By John Jamieson

Everywhere you go these days you are sure to hear the word sustainability. It can mean many things to different people and industries, but whatever your idea of sustainability is, most would agree that sustainability touches upon the environment, economy and society.

More than ever, Canadians are concerned about the environmental impact of growing food. For nearly a decade, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) has published an independent report on Public Trust Research. It is based on surveys and focus groups with thousands of Canadians. In 2021, for the first time, sustainability and environmental concerns made the top-five list of life issues. Over half of Canadians cited global warming or climate change as one of their top-five life concerns. They also told us they have a strong desire for a sustainable food system and think about the influence the environment has on their daily lives.

Sustainability is also a priority for our food system. There is no endpoint for sustainable production practices – sustainability is a moving target.

Agriculture accounts for about eight per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole are working on reducing their impact on greenhouse gas emissions on many levels; like developing more energy-efficient engines for farm equipment, capturing greenhouse gases from manure tanks, and practicing precision agriculture that does not use blanket applications of fertilizer and pesticides. A healthy soil is one that can sequester carbon and produce crops with less human intervention. There is a strong focus on soil health across Canada and that alone makes our system more resilient to climate change.

Sustainability has an economic component as well. If our farmers and food companies were not profitable, they would not stay in business and we would have to rely more on imports to feed the nation. Our for-profit food system continues to produce safe and affordable food for Canadians. Through taxation, a profitable food system also helps pay for education, roads, and the health and social services we value, like our universal healthcare system.

There are also social benefits to a sustainable food system. Canada places high on international rankings for food accessibility and affordability. Our robust food system is able to donate a significant portion of its surplus production. Yes, we can do more, like ensuring that the people who work in the industry are compensated fairly and recognized for the dignity in the work they do. Every one of us relies on their labour to feed ourselves and our families.

Our food system is doing a much better job of being open about how food ends up on our tables. It is on a path of continuous improvement and more willing to show its stretch marks and warts, and how it is addressing them. Openness builds trust, and transparency is the hallmark of sustainability.

At its root, sustainability starts with taking what we need without harming future generations’ ability to do the same. With an openness to being more transparent and a self-interest in sustainability, our food system is moving in the right direction. People do not expect perfection, but they do expect progress and this is what the Canadian food system is delivering on.

John Jamieson is the president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.

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