Measuring sustainability

In Canada, a national sustainability index is in the works
Man Farmer Holding Fresh Ripe Vegetables in Wooden Box in Garden DayLight Healthy Life Autumn Spring Harvest Concept Copy Space.
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Canada's food is among the safest and most sustainable in the world, according to a coalition of private and public sector groups—and they’re leading an effort to create a national sustainability index for Canada’s agri-food sector that will provide scientific evidence to back these claims.

Consumers “increasingly want to know where their food comes from, how it’s made, produced and supplied,” says David McInnes, coordinator of Benchmarking Canada’s Agri-Food Sustainability Leadership Project. “We have an opportunity to respond to that.”

The index, which will be developed by producers and companies in collaboration with non-industry and government stakeholders, will include a number of factors, and will be inspired by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Accord emissions targets. “This is a unique and global-leading initiative, because we’re taking a farm-to-retail view of sustainability across environmental, social and health and economic indicators,” McInnes says.

For grocers, this enables them to provide consumers who are worried about the impact our food system has on the health and well being of ecosystems with proof to support food product claims about sustainability, he explains.

The goal is “to give consumers the sense of trust that our food is sustainable and safe” by providing data that will back up sustainability claims, says Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, one of the organizations supporting the index.

A sustainability index will also help celebrate what Canada is doing very well, Fraser says. For example, Canada’s livestock is arguably among the most sustainable on the planet; and the country has some world-leading companies when it comes to sustainability. In 2019, for instance, Maple Leaf Foods—one of the members of the coalition—says it became the world’s first major carbon neutral food company. “They invested in plant-based companies, changed the energy-efficiency of some of their plants [and] mothballed old plants,” Fraser says.

There’s a lot of momentum for the sustainability index, says Greg Northey, vice-president, corporate affairs at Pulse Canada, another coalition member. A verifiable and credible index will showcase “the unique characteristics of Canadian agriculture to the world.” By quantifying and demonstrating how food is produced and where it’s coming from, it will also give grocers an extra tool they can provide consumers, Northey adds.

Canada has the advantage that its food system is trusted and its brand is strong internationally, “but we need to back up the claims we make because the bar for proof is rising,” McInnes says. Canada also has to demonstrate to domestic and export markets that our food system can remain productive in the face of climate change.

As concerns grow about the health of the global food system, the timing for the index is right, according to McInnes. “We have an opportunity to respond and create innovative food products that link nutrition and sustainability.” He hopes the index will be published in late 2022 or early 2023.

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