Leading Harvest, a Seattle, Wash.-based non-profit, is piloting an international farmland management standard in Canada with the support of Manulife Investment Management, Bonnefield Financial, Farm Credit Canada and McCain Foods.
If all goes well with the pilot, the plan is to launch Leading Harvest publicly in the first half of 2024.
“The reason that Leading Harvest exists is that we recognize that there is increasing demand from consumers and investors to have higher-quality third-party assurance that farmland and agricultural systems were being managed in a sustainable manner," Kenny Fahey, Leading Harvest’s president and CEO, told SustainableBiz. "There was a gap in the marketplace in terms of having a broad-based, scalable and credible certification program that could be responsive to that demand.
“Specifically, what Leading Harvest does is that we recognize that it plays a role for a standard that could be crop agnostic.”
Leading Harvest was founded in spring 2020 to focus on the transition to a more sustainable agricultural standard. Its third-party audited standard has been applied globally across diverse farming operations and crop types with almost three million acres now enrolled and over 100 crop types represented.
Prior to its formal launch, Leading Harvest completed an analysis of sustainable agriculture standards around the world, finding hundreds of programs. However, Fahey explained most were commodity, region or supply-chain specific.
Leading Harvest began in the U.S. with its standard applied to over two million acres at the outset, before trying out a pilot system in Australia similar to its Canadian model. In March of this year, it officially launched in all six Australian states, beginning with approximately 540,000 hectares, according to Fahey.
The organization’s standard is grouped into 13 principles on its website:
- Sustainable agriculture;
- Soil health and conservation;
- Protection of water resources;
- Protection of crops;
- Energy use, air quality and climate change;
- Waste and material management;
- Conservation of biodiversity;
- Protection of special sites;
- Local communities;
- Employee and farm labour;
- Legal and regulatory compliance;
- Management review and continual improvement;
- Tenant-operated operations.
“Those 13 principles in our standard (are) then distilled down into about 70-or-so indicators. And those indicators are actually the technical language that a producer has to demonstrate to a third-party auditor, that they're conforming against those indicators,” Fahey said.
“Now, from an agriculturalist or from a farmer's perspective, the important distinction of our standard is that we have an outcome-based standard.”
The evidence for conforming to the standard is usually a mix of data, documentation and observation. Fahey said Leading Harvest is currently having conversations on how to organize all that information to get a holistic view of the acreage involved in the program.
In April 2021, Leading Harvest's board of directors adopted a five-year revision cycle for the standard.
Leading Harvest’s Canada pilot
Leading Harvest had been working on a roadmap of geographies to enter, which attracted some Canadian firms and transnational companies which are operating in Canada.
Regarding potential differences in Canadian agriculture, Fahey predicts it will largely come down to terminology and classifications – making sure appropriate references in the U.S. can be reflected in Canada.
“What is being adapted is usually not the technical agronomic components of the standard. The technical aspects of soil health are going to be consistent. Those things are bound by national geography,” he said. "What changed when we went to Australia . . . (was) in its glossary, and its terminology references national programs and state-level programs.
"We're having to make those kinds of adaptations to make sure that it's regionally applicable and relevant."
Leading Harvest is still determining the exact scale of the pilot in consultation with its project partners. Fahey explained the pilot will be open to more potential partners down the line, although there are no plans at this time.
The ultimate hope for the standard extends well beyond Canada.
“That's ultimately the goal,” he said. “That it becomes the standard by which Canadian agriculture and, ultimately, global agriculture can demonstrate in a third-party validated manner that they’re managing land and producing sustainably.”