Protocols for resource efficient production

Closing loopholes in the Canadian organic regulation

Improve data collection on sustainable systems adoption

Research and development


Supporting young sustainable farmers

Certification assistance

Business Risk Management Programs

Supply management changes

Organic market promotion

Protocols for resource efficient production

In other work (MacRae et al., 1990a, 1990b; 1993, 2009, 2010a, 2012c), MacRae and colleagues have set out the strategies for redesigning food production and processing to significantly reduce resource consumption, so these dimensions will not be addressed here to any extent except to highlight the need for  production protocols that reflect such progressive redesign of production and processing.  Many voluntary standards currently exist (e.g., organic, natural, animal welfare, integrated pest management). One sign that  programs are required for all production areas is the proliferation of NGO and multinational company standards that create a messy playing field and many complications for farmers who may have multiple uncoordinated protocols that they wish to meet. None of the current standards are mandatory at a state level (but they can be if you want to sell your product to a buyer who is imposing private requirements) and only a few are backed by state regulation originally through the Canadian Agricultural Products Act (CAPA) and now via the Safe Food for Canadians Act and in some cases provincial regulation (see rules governing, for example, organic food in BC and Quebec).

The  protocol approach is in many ways a transitory strategy.  If all Canadian governments and agrifood chain actors were already committed to deep sustainability, it would not be necessary.  But as an interim strategy, it is required to both encourage transition and help consumers differentiate sustainable from unsustainable products.  Unfortunately, many farm  and aquaculture organizations have been reluctant to embrace substantially sustainable protocols, and this is why state intervention is required.

In agriculture, this initiative would build on the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) approach.  Although participation in EFP is voluntary, it has also been the federal intention that all farmers in Canada have an EFP.  In the same spirit, requiring that every farm follow a recognized protocol addresses a key weakness of the EFP approach (WWF, 2004).  However, an additional constraint is the individual nature of the EFP.  Farmers participate individually, not typically as members of an organization.  What often facilitates participation in environmental protocols is sponsoring organizations.  This was attempted in the late 1990s, early 2000s with IPM collaborations and the Reduced Risk Strategies process (see MacRae et al., 2012).  Most of these voluntary efforts did not lead to significant adoption of environmental systems, but that was largely because the sponsoring organizations were reluctant to encourage all members to participate, and consequently, they didn't have sufficient resources to develop coherent protocols and adoption systems, and they hesitated to bring their efforts to market for fear of disfavouring some of their membership.  A better approach would build on previous efforts but correct these deficiencies - wholesale participation for members, intergration with the EFP process, better resources for protocol development and adoption and market elements to provide at least some rewards for adopters from the market.

The DFO sustainable aquaculture program is not a sustainable protocol, but rather a regulatory science, reform and environmental impacts monitoring program.  All this is useful background for a protocol program, but insufficient as currently constructed. The 2019 mandate letter to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans instructs the Minister to develop a plan to transition from open-net salmon farming in BC by 2025 and to start work on Canada's first Aquaculture Act.  Although there are no details at this point, both of these initiatives represent opportunities to embed protocols in regulation.

Although much work has been done on ecological approaches to agroforestry in other parts of the world, it remains a seriously under-developed area in Canada. The challenge is to apply research results from elsewhere to the Canadian context and design farm-level protocols consistent with that knowledge.

To build on NGO expertise, existing operations could continue to deliver programming.  Their protocol would have to be recognized and referenced in regulation and / or in program delivery. The strategy is create a private - public hybrid approach to standards.  The state would have to set out minimum standards for approval regarding the environmental robustness of the protocol, and the inspection and certification procedures.  These need not be as onerous as the organic regulations if there is no marketing and labeling program associated with the protocol.  For example, a Participatory Guarantee approach could be used to authenticate producer compliance.

The existing Agricultural Policy Framework mechanisms could be used to deliver this initiative in agriculture, with agreements struck with provinces around program design and funding (PEI already uses the current FPT agreement to provide some supports to the organic sector).  Provinces could create accords with third party organizations as is currently done with Environmental Farm Planning.  There is an option to link EFP with mandatory environmental protocols, by making such protocols phase II of EFP requirements (see Substitution).  In aquaculture, a sustainable aquaculture protocol could be referenced under the Aquaculture Activities Regulations and the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations of the Fisheries Act, as these regulations address the conditions of aquaculture operations.

A key challenge is financing the technical reviews that underlie protocols.  These reviews assure a strong scientific foundation for protocol design and elements. Especially in the early stages of development, sectoral actors are unlikely to  generate all the funds necessary for such work.  The experience of the organic sector, which has received significant, but intermittent support from the federal government, shows the necessity of a permanent fund for technical reviews (COTA, 2018). Federal funding can also assure sharing of technical information across the different protocols and sectors developing them, resulting in cost savings relative to a more siloed sectoral approach.

Such supports can be considered green and blue box under the WTO AoA (see MacRae, 2014 and Goal 10, Trade agreements) and should thereby not be contestable. By making the provisions mandatory internally at a later stage (see Substitution), it would also make it feasible to require imported goods to meet the same requirements, thereby assuring non-discrimination based on origin.

Closing loopholes in the Canadian organic regulation

Because of divided federal and provincial jurisdictions in agriculture, it is possible for some organic product in some provinces to be labelled organic without being certified. Organic aquaculture standards and certification will start to come into force in early 2019 over a 2 year phase in period.  Provinces have the option of creating their own system or referencing the federal rules in provincial legislation and regulation.  A summary of the status of organic regulation in each province is provided by Canadian Organic Growers (note that Alberta recently adopted provincial legislation, with the associated regulations coming into effect in April 2019).  At present, the Territories, Saskatchewan, Ontario, PEI and Newfoundland are without provincial rules.  At a minimum, all provinces and territories should pass legislation and adopt regulations that bring the federal system into effect.  If other sustainable systems follow a comparable trajectory to the organic regime, the adoption of legislation and regulations should be better coordinated between the provinces and federal government to avoid the confusion that has occurred in the organic sector.

Improve data collection on sustainable systems adoption

We're largely guessing when it comes to the number of farmers and aquaculture producers with sustainable systems.  Statistics Canada does not collect such information except some self-reporting of organic producers in previous Censuses of Agriculture. AAFC has conducted farm environmental surveys in the past, but these only assess use of certain environmental practices. Environmental Farm Plan delivery organizations have some data but little of it relates to systems adoption and the data is considered confidential, so can not be used by other analysts except in forms aggregated by program delivery organizations. Farm organization-led multistakeholder  initiatives, e.g., Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, are also conducting analyses and gathering data but are somewhat limited by the conceptual frameworks used. Agroecology is not at the centre of their sustainability assessment and their LCA approach does not take account all of the input stages resulting in a more positive interpretation of sustainable practices than is warranted.  .

Because many sustainable systems have not developed verifiable standards, there is no way of knowing who qualifies. Certification agencies have data, and although considering if confidential business information, sometimes share high level aggregated numbers directly or indirectly through third party NGOs, such as Canadian Organic Growers.

The Organic Value Chain Roundtable is, as part of its mandate, looking to improve data aggregated from the organic sector and other sources.  The Organic Statistics Program would collect a wide range of data related to adoption and markets and link available organic data to various surveys and administrative data collected by Statistics Canada. Provincial data collection is generally weak (COTA, 2018). This process will also identify data gaps that require alternative data collection mechanisms.  This approach can be a template to be followed by other sustainable systems with standards that permit monitoring possibilities.

Research and development

Significant advances have been made in sustainability research, though much of it focuses on practices instead of systems (for more on this, see Instruments and Goal 3, Public Research and Information Dissemination). Much of the sustainable agricultural systems research in Canada is linked to the Organic Science Cluster and the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, in part because other sustainable research areas are not always well organized. The 2018 federal funding of the Organic Science Cluster III: Connecting Environmental Sustainability with the Science of Organic Production covers the 2018-2023 period and amounts to $8.3 million, for 28 science activities.

Although there are other sources of research funding - other federal and provincial competitive grant programs for applied research, the Tri-councils (NSERC, SSHRC an CIHR) and commodity group research programs - these are even less likely to fund ecological systems research. This is problematic because of both the need and the growing number of researchers  interested in sustainable production and processing located in universities, colleges, government units and commodity organizations.  Equally problematic is the loss of interest and capacity in certain important sustainability areas, particularly grasslands management and  IPM research.  Work on animal welfare has increased, though much of it too remains focused on practices rather than systems.

Sustainable agriculture research priorities exceed, however, funding that is typically available through competitive grant programs, such as the Science Cluster program, limit what can be achieved, first because sustainable production is still viewed as a minor area of agricultural research, second because industry matching money is typically required even though the industrial sectors are often very small and weakly coordinated, and third because of the  review process for proposals.  These constraints usually mean that few of the pressing needs can be substantially addressed.  The organic sector has developed research priorities but not all will be funded.   Perhaps most challenging to fund (falling under Priority 2 ) will be modelling of the degree to which permaculture systems can be implemented in Canada and the design of integrated systems for payments for ecological services (PES) (see Redesign to see how these priorities relate to future strategic interventions).  To date, there has only been limited Canadian research on such payments, and even less implementation.  The Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program is the best known initiative, with activities in 6 provinces.  Funding has come from government (federal, provincial, municipal) and private foundations, but often for research or pilots.  The ALUS focus is primarily on the so-called non-productive spaces of the farm, which is important, but not necessarily systems-level implementation.  At this point, federal and provincial governments are not fully committed to a PES approach.

Increasing the funding available to this area is an obvious intervention.  For other more structural solutions to the dominant approach to science, research and research funding, see Goal 3, Public Research and Information Dissemination.


There is no coherent approach to training in sustainable farming systems (see Goal 7, Labour Force Development for wider context on this problem).  This is part of the failure of farm extension services and agricultural college diploma programs that have taken a much too limited view of sustainability, and have abandoned  their earlier approaches to extension. Some of this is appropriate as the dominant extension framework was also too limited to address sustainable systems adoption (see Barriers to Sustainable Practices Adoption). However, most of the changes were triggered by cuts to Dept of Agriculture budgets, so their new approach is not informed by more robust models of sustainable systems adoption.  As a result, for farm training, much of what has been done is designed and delivered by NGOs and community colleges, sometimes with provincial and even federal funds.  Quebec has the longest, and most successful, history of sustainable farming training, focusing on organic training.  Using federal training funds, organic farming advocacy organizations,  and a network of colleges have delivered programs across the province.  In some instances, funds have been provided to defray farmer tuition fees. The recently announced government supports for organic include L'Institut  national d’agriculture biologique, based at CEGEP Victoriaville, a long time centre of organic farming training.  It is provided a $16 million government investment.

At the university level, training  is usually targeted to off-farm positions: fertilizer and pesticide firms, government policy and program positions. Sustainable agriculture has only slowly taken hold in the university system, with many courses and programs having limited conceptions of sustainability.

In the EU, training programs are offered to farmers generally, and sometimes specifically to sustainable and organic farmers.  Typically, grants are provided for eligible expenses of the training organisation including seminars, field days, training courses and other information actions (up to 100 % of the eligible costs). For the most part, the level of the grant to organic farmers does not differ from that for other farmers (Sanders et al., 2011).

A comprehensive approach to training is required, built upon the following principles and operational elements:

  • Farmers and aquaculture producers need training from peer practitioners and researchers.
  • Since governments have abandoned much of their producer training capacities, they should act as facilitators of training by other organizations, including farm organizations, NGOs, colleges and universities.  This facilitation can include training facilities, training supplies and funding for organizations delivering courses.  In some cases, government - issued certifications of participation can be important.
  • Most training programs will be short courses, with sequencing to build up expertise over time.
  • Tuition fees should be cost-shared with farmers and aquaculture producers to increase rapidly the number of participants in training programs.
  • A mixture of classroom and online courses,  demonstrations and field visits and work should be offered.
  • University programs should focus more on other actors in food supply chains.  Some programs do exist, but coverage at Canada's 8 faculties of agriculture is uneven, with limited scope and resourcing.  At a minimum, all faculties of agriculture should have a Bachelor's degree in agroecology or related areas.  Canada only offers a few university degrees in aquaculture and only one, at Memorial in Newfoundland, is explicitly organized around sustainable aquaculture.  All aquaculture programs in Canada should have a sustainable degree option.

Supporting young sustainable farmers

See Goal 8, New Farmer Programs and Rural Development for proposals on program design and implementation. Echoing what is done in the EU, while programs are typically designed for all young farmers, in some countries, organic farmers receive extra points when assessing the merits of their proposal or they are eligible for a grant top-up to help with infrastructure establishment or adjustment (Sanders et al., 2011).  A similar approach is needed for Canada.

Certification assistance

Third party certification and verification processes are increasingly expensive.   Standards must be developed and kept up to date. Independent inspectors must be hired and their expenses paid.  Certification committees must review applicants.  Certifiers must meet the regulatory and accreditation requirements of governments.  Certifiers must have staff to coordinate all the logistical requirements and associated paper trails.  While such certification costs can be absorbed by large sustainable operations, smaller ones find the expenses more onerous and they can contribute to withdrawal from certification programs.

In the EU, many states provide up to 100% of certification costs for up to 5 years to farmers following a recognized authentication program, including organic.  Farmers usually have to be certified by an independent certifier.  In jurisdictions, this support is complemented with information grants for advertising, fairs/exhibits and other market promotion schemes that highlight the authenticity of the certification claim.  Clear labeling has also been important in the case of organic, including national and EU logos (Sanders et al., 2011).  In some countries, it appears that marks for different sustainable systems are competing with each other for consumer attention (Sanders et al., 2011), and while this might be problematic for specific marks, as long as the claims are legitimate and the product of similarly rigorous authentication systems, it is not necessarily problematic in the wider scheme of things.

Business Risk Management (BRM) Programs

At the efficiency stage, there are two key changes to BRM programming: a) supporting crop rotation improvements; and b) enhancing access of sustainable producers.

Multi-course crop rotations are usually central to production sustainability and unfortunately many farmers have significantly shortened their rotations, resulting in disease and environmental problems.  PEI has been the most aggressive in addressing this deficiency, enacting in 2001 the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act that generally requires a 3 year rotation for potatoes (with some exceptions for farms with well conceived management plans).  Saskatchewan has taken a different approach with chickpeas, A four year rotation is required by the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation (SCIC) to be eligible for crop insurance.  Organizations are now pressuring the SCIC to take a similar approach to managing club root in canola, though it is reluctant unless all the actors are on board with the intervention (Arnason, 2019).

All provincial crop insurance bodies should be requiring minimum rotations  (usually 3-4 years) to be eligible for crop insurance.  Since crop insurance participation rates are often in the 60-70% level, it will not cover directly all producers, but will definitely trigger a major cultural shift in how rotations are approached, so there would be significant spinoff effects.

In theory, sustainable producers are as eligible for BRM programs as conventional farmers, though there is some evidence that sustainable producers are less likely to participate. This may result from different approaches to risk minimization.  Part of an ecological approach is farm, crop and animal diversity, and the diversity itself can reduce incidences of failure and increase resilience.  Consequently, sustainable producers may assign lower value to financial tools in general, and current BRMs in particular.

Several provinces have developed production insurance programs specific to organic farming, in particular focused on crop prices that reflect organic market premiums.  Ontario insures soybeans, corn, winter spelt, winter wheat, fresh market carrots and fresh market cabbage.  Manitoba insures all wheat types, oats and flax.  BC has very limited organic insurance and it is criticized for not being helpful to mixed operations (COTA, 2018). Alberta insures oats,  wheat, barley, rye and triticale. QC has organic crop insurance programs in development for maple syrup, grain and hay. Saskatchewan has the longest and most robust program and insures the widest range of crops.  Limited coverage is based in part on provincial minimum acreage requirements to insure. This creates an immediate problem for transition in that a farmer can't get coverage until the provincial acreage reaches a certain level but that doesn't encourage transition.

There is also provincial variability regarding practices and outcomes.  Weed losses are an uninsured peril in Ontario, and such losses can be deducted from a claim.  SK however, recognizes the additional challenges in organic production and claims to take such losses into account. MB recognizes early season weeds as a peril for reseeding, but considers intercropping and green manures too risky for insurance.  There's also debate about organic price coverage and whether it really reflects market conditions (Stockford, 2017).

As with all insurers, there is hesitations about situations that look risky to them.  High losses in conventional production can discourage investment in organic, in other words the state of the whole program affects organic coverage. And organic is really the only sustainable system with any targeted coverage, so other systems are effectively discouraged by the absence of supports.

In the next round of negotiations between the FPT governments over the Agricultural Policy Framework (currently the Canadian Agricultural Partnerships), the federal government must push for minimum standards in all provinces for sustainable production insurance.  All provinces and territories where applicable should have comparably equivalent minimum acreages that do not unduly discourage transition.  All provinces should insure common perils in sustainable production,  All provinces should recognize that value of pest prevention strategies that reduce pest pressures.  All provinces should have insure at price levels that reflect the sustainable food market places.  The federal government may have to backstop insurers in the early stages of such programming to help assure solvency of the insurance schemes.

Supply management changes

See Goal 2, Demand-supply coordination, existing instruments for some background on supply management and efficiency level changes.

Market Promotion (adapted from COTA, 2018)

Sustainable producers and processors are often eligible for general grant programs at the federal and provincial levels (e.g. Alberta), and often receive marketing support from the designated organic and sustainable specialists employed by many provinces.  A few provinces are also offering specific programs for  reduced pesticide and organic production.  PEI provides supports to two central organic producer organizations for organic market development.  Each project can receive up to $10,000 with government covering 70% of the costs.  Saskatchewan has conducted market research  for the organic processing sector and organizes exhibits at two of the largest global organic trade shows.  Much of their market support focuses on export markets.  Ontario provides some supports to local organic labeling through the Foodland Ontario Organic brand.  Quebec provides similar supports through its Aliments Bio du Quebec initiative.  With other partners, the Quebec government also supports a digital marketing campaign.  Some of the Atlantic provinces also provide modest marketing support.

As with production insurance, provincial initiatives are generally weak and inconsistently applied across the country.  Organic marketing receives the most support and other sustainable approaches are minimally recognized. Federal marketing support has typically been connected to the organic regulations and logo, or to research carried out through the Organic Value Chain Roundtable or the Organic Science Cluster.  Through the next Agricultural Policy Framework discussions, the federal government should help establish minimum sustainable food marketing support in all provinces, at least equivalent to what is happening already in Quebec and PEI.