Sustainability: no longer just a buzzword

Everyone seems to have a different definition of what constitutes sustainable food production. While the concept remains somewhat abstract and subjective, sustainability initiatives are having a tangible effect on a growing number of producers.

Back in January, nearly 300 people packed a meeting room in Swift Current, Sask., the heart of durum wheat production, for a Durum Summit. One of the speakers was Greg Viers, wheat procurement manager for Barilla America.

Barilla is the world’s largest producer of pasta, and Canada is the largest exporter of durum for making pasta. Naturally, Barilla is a major customer. The family-owned company, now run by the fourth generation, started operations in Parma, Italy, back in 1877.

Today, Barilla has 28 pasta plants and does business in more than 100 countries. The company’s pasta plant in Ames, Iowa, recently underwent a major expansion and is now believed to be the largest in the United States.

Durum is grown on more than five million acres in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta each year, but the thousands of durum growers don’t deal directly with end users such as Barilla. The presentation by Greg Viers was a rare opportunity for farmers to hear directly from a major customer.

 “Sustainability,” said Viers, “is very important to Barilla.” This is illustrated in the company’s tagline, “Good for you, good for the planet.”

On the company website, a food pyramid is displayed beside an inverted environmental pyramid to demonstrate the company’s commitment to healthy foods with the lowest environmental impact.

“We are committed to reaching the goal of sourcing 100 per cent of our strategic raw materials responsibly, guaranteeing sustainable supply chains from field to consumption for the wellbeing of people, animals and the planet,” says a statement on the website.

A glimpse into consumer marketing

A producer in the summit audience asked Viers about the non-GMO label used on some Barilla products. Isn’t this misleading the consumer? After all, no GMO wheat or durum is being grown commercially anywhere.

Viers agreed with the questioner, but noted that most consumers know very little about GMOs, and it helps with marketing to assure the consumer that GMOs are not present.

Viers also provided a glimpse of the supply chain beyond Barilla, specifically the requirements coming from Walmart. Each year, Barilla participates in a Walmart sustainability index survey that includes questions about fertilizer application and soil erosion.

The survey also includes this question: “For what percentage of your grain supply can you identify the country, region or farm of origin?”

Like durum producers, most Canadian farmers don’t sell directly to end users, but end users have a growing interest and influence on what happens at the farm level. 

From an AgriSuccess article (June 2018) by Kevin Hursh.