The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Measuring Sustainability

Measuring Sustainability

In the News

February 27, 2011

Leading companies are making sustainability a top priority in how they do business. A recent report from Pulse Canada found that food companies are working towards more consistent measurement techniques to improve the overall performance of the food industry in this area, and that primary agriculture has a role to play in finding these solutions. Pulse Canada is the national association representing growers, traders and processors of Canadian “pulse” crops (peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas).

Canada is the world’s largest supplier of pulses, with exports reaching more than 150 countries. Their report, entitled “Measuring Sustainable Agriculture,” provides a snapshot of the rapidly evolving industry focus on sustainability and related measurement efforts. More than 30 companies, including Tesco, General Mills, Dole and Pepsico, were interviewed in 2010 for the report. 

Five elements of sustainability are mentioned as emerging as the highest priority for measurement. They consist of greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on water, impacts on biodiversity, factors that are driving at the core issue of soil health, and social impacts, including labor practices. 

“Sustainability has become a key priority for businesses and consumers. Every day, more attention is being paid to the impact that food production is having on the environment. We are now using this knowledge to focus on making improvements that benefit the entire food system,” says Gord Kurbis, Director, Environment at Pulse Canada.
The measurement of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is arguably the most developed means of measuring sustainability. However, while carbon footprint data is currently being used on product labels in Europe, GHG measurements alone may not provide the truest measure of overall sustainability. That’s why many companies are now combining GHG information with other sustainability indicators. Tesco, for example, now features their “Tesco Farm Pledge,” which promises a fair price to farmers.

Since the food and agriculture sectors account for approximately 70% of all freshwater withdrawals worldwide, water is a key measurement factor when it comes to sustainability too. Water usage is typically measured by a product’s green water footprint (the quantity of rainfall water used), blue water footprint (the quantity of irrigation water used), and grey water footprint (the quantity of polluted water generated). 

The extra factor of whether or not a product comes from a water-scarce region is not included in today’s water footprint measurements, but will likely be incorporated in the future. Additionally, biodiversity and soil health are top priorities, according to the report. Improvements in these areas have the potential to improve air quality, mitigate climate change, reduce soil erosion and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. 

Canadian agriculture specifically derives advantages from its cold climate environs, including a lower risk of crop damage from pests and diseases. Still, when late or early frosts occur, crop yields and quality can be limited. As a result, sustainability efforts there have been developing for decades. For example, 72% of Canadian growers have already adopted conservation tillage practices. In Western Canada, 98.5% of cropland is exclusively rain-fed with no irrigation. Integrated pest management is another process widely adopted in Canada, although better quantification methods are needed.

Pulse crops in particular have benefitted from sustainability measures and are being grown in rotation in Canada. Peas, lentils and chickpeas do not require N fertilizer, as they have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen though a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria. This unique relationship not only benefits the pulse crop, but also reduces the fertilizer requirement for wheat or barley crops grown the following year. Life cycle analysis studies have shown that pulses grown in a four-year rotation reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the entire crop rotation by 20%, and non-renewable energy use by 24%. 

“A large land base, ample fresh water, great soil stewardship and low pest pressures all contribute to the low impact that Canadian food producers have on the environment,” says Kurbis.

Focusing on the health of the planet, and keeping people healthy through better food choices, says Kurbis, are trends that are going to increasingly shape the future of food and agriculture in Canada. He says that their success in agriculture is largely due to the ability of farmers to innovate to overcome difficult economic and environmental conditions. Investment in agricultural research and extension helps farmers and others to see the benefits of alternative practices.  

From growing pulse crops, to the adoption of conservation tillage practices, to improved nutrient management, Canadian farmers have invested in technologies that have made their farms more sustainable, both economically and environmentally. The key now, says Kurbis, will be working towards conveying sustainability information on mainstream products for consumers worldwide – and “harmonizing” measurement systems.

“At Pulse Canada, we have been doing research aimed at identifying which of many different methods of measuring sustainability are most likely to be used commercially on mainstream food products in the future. What we found out is that industry leaders are currently in the process of developing measurement systems that avoid the sort of duplication that took place in recent years on food safety,” says Kurbis. 

Among the key organizations leading the charge are the Consumer Goods Forum, The Sustainability Consortium, and the EU’s Sustainable Consumption and Production Roundtable. All three of these organizations are talking to one another, and are taking a coordinated approach going forward. This will take time and isn’t easy, says Kurbis, but the efforts are underway. In the interim, he says we can count on high-profile eco-labels like Rainforest Alliance, Organic and Fair Trade to remain on niche products for the foreseeable future. 

Kurbis adds, “With the earth’s population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, we need to focus more than we ever have on planet-friendly foods. Everyone needs to be efficient, since we simply can’t sustain the world’s current practices over the longer term.”