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Centre for Building Sustainable Value · Lauren Turner

Hard talks yield big results for agri-food researchers at BSV Colloquium

Oct 5, 2023

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On Friday, September 22nd, the Centre for Building Sustainable Value (BSV) held a multidisciplinary colloquium on Collective Action for Resilient, Just Agriculture. The event convened key partners from farming communities, farmer associations, government, industry, municipalities, non-profits, Indigenous communities, and academia. As part of a growing interest to expand agri-food thought leadership within BSV’s portfolio, the colloquium sought to explore how agricultural systems can operate more sustainably while making food accessible and affordable for Canadians.

The emissions paradox

Environment and Climate Change Canada estimates that the agricultural industry contributed nearly 10% to Canada’s GHG emissions in 2021 [1]. The same year’s StatsCan Income Survey showed that 5.8 million Canadians lived in food-insecure households [2]. Despite Canada’s status as an affluent, progressive, and advanced G7 nation, malnutrition-related health issues disproportionately affect our country's poorest and most underserved.

How is it that agriculture contributes so much to the percentage of total national emissions, yet 1 in 7 Canadians are going hungry?

With the help of our partners, the BSV set out to explore how we can modify the current agricultural system to galvanize farmer collaboration and improve food security for Canadians, all at a lower cost to the environment. We would ask some important questions and have some difficult, yet critical conversations in the hours to come.

Traits of an ideal system

The day began with lead researcher Dr. Jury Gualandris walking through the BSV’s Collective Action project rationale, goals, and tasks. The multi-year project, he explained, aims to challenge entrenched belief systems, forge new peer-to-peer relationships, and transform production practices across otherwise fragmented farming communities, with the intention of yielding better soil health, reducing GHG emissions, boosting economic benefits for food producers, and improving equity for farmers and consumers alike.

In a perfect world, resilient, just, and sustainable agriculture is:

  • Circular - eliminating waste and pollution by connecting players operating in different value chains such that the resources wasted by one can feed the processes of another. 
  • Diversified - increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change and allowing for a larger variety of crops, produce, and proteins.
  • Inclusive - Bringing together diverse perspectives to enable system-wide transformation and empowering players to have increased agency over their food systems. 

With this in mind, participants were invited to share knowledge and opinions on how the research team could construct and design the project. How could we evaluate fragmentation in its various forms, including fractured supply chains and farming practices? What constitutes meaningful change, and how do we measure it? And how can we “treat” fragmentation in farming communities, to increase collaboration and adoption of practices, thereby improving performance?

“Aha” moments and not-so-simple answers

We were privileged to have been in the presence of agricultural specialists with real-world experience in farming communities and industry, many of whom currently own farms and/or descend from farming families. It was clear we had the right people in the room when the realities of farming life became a focal point of conversation. The struggle to put food on Canadian tables is something the average person may never understand. Farmers must reckon with climbing operating costs and supply chain constraints while balancing thin profit margins with fair consumer prices in the wake of inflation. As cost of living, interest rates, and a hot housing market siphon more from Canadians’ paychecks, our local farmers and growers face the impossible task of offering high-quality, nutritious, affordable food to consumers, while also making a reasonable living. And when we factor in reduced yield from climate change, invasive species, and unpredictable weather patterns to the mix – the forecast for farmers is bleak, at best.

Put differently, sitting at the very beginning of the agricultural supply chain, farmers and growers bear a disproportionate burden of risk – their farmland functions not only as Canada’s food supply but as their livelihoods, income, investments, retirement savings, and children’s futures. Now, their industry is being asked to reduce GHG emissions, putting further pressure on farmers to do what they do more sustainably.

And while the topic at hand doesn’t make for pleasant dinner conversation for many, this is what unbiased research is all about. Effective discourse, after all, is not necessarily characterized by hearing what you want to hear; rather, it must include and consider diverse viewpoints, even when those viewpoints digress. It is cornerstone to academic rigor, and in the end, our research team was grateful for the opinions expressed on a topic that affects every Canadian, every day.

This invaluable input will help shape the Collective Action initiative launching in the months ahead and assist us in reevaluating key definitions and impact measures. Moreover, it reinforced the need to further involve farmers, industry leaders, governments, and agronomists in the project’s design, to ensure an equitable, considerate, and measured approach.

Transformed vision and goals for the collective action project

The colloquium conversations prompted important reflection on the current project’s structure. As a result, our lens shifted to measuring two central items – instead of looking at fragmentation, we will measure connectivity amongst farmers, and instead of testing for changes in soil health, we will search for change in sustainable farming practices. In other words, we want to examine whether positive farming and co-management changes occur when farmers collaborate across sectors they otherwise may not have.

We also hope the results of the Collective Action project inform the development of new certified sustainable farming protocols that farmers will formalize in partnership with one another. This has potentially positive implications for policymakers, retailers, processors, financial institutions and more, in the distribution of subsidies or other resources.

Lastly, at individual farm levels, interesting case studies may emerge that measure economic benefits for farmers from increased efficiencies and improved economies of scope, as well as ecological changes in response to the adoption of more sustainable practices.

Initial consultation with two local counties will later be scaled to a larger participant base nationally.


[1] ECCC, 2023

[2] Statistics Canada Canadian Income Survey, 2021