Ontario fruits and vegetables grown sustainably, study shows

Growers ready to do more, but need policy and financial support

By Jan VanderHout

A focus on sustainable production isn’t a new approach for Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers. In fact, a new study shows Ontario growers have been widely adopting a range of practices that support sustainable local food production for more than 20 years.

This includes investments in technologies and practices that support more efficient use of water, energy and fertilizer; using tools like soil testing and cover crops; and reducing water and synthetic pesticide use.

The study was completed over the last year by Vineland Research and Innovation Centre for the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA), who wanted to get a clearer picture of how the province’s growers stacked up against increasing pressure for consumers, retailers, government and others for sustainable production practices. The research involved a combination of surveys and in-depth interviews with growers from across Ontario’s fruit and vegetable sector.

Ontario is home to more than one-third of Canada’s total fruit and vegetable production and is the biggest producer of many crops, including apples, field tomatoes, greenhouse vegetables, grapes, and sweet corn.

It’s a diverse industry with more than 125 different crops that are grown in many different ways, and farmers usually grow more than one throughout a season, adding additional layers of complexity to efforts aimed at measuring the sector’s environmental sustainability.

The study results paint a positive picture, however – one Ontarians can and should be proud of.

In the greenhouse vegetable sector, for example, the survey shows that 95% of respondents use water efficient irrigation systems, insulation for more efficient energy use and biological pest control systems.

More than two thirds report having installed more energy efficient boilers, climate control and irrigation systems over the last 20 years, as well as heat storage and energy curtains and screens to reduce their energy use. About half have transitioned to more energy efficient lighting, and close to one-third are using renewable energy and/or capturing and re-using carbon for crop growth.

In outdoor crop production, 85% of growers report using crop scouting and pest monitoring to target crop protection applications only as needed. Eighty per cent are using soil test results to guide more precise fertilizer application and target the valuable nutrients to the spots where they’ll create the most benefit, and 78% are planting cover crops to keep the soil healthy and support carbon capture.

That’s an impressive track record, and the study found that growers are willing to continue making changes that will further expand the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices.

However, this is tempered by the fact that farms also need to be profitable in order to thrive and continue their investments into innovation, technology and additional environmentally friendly practices.

To put it simply, sustainability can’t just focus on the environment – it must include economics too.

It means making local food production a priority, viewing new regulations and policies through a lens of protecting our ability to grow food and ensuring the right economic and policy environment is in place that will support farm business growth and competitiveness.

Growers need policies that level the playing field with competing imports that can often be subject to less stringent environmental and labour regulations or receive higher levels of domestic support.

This includes addressing issues of taxation – such as exempting food production from the federal carbon tax and dealing with restrictive development charges; removing excessive red tape; resolving conflicting legislative priorities between different levels of government; and streamlining often unwieldy regulatory burdens.

That’s also why, for example, Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers have long been asking the provincial government for enhanced funding for the Self-Directed Risk Management Program to give farmers the tools and flexibility they need to adapt and react to challenges.

There is also a need for a long term and sustainable approach to agri-food research and innovation that will support food security through the ongoing search for practical solutions to climate change.

Fruit and vegetable production is an essential pillar of our local food system and it’s critical to Canada’s national security that we do everything we can to preserve and protect our ability to grow healthy, safe and sustainable produce.

Jan VanderHout is a greenhouse vegetable grower in Waterdown ON, and chair of the Environment and Conservation Committee at the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association.