Sustainable agriculture: Canadian institute offers definition, recommends path

10/26/05

A landmark discussion paper, published by the Agricultural Institute of Canada, proposes that the GST or some other levy be applied to groceries to help achieve sustainable agriculture and staunch a potentially disastrous collapse of smaller sized farms.

The paper (online at www.aic.ca/issues/AIC_discussion_paper_Final_ENG.pdf), commissioned by Canada's foremost agricultural institute to help catalyze a national roadmap to sustainable agriculture, also calls for governments to use immigration policies to bolster declining rural farming communities.

Published on the eve of AIC's annual meeting (Quebec City, Nov. 6-9), the paper says Canadians eat the world's cheapest food as farmers' incomes wither, small farms vanish, rural communities decline and megafarms mushroom, with major consequences underway for future environmental conditions and food safety.

The discussion paper says making agriculture sustainable is essential as populations grow but can only happen if all Canadians help shoulder the load.

Adding a levy to groceries, with rebates for low-income citizens, would be the simplest way to create a fair levy to help farmers meet growing public demands for safe food produced in ways that do not sacrifice the environment, the discussion paper says.

"Preferably a last resort as a way to raise resources to ensure economic viability for agricultural producers, but a justifiable one none the less, such a measure could be implemented as a sales tax on food," says the paper, co-authored by agricultural analyst and writer Hugh Maynard.

"Farmers and other social groups fought to exclude food when the GST was enacted in 1991 on the argument that there would be a public backlash and that it was an unjust tax for low-income families given the essential nature of foodstuffs. Sales taxes are now common place, and tax rebate measures have been instituted based on income levels. The 7% GST alone on grocery store sales would generate an estimated $3.3 billion annually, still a considerable sum if only half of it were to be dedicated to supporting economic viability measures for farmers linked to sustainability goals and objectives."

The paper says such a move would cost Canadian consumers just one-fifth of 1 percent of disposable income.

The recommendations are among a suite of measures outlined in the paper, "Big Farms, Small Farms Strategies in Sustainable Agriculture to Fit All Sizes," to be presented to Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Andy Mitchell and formally launched at the annual meeting Nov. 7.

The paper says sustainable agriculture has five characteristics:

  • Land that can maintain food and fiber output for the foreseeable future;
  • Farms that are economically viable;
  • Rural communities that thrive independently;
  • National production systems able to meet domestic demand and compete in foreign markets;
  • A high-quality environment.

Just as small hardware stores are disappearing in the shadow of big-box retail outlets, small farms are being crowded out economically by the intensification of agriculture. Just 2% of farms now produce 35% of food in Canada and the trend towards larger farms continues.

"Coupled with that trend, though, are growing concerns about food safety and the environment," says AIC Board President Kim Shukla.

"If Canadians are truly concerned about how food is produced, about values beyond prices and profits, the nation needs to support measures that produce sustainable agriculture."

The major issues around agricultural sustainability are water quality and use, air quality, soil, livestock, energy, biodiversity, income risks, food safety and rural development, according to the paper.

"One thing is clear: if Canada is to continue producing safe and nutritious food for itself and help feed some 9 billion-plus people worldwide projected by 2050 without depleting its natural resources, then progress in terms of sustainability however it's defined and applied must be achieved, and quickly," says Ms. Shukla.

For Canadian farms to be economically viable and sustainable, agricultural policy and programs need to mimic those in the USA and Europe that integrate ecological parameters into income support measures, according to the paper.

"These also need to go further than just eco-compliance and provide income assistance through environmental enhancement programs where all of society benefits from the results, such as protecting wetlands."

Other recommendations include:

Using immigration policies to bolster rural communities:

"Canada is a country that was founded on immigration and continues to grow through an influx of new arrivals in the 21st Century few of whom choose to settle in rural communities," the paper notes, suggesting:

  • More flexible provisions for immigrant professionals to be able to work in rural areas;

  • Allowances for overseas seasonal workers to become landed immigrants; and

  • Development of social structures to assist new arrivals, such as community-owned cooperative housing, to settle in rural areas. As well, government policies should foster:

  • Local ownership of farms, regardless of farm structure and size, to ensure greater commitment to the local community by larger farms;

  • Local post-production processing and/or distribution facilities that creates jobs and economic development opportunities;

  • Greater exchange and/or co-operation between farmers to provide more critical mass and collective strength in production and processing capacity and the benefits of economies of scale;

  • Easier succession and intergenerational transfers of farms;

  • Restoration of fiscal incentives for young farmers that once made the 'cash poor, paper rich' nature of farming viable;

  • Programs to facilitate partial farm ownership or share cropping to re-engage non-farmers in agriculture and, therefore, rural communities. The discussion paper also calls for programs to help small farmers stay current with information technologies, some of whom are still on party lines and cannot even operate a fax. Food safety The paper says public confidence in food safety is challenged by incidents of contamination and disease outbreaks. To augment regulatory and other efforts being made in response, the paper calls for:

  • An independent food authority, "along the lines of a commissioner's office to provide an arm's length review" of scientific and regulatory issues related to food safety. The office "would be a big step towards re-building (public) trust" in the science generally and food safety specifically;

  • A more transparent approval process for food-related technologies (e.g. pesticides, antibiotics, biotechnologies), with peer review and independent verification of research findings;

  • Gearing government requirements to farm size. As it is, burdensome demands and paperwork are imposed equally across all farms regardless of their output, size and administrative capacities. "Agri-environmental regulations are not modulated according to the size of farms and appear to have more to do with matching government monitoring resources than with effective agri-environmental management," says the AIC paper.

    "Regulations need to be adjusted to reflect the particular situation of individual farms and support variable applicability (on a farm-by-farm basis)";

  • Creation of a new measurement of sustainability minimal process interference (MPI) which would indicate to consumers how far a product has evolved from its natural state, including the use of crop protection materials, processing (changes and additions), packaging and distribution;

  • A national communication and education centre to promote public understanding and reduce confusion surrounding food and agri-food issues;

  • Better use of the Internet and other modern information technologies to offer Canadians detailed nutritional information; Future foods The paper calls for a national debate on 'future foods' and the implications for sustainability of 'disassembling' whole foods into constituent parts, now moving into the molecular realm.

"Corn is no longer grown just for the kernel but for the starches and oils both indigenous and modified that are segregated and reassembled as something else," the paper notes. "And nanoscience will take this even further, with the ability to synthesize proteins and other molecular substances.

"This will have significant bearing on the application of definitions such as 'substantial equivalence' and 'novel foods.' Such capacity has huge implications for questions of sustainability, and although there are no ready answers now, leaving the debate until after these products hit the supermarket shelves will be an abdication of the scientific discourse."

Minimizing environmental risks To minimize environmental risks and conserve natural resources, the paper recommends:

  • Management by watershed objectives that enables participation of all interested stakeholders, the establishment of benchmarks and the measurement of site-specific improvements;

  • Creation of more windbreaks to prevent soil erosion -- a major pathway by which nutrients and other pollutants reach watercourses and diversify habitat;

  • Energy - higher fossil fuel prices present two potential opportunities for farmers: imported food (i.e. tomatoes from Florida) will become more expensive to transport, opening the door to local production; and the generation of energy from on-farm sources such as manure and biomass will become more economically viable, acting as on-farm substitutes for current sources of energy as well as the possibility of sales to energy providers. Despite much talk about sustainability over the last 20 years, achievement remains elusive, says Ms. Shukla. When the application of new technologies and techniques is "unconsidered and unchecked, the result has been soil erosion, chemical contamination, water depletion and environmental degradation, she says.

"In short, unfettered development chased by unlimited production is unsustainable."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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