A sustainable value proposition

How a Saskatchewan food processor is improving agriculture’s sustainability.

Adding value to raw agricultural products before they leave the province is great for the local economy and creates jobs and other economic opportunities. But value-add is also essential to the future of the agricultural sector
and has significant impacts on the environment. One food processor in Saskatchewan is doing what they can to increase the sustainability of Saskatchewan’s agrifood value chain.

During the recent 2021 GrowCanada convention in Calgary, Mary Shelman, the former director of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program and a globally recognized leader in food trends, emphasized the importance of sustainable agriculture.

“I’m here to tell you sustainability is here. It’s critically important for the world. It’s critically important for Canada’s agricultural industry. And it’s critically important for your farms and your business,” says Shelman.

Shelman acknowledges that nailing down a definition of sustainable is tricky but suggests the term includes environmental footprint, animal welfare, food safety, and the financial viability of the various players across the food chain, including farms.

Change for the better

She says that consumers’ tastes and behaviours are changing, and the agriculture supply chain is slowly adjusting. But an “adversarial” relationship between producers, processors, and retailers has created inefficiencies and knowledge gaps in the supply chain. This fragmented communication means farmers can be out of the loop.

“If the consumer wants their food produced in a specific way, the farmer is often the very last to know,” she says.

But this is changing. The adversarial approach within the agrifood value chain is being replaced by better communication and financial incentives that encourage everyone to act on the feedback they receive more quickly and effectively. And she sees four approaches to sustainability emerging from it.

What’s happening

The first is top-down from prominent corporate players who have sustainability goals they dictate to their suppliers. Others are creating brands with a sustainability value proposition, like farm to fork. A third approach is challenging traditional animal proteins and trying to convince consumers to switch to plant-based proteins. And the last approach requires no raw materials from traditional farms at all and produces meat and dairy in a lab. Each of these approaches has pros and cons, says Shelman.

But the big takeaway is that more competition for traditional agriculture and agrifood companies from new and sometimes unusual sources is coming or here. Shelman points to Perfect Day’s lab-based animal-free dairy, whose ice cream is sold throughout the U.S. According to her, the product compares to traditional dairy in taste, quality, and price.

One way to counter this threat is by improving the methodology and reporting on sustainable agriculture. That way farmers and processors of raw agricultural products can offer a competitive value proposition on sustainability.

Locally grown

Avena Foods Limited, a specialty miller of gluten-free pulse and Purity Protocol oat ingredients with facilities in Regina, Portage La Prairie, and Rowatt, is working hard to ensure their company and stakeholders are well-positioned to deliver on this promise.

“We would like to use raw materials that are environmentally sustainable, so relatively low environmental impact, and employee processes that are low environmental impact and make sure that our entire supply chain from the raw materials we’re buying right through to the ingredients that we’re delivering to customers minimize the impact on the environment,” says Gord Flaten, CEO for Avena.

Like Shelman, Flaten agrees that sustainability is about more than the environment. He says Avena works closely with suppliers, farmers, and consumers to achieve their sustainability goals, which include financial viability, a robust supply chain, and quality control.

The company has in-house quality control labs, visits their farm partners regularly to learn from them, and do field inspections. They also host regular customer and farmer appreciation days to increase communication between the various stakeholders.

But they can’t do everything on their own, he says. So, in 2021, Avena announced they joined Field to Market, an organization that leverages its producer, processor, retailer, and distributor stakeholder group from the U.S. and Canada to “define, measure and advance the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production” in North America.

Besides providing expertise an individual business probably doesn’t have, Flaten says partnership with the organization should lead to better tools for measuring sustainability, increase collaboration among different value chain players, and provide a consistent methodology for everyone.

“The food industry in general is getting more serious about this issue, and also trying to be more rigorous about making sure that whatever claims are being made or numbers are being produced are defensible,” says Flaten.

The goal is to provide Avena customers with accurate information they can use to educate end-user consumers and improve the sustainability of their supply chain. “The biggest role for us is to try to help our customers get good information on environmental impact that helps them to measure and reduce their environmental footprint and to make sure that whatever claims they’re making to consumers about the environmental impact of their products are accurate,” says Flaten.

Their first project with Field to Market is the sustainability of pulse crops in Southern Saskatchewan. The project will “measure, analyze and drive improvements to the sustainability of pulse crops in Southern Saskatchewan in five key areas: landuse efficiency, soil conservation, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and soil carbon.” Avena is the first company within Field to Market Canada’s membership to focus on advancing pulse sustainability.

Looking ahead

Bernice Richard, managing director at Transverto Technologies, sees great potential in the province’s value-added agriculture sector. She points to the convergence of innovation and technology to reduce soil borne diseases and the resulting crop loss; the possibilities in carbon sequestration for farmers; and food processing nutrient dense foods as just three of the possibilities that can grow the sector locally.

Richard notes the potential being missed due to our overdependence on exporting grains. “Our grains are exported and with them all the minerals used to grow the crop,” says Richard. “It is imperative that we ‘rebrand’ our products so we can export high quality processed food instead of a high-quality feedstock.” She points to canola as an example. Canola seed is exported and crushed to produce crude canola oil. However, refined canola oil can further be used in the manufacturing of biofuels and the protein can be extracted and converted into protein powder. Glycerin and canola meal can be a co-product. “From just a canola seed, there are multiple streams of resources that can be used as a raw material by many industries within Saskatchewan and across Canada,” she says. “This will help farmers transcend from the challenge of depending on the making a living from the commodity price of canola to getting more value for their efforts via the diversification of canola seed locally before it is exported.”

She sees a bright future for value-added agriculture if attention is paid to competence. “Competent and sustainable innovations are critical to the future of Saskatchewan agriculture,” says Richard. “Ideas are good, but we must focus on bringing them to fruition in a timely basis for the benefit of all.”