canadian roundtables on sustainable crops and beef production, where producers groups and those in the supply chain gather to discuss ideas and protocols. The 4R nutrient stewardship initiative is one of the ways the agricultural industry is responding, as Heaney added a push is on to get large corporations to accept these standards, to give producers a standard set of guidelines to work from.

In the end, farms have little choice but to adapt, as companies like Unilever, for example, aim to be 100-per-cent sustainable, by its standards, by 2020, according to Heaney.

“Even now there are auditors who go through test farms to see how closely they are meeting sustainability protocols,” he said.

And while it may seem like just another challenge is being heaped upon producers, Heaney added sustainable agriculture is key to the planet’s future. With a population expected to climb to as high as 9.5 billion by 2050, sustainability and efficiency are buzzwords which aren’t going away.

“That’s a new New York City every three weeks in terms of population growth, and there’s not many opportunities for new farmland to go into production. There’s an increasing population versus a finite amount of agricultural land — that’s the situation we’re facing.”

The need for increased food production must be balanced with the need to protect biodiversity, he added, as part of the solution involves intensifying agricultural operations. According to Heaney, there’s a formula to prove intensification, which will create more greenhouse gases but at the same time, increases yields, creates a situation where the amounts of carbon dioxide created per kilogram of crop produced balances out the equation.

“On a global scale, the demand for food is only going to increase, so if crops are not grown more intensively, what is going to happen?”

Heaney added some wetlands and forests can be converted to agricultural production to meet some of that demand but when that’s done, high-intensity operations will actually have a lower environmental footprint.

Having more land in production also impacts many species, such as bees, who rely on marginal areas of land, between crops, where native plants exist for them to forage.

“In Alberta, dandelions are what bees forage on early in the spring,” said Heaney, who added 50-60 per cent of crops require insect pollination.

But in the end, all factors must be accounted for to help boost an industry which will need to increase production by 70 per cent to meet world demands by 2050.

“This is coming. Farmers are going to have to respond to these sustainability efforts by companies and by doing so, there will be an opportunity for increased market access.”

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