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Sustainable Food Systems: Trends and Opportunities

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In this episode of Sustainability Leaders, George Sutherland, Senior Advisor with the BMO Climate Institute sat down with John Simpson, Chairman, Owner, and CEO of the CANA Group of Companies and Founder of The Simpson Centre, and Guillaume Lhermie, Director of The Simpson Centre and Associate Professor at the University of Calgary to discuss the trends and opportunities in sustainable food systems.  

Listen to our ~27-minute episode 

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John Simpson: In Alberta today, we are recognized as the go-to group to deal with fact-based issues and generate verified solutions. So we go forward with a policy that is not opinion, but is fact-based information.

Michael Torrance: Welcome to Sustainability Leaders. I'm Michael Torrance, Chief Sustainability Officer at BMO.

On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate investor, academic, and NGO communities to explore how this rapidly evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment, business practices, and our world.

Speaker 3: The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates, or subsidiaries.

George Sutherland: Hi there. My name is George Sutherland, Senior Advisor with the BMO Climate Institute. In today's episode of Sustainability Leaders, we'll be talking about trends and opportunities related to sustainable food systems.

            To help me unpack this topic, I'm joined by John Simpson, Chairman and CEO of the CANA Group of Companies, owner of Simpson Ranching, a large agriculture operation in western Canada, and founder of the Simpson Centre for Food and Agriculture Policy, as well as Guillaume Lhermie, Director of the Simpson Centre and Associate Professor at the University of Calgary.

            Thank you both for joining me today.

John Simpson: Good morning.

George Sutherland: To begin, can you provide our listeners with an overview of the Simpson Centre?

John Simpson: The Simpson Centre has deep roots. Our family, the Simpson family, started our journey in agriculture 70 years ago, and we've been known as leaders in agriculture throughout that time. When we started 70 years ago, there were no rules, there were no goals and objectives. There were just cows and calves and land. And what a change.

            In today's world, we use technology. We're using DNA, we're using every technology available that we can get our hands on to improve our cattle, grain and land use operations. Sustainability is key to our long-term strategy because if you don't look after your land, you don't have a chance of survival. I see the agriculture and agrifood business as the last frontier for significant improvement in better practices and operational implementation for the world.

            The aim of the Simpson Centre is to be a collaborative hub to drive applied policy research that informs the public and stakeholder dialogue about agrifood and agri-business issues. The focus on public trust, future growth of the industry and objectives and fact-based research around these issues is widely acknowledged that there is a need for agrifood policy leadership in Canada developing collaborative strategies, policies that will advance Canada's unique position and challenges, and verified science-based solutions and education and agriculture. Our partnership with BMO is a significant step forward to the future of agriculture and the agrifood industry.

George Sutherland: So with programming on agriculture literacy being one of your focus areas at the Simpson Centre, can you share your thoughts on the importance of building practical knowledge of agriculture processes?

Guillaume Lhermie: George, the thing that we need to do first is remind what is agricultural literacy actually. So this is the understanding of how food and how agricultural products are produced actually and then what are their impact on our lives as citizens and consumers. And so that means that it includes first knowing where food comes from, how it's grown, and also the roles of farmers and ranchers as to some extent a steward of the land. And so people with this knowledge, at least this is what we believe, will understand more, appreciate the range of farming techniques and also sustainable practices. So really our objective at the center is to raise awareness on the trade-offs that are happening, occurring in the food system.

            And so why we want to do that? Well, because we believe that the more informed the consumers will be, the better they will make choices when they are first filling their fridge, but also when they are voting for their representatives in elected chambers, actually. And we know that there is a growing urban population which has become further away from their rural roots. And so it's creating the fertile ground for misinformation when it comes to food production. So we want to re-empower the citizens and foster what we call agriculture and food citizenship.

George Sutherland: And zooming out a bit, can you speak to the importance of Canada's agriculture sector to the global economy and also to a thriving Canadian economy?

John Simpson: It seems that Canadians are not aware of the opportunities that agriculture can bring to our increased GDP and the opportunity to grow more commodities in Canada is right there in our footsteps. We have the geographic landscape to produce more. I believe agriculture can be the second largest industry in the country and can probably level the GDP rather than the wild swings that Canada seems to experience with the ups and downs of the energy sector and the manufacturing center.

            So agriculture is not well understood by the federal government as to what it can do for our country, and that's partly the fault of the industry because the industry is so segmented and so full of lobby groups that look after their own small issues. And that was part of the reasoning behind the putting the Simpson Centre together to try to get an umbrella group that could have verified fact-based information to feed to the government to try to improve the industry.

Guillaume Lhermie: And maybe if I can add a piece on the challenges to be inserted in the policy discussion and the citizen's discussion is that we know that there is an overflow of information and we'll have to cut through this noise actually. And so our approach will be really to provide transparent information and also presenting actually each side of the stories. We don't have a mandate to represent any commodity, any sector, but we are fighting, I would say this is a fight for a more sustainable agriculture in general. And so what we want to do with this program on ag literacy is really to help people navigating so that they can make their mind rather than pushing what the truth is. So what we follow is an approach which is named controversy mapping. So I'm guessing that you are here understanding that we are talking about picking a destination for each consumers and we provide a toolkit and a compass and a map, but we will empower the people to pick their destination.

George Sutherland: Could you speak a little bit more about that Guillaume, what the compass and the map looks like for people?

Guillaume Lhermie: Sure. What has been done in the past is really to push content through the people saying that they are lacking information and knowledge or potentially curiosity. But actually our approach is to say that they are curious. People want to participate. So rather than pushing content, we want to just empower them actually. And so we provide the discourse and we just help them to make their own mind.

            So basically what are the trade-offs in agriculture? And I'm quite often taking the example between trade off between GMOs and pesticides. Well, that's actually difficult to grow completely organic food without pesticides, at least with the current practices. So what do we want? And of course the question is how do we make sure that there is affordable food, which is a question of the world of food security. So we want to show that to the people. And then people will say, "Well actually I'm more comfortable with either paying a little bit more for organic because I know that the values of organic food is X, Y, Z. Or I'm more comfortable with paying for this kind of advocacy for this kind of food system because I know that it's better, for example, rural development."

George Sutherland: And what would you view as the key pillars of sustainable food systems in Canada and how does agriculture literacy affect positive change in these themes?

Guillaume Lhermie: Well, if we go back to the roots of sustainability, so you need to recall that this is the intersect of three dimensions: environment, economic, and social. So it carries forward the concepts of economic development, of course, social justice and environment stewardship. And we don't forget as well the time dimension meaning that sustainable practices have to be sustainable for the future generations.

            Now the question is our current food system or food systems at risk? And in my opinion, the answer is yes, it is actually. The global food system refers to an interconnected network of production, distribution and consumption of food on a worldwide scale. And so I already stated that the objective of the food system was to ensure food security. And actually over the last 50 years we witnessed improvements in the farming methods with new technologies, new infrastructure, capacity and international supply chains, which has a allowed more affordable, safer food supply for an increasing global population.

            And yet food security has come at a large environmental cost and has not always been successful in terms of equity. And particularly in western countries, actually, unhealthy and unsustainable diets are becoming the norm while unfortunately producers are caught in the crossfire between more stringent environmental policies and an economic push for competitiveness in international markets. So this is a real political discussion that we need to open here.

George Sutherland: And speaking of agriculture literacy, and you mentioned innovations in food systems that we've seen. One of the questions we hear often is about the difference between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture. Could you speak to these concepts and where they fit into a sustainable food system?

Guillaume Lhermie: Yes. So regenerative agriculture is actually a very interesting case, and that's one of our research program here at the center. And it received a lot of attention recently, but I think that's not a very new story. That's an old story. It appeared in the late '70s by US-based Rodale Institute, actually. And so the initial description is that it will be increasing levels of productivity. It will be increasing the land and soil biological production base. So it will produce foodstuff free from biocides. It provides for the productive contribution of increasingly large number of people during a transition to minimal reliance on non-renewable resources.

            But actually what we have today is that we don't have a clear and standardized definition for what is regenerative agriculture. And that has consequences. It makes it vulnerable. And there are different ways actually to define what regenerative is. So the first way to define that is process based. And so process can be combination of practices and principle such as minimizing soil disturbance, such as keeping the soil covered year round, such as keeping live plants, et cetera, et cetera. But another way to define regenerative agriculture is focusing on the outcomes. And the outcomes will be climate adaptation and mitigation, socioeconomic benefits, integrated system. And so for that, we will think very carefully about carbon farming, conservation, agriculture as a way to regenerate the health of the soil by sequestering more carbon.

George Sutherland: And what are the key innovations that are advancing food security and food system sustainability today? And what are the biggest challenges that we need to overcome?

Guillaume Lhermie: Well, I can speak a little bit about that and maybe John, you can react if you want. I'm thinking that to advance food security first key innovation are in the farming practices basically, so more technology. And so I suspect that people don't realize enough that there is a lot of technology in their food. There is drone, there are sensors, there is AI. So all of that, we don't think about it because there is a lot of imaginary. And all picture of the farmers and ranchers with the boot and the fork, but actually I've never seen those farmers any longer. So innovation in technology at the farm gate. But also innovation in the supply chain. So how to preserve more the commodities? How to process that more efficiently to make sure that we are using more efficiently the resources, for example, water for example, the energy to process the food or to transport the food?

            Now, what are the challenges? Well, in my opinion, one of the biggest challenges is investment. In general, agriculture is capital expensive as well as ops expensive. And at the same time the margins are very tight, meaning that it on the paper doesn't seem to be very appealing for investors. And yet we need a lot of investments in agriculture if we want to foster more sustainable agriculture.

            The second piece is that right now there is no clear mechanism to reward for sustainable practices. If a rancher or a farmer is compliant with sustainable practices and is being a good steward of the land, actually there is no financial mechanism really to reward them. And so that's in my opinion, a big problem.

            And the last piece is, in my opinion, more political. Well, there is not a lot of political interest in agriculture in general. And John say that it was potentially one of the last frontier when it comes to economic development, which I agree with actually. And yet politicians, policy makers do not recognize that. So that's also one of the mandate of the center, making sure that agriculture is being recognized at the value it contributes in the society first as a thriving economic sector. And second, as a provider of what we call ecosystem services, meaning that it provides positive services for the environment and the people.

John Simpson: I think it's very important to recognize that the farmers and ranchers of Canada and the industry, the people, the major players in the industry are all on board. There's very few people who are not concerned about sustainability because if you don't have a sustainability program and you don't make your ranch work from generation to generation, then you go out business. It's really pretty simple. So we've got a great team of people, everybody on board. Think, imagine an industry that has everybody pulling on the same rope the same direction. That's very unique. That's a very, very unique. And the technology that is there for people to use, we're actually in our computer systems in the cattle operation, we're now using ribeye size and the structures of the bulls to generate who we're selecting to who to breed to which cows because we now know which cows produce the best calves.

            And when you start getting into that DNA factor and you start looking at how you can improve your animal, rather than just putting the bull out to breed cows for 60 days and then taking it away, you're really making advancements in a year. So those technologies are there on the cattle side of it. But on the grain side, what's going on is that trying to produce more for less means figuring out how to put specific sprays on specific plants rather than the whole field. And there's all the new technology in the world with cameras there to be able to do that in today's market. So we're getting better at being better at doing what we do.

George Sutherland: And are there any jurisdictions either domestically or internationally that you've seen that are leading in this space? And if so, what can be learned and applied?

Guillaume Lhermie: I would think that it probably depends on what we are talking about. When it comes to agricultural technology, Israel, the Netherlands, and of course the US because they have technically a lot of financial resources to spirit that are probably the leaders in the field. And technically it's also because they are facing some of the challenges that we may face as well. So if you think about that Israel or California are facing what their challenges, and it may also come to some extent in Canada, even if nationally we are sitting on a pile of surface water, but we need to use that wisely. The Netherlands, very small country, but with a high ability to process food and to add value in the communities that they are producing. So we can learn from them. Actually, we already started. So that's for the tech piece.

            Now, when it comes to practices and sustainable practices, I would say that EU countries are leading the world on that, and it doesn't go without challenges as well. I mean, you may have seen that there were protests, farmers protests in the streets of the major European capitals. So that comes as a course and that's why it's a political issue. So those are, in my opinion, the way to think about who is leading on which kind of topic.

            But actually, funny enough, Canada is leading on something, is that we are able to produce very sustainable food. And there is a Canadian initiative that is regrouping a lot of stakeholders, which is named the National Index of on Agri-food Performance, where the ambition is to measure the sustainability with an index of any kind of food we are producing. And that's a unique initiative worldwide.

George Sutherland: And what do you see as the greatest opportunity for Canada's agriculture sector in the next one to two years?

John Simpson: The ability to use the innovation that's coming out of the equipment sector and the technology sector and with computers has got to be the first and the leading edge of that. It really comes down to more production and more production, we need more water, so we need to irrigate more land. And there's opportunities in Alberta to add as much as 10 million acres more of cropland in Alberta by irrigating more, 10 million more acres.

            So you start to do that and you start to get more crops. And I'm always astonished that the Ukraine can continue to produce the products that they produce to the world that we thought would probably stop happening when the war started there, but it hasn't and they keep coming through with delivering their products. So we can have more production. I thought it was then going to be to offset, but now it's going to be to bolster the food supply for this world that just seems to continue to grow. If we could turn around and start, rather than selling our raw commodities to the foreign countries and start processing those commodities here in Canada, really simple, we just add more GDP to the country.

Guillaume Lhermie: Yeah, so what I would add to that is that in my opinion, an opportunity for Canada is if we're able to, I would say, drive a little bit the person and say that Canada has one of the most sustainable agriculture and practices in the world, then we may want to start a political movement and insert that in agreements where we want to trade. And say, well, let's lead the world to make agriculture worldwide more sustainable, actually. So that will be a win-win. A win for economic development, and at the same time a win for the health of the planet.

George Sutherland: And what are some of the programs or outcomes of the Simpson Centre that you're most proud of to date?

John Simpson: As jokingly said to begin with, we got this operation going in the school of public policy, and we went out for a search and we hired Guillaume and we brought Guillaume. He made the leap of faith to come from Cornell to Calgary and arrived here in December. It was minus 20 something, and his wife had a baby a week after they arrived. So it was a leap of faith for him to come to us and for us to bring him in and get him on board to get us set up and get and running. We've established, and it's changed around a little bit over the last, we've been in operation for three full years now. Very strong advisory board for the Simpson Centre with very, very, very knowledgeable people that are in the business to keep us on track and to keep us trying to think of how we stay ahead of the game.

            We've raised and continue to raise sufficient funds in the private sector to fund our programs and operations. And that's not an easy task in today's world, but it's one that we're working on. And I think it demonstrates the concerns of both private and corporate partners that they believe that there are some issues that we need to look at.

            We've established a collaborative group of universities to work together to look into the major initiatives to look at improving agriculture and agrifood industries. And when we started off three years ago, imagine I think Guelph had their 120th graduating class of veterinarians when we were just three years old. And so to try to get them to come to us and work together, it's a bit of a challenge, but it's working. In Alberta today. We are recognized as the go-to group to deal with fact-based issues and generate verified solutions. So we go forward with policy that is not opinion, but it's fact-based information.

Guillaume Lhermie: I did not come from the US or France with a high knowledge of what was rural Alberta or rural Canada. Neither I knew very well what was rural farming actually and farming practices in Alberta. But I knew quite well what was happening in France or the US. And something that is transversal and that you can observe in any of those countries that there is a very strong support of the rural community and the agriculture community, regardless of what they are growing. Everybody's on board and they are very supportive of initiatives that are fostering agriculture in general. So I'm guessing that that's also one piece that is explaining the success of the Simpson Centre.

George Sutherland: Well, thank you very much, John and Guillaume for joining me today to discuss trends and opportunities related to sustainable food systems and the importance of agriculture literacy.

Guillaume Lhermie: Thank you for having us.

John Simpson: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Michael Torrance: Thanks for listening to Sustainability Leaders. This podcast is presented by BMO. You can find our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Press the follow button if you want to get notified when new episodes are published. We value your input, so please leave a rating, review and any feedback that you might have or visit us at Our show and resources are produced with support from BMO's marketing team and Puddle Creative.

            Until next time, thanks for listening and have a great week.

Speaker 6: For BMO disclosures, please visit


George Sutherland Senior Advisor, Climate Change & Sustainability


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