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Keith Currie is a grain and oil seed farmer in Collingwood, Ont.Tannis Toohey/The Globe and Mail

Keith Currie, who runs a 300-acre grain and oilseed farm in Collingwood, Ont., has long grown used to being told that farmers need to focus on sustainability.

In response, he always asks: “Tell me what that means to you.” The answers, he says, are always somewhat different.

There is no consensus on a definition for sustainability, even among farmers, let alone unanimity across the entire food system.

In the urgent race to combat climate change, it’s a challenge that food-system experts say is imperative to overcome. In order to move onto the pressing work of tracking and implementing sustainability across the food chain, there must be agreement on a definition.

“It’s hugely difficult to pinpoint,” said Michael Mikulak, executive director at Food and Beverage Manitoba, which represents food-processing companies. He’s a former small-scale farmer and food activist who, until recently, taught a course on sustainability at McMaster University.

In that class, he said, “We probably spent 12 weeks just talking about different definitions.”

To the average consumer, sustainability in food implies environmental measures – for example, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, carbon footprints or food waste.

But to Mr. Currie, who is also vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, any definition must also take into account economic sustainability for food producers. “It’s great to do everything perfectly,” he said, “but if you can’t afford to make a business from it, then it doesn’t matter.”

And to Mr. Mikulak, the definition is even broader, encapsulating social sustainability, too – including recognition of Indigenous land rights and working conditions.

It’s a challenge that a group of more than 80 Canadian organizations have spent the past several years grappling with – a mostly industry-led group, but also representing governments, academia and a handful of conservation groups. Together, they’ve developed a proposal that seeks to both define sustainability and also set out criteria for measurement.

“It’s clear that the marketplace here and abroad is increasingly expecting the producers and suppliers of food to account for sustainability,” said David McInnes, the former Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute president who leads the coalition.

“And in doing so, they need data and metrics to demonstrate and prove the sustainability of what they either produce, or supply, or regulate.”

The group’s proposal released last week, called the National Index on Agri-Food Performance, breaks sustainability down into four categories: the environment, economic sustainability, food safety and societal well-being.

Each category is itself broken down into subcategories. The environment, for instance, accounts for GHG emissions, crop management and soil health, water stewardship and food waste – and sets out criteria for measuring each.

A pilot version is expected to be published next year and will paint a picture of the country’s food system as a whole. They’ve yet to decide whether that will take the form of a letter grade, a number or series of numbers.

The measures are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but not directly comparable with programs in other countries. It will, however, be used to measure progress in Canada over time.

A big part of the process so far, Mr. McInnes said, has been assessing the data that’s currently available in Canada. That work has revealed significant gaps, he said.

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Keith Currie – an eighth-generation farmer – says his personal definition of 'sustainable' is 'making sure that you leave your farm in better shape than when you got it.'Tannis Toohey/The Globe and Mail

Statistics Canada collects data on greenhouse-gas emissions for agriculture production, for instance. But a complete supply-chain view – for food products from production all the way to retail – often doesn’t yet exist, he said. They’ve also identified huge gaps in the data around biodiversity – information that shows specific impacts of different farming practices on ecosystems.

Mr. Mikulak said it’s the absence of such data – and the potential for a large coalition such as this one to help fill in some of those gaps – that makes the project meaningful.

“Every actor we deal with, for the most part, is only one step in the supply chain,” Mr. Mikulak said. “And you can’t [make good decisions] unless you have good metrics to understand what the impact is.”

He said the results will help inform everyone – from food companies, to governments, to trading partners, to consumers.

“Greenwashing is real,” he said. “Consumers care. They want to know. And they want something simple. But that has to be backed up and verified.”

Still, the proposal is not intended to provide a direct comparison between companies, farms or even sectors – at least for the time being.

In Britain, for example, food labels help consumers choose products based on environmental concerns. That program uses a traffic light system – green for the most environmentally friendly products and red for the worst.

“It may be something that could be a feature down the road,” said Mr. McInnes, of such consumer-facing initiatives. But, he said, “the first order of business was, ‘Let’s establish the baseline for Canada and its agri-food sector, at a high level.”

Yet, of the more than 80 partners listed as members of the initiative, the majority represent the food industry. Only three are environmental groups – Birds Canada, Ducks Unlimited and the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

This has raised questions about whether such an industry-led group can be relied on to hold itself to account.

“We do need new sustainability standards in the sector but, in our view, it is the role of the government, in consultation with all partners, to act on that,” said Anthony Côté Leduc, a spokesperson for Équiterre, a non-profit that focuses on agriculture and the environment.

He said his organization was not invited to participate in the index.

Mr. McInnes said he hopes to see the group grow to include other interests. But, he said, “we have to start somewhere.”

“We never purported to represent every interest, and there’s always going to be a gap, perhaps,” he said. “But the intent here is to provide a broad tent, to open this up for people.”

Mr. Currie, the farmer in Collingwood, acknowledged that at least part of the appeal for his organization was the idea of pre-empting government regulation.

“One of the other aspects of doing this index is to maybe alleviate some unnecessary, unwanted or bad regulatory-framework pieces that might pop up,” he said.

Farmers are keen on the idea of an index, he said, “not meant to be a measuring stick,” but to highlight what they’re already doing.

“We know that the world is transparent now. Everything is a picture away, a 140-character post away, and people are demanding that we do things with certain integrity,” he said.

Still, for Mr. Currie – an eighth-generation farmer – his own, personal definition of sustainability can be reduced into a much simpler idea than the 100-plus-page report compiled by the coalition might suggest.

“‘Sustainable is making sure that you leave your farm in better shape than when you got it,” he said.

“And for when you pass it to the next generation.”

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