National Farmers Union Policy on Sustainable Agriculture


The National Farmers Union strives for a system of food production, processing, and distribution that is, in all stages, economically viable, socially just, and ecologically sound. The current system does not meet these criteria and, thus, is not sustainable.

Powerful forces act against the development of sustainable agriculture. Short-term political and economic goals; international trade liberalization; and the continuing concentration of financing, agricultural trade, and food processing; have depopulated rural areas and created urban slums worldwide. More and more people are hungry and malnourished, even in industrialized countries. We are using up our resources and damaging our forests, lakes, and rivers. Moreover, many politicians and business people think environmental protection conflicts with economic growth and profit.

Sustainable agriculture must be based on a mutual understanding between farmers and non-farmers. Farmers have an obligation to provide safe basic foods and to steward the soil, water, and air. Non-farmers, in return, must support farmers through fair prices and programs which protect farmers from loss of income and unreasonable eviction from their farms.

The governments of Canada have surrendered much control over agriculture to transnational corporations. Current government policy, in effect if not intent, is often no more than the promotion of these corporations’ agendas. Unfortunately, the agendas of corporate chemical, fertilizer, processing, distribution, and retailing corporations conflict with the best interests of farmers, farm families, rural communities, as well as with those of consumers.

Farmers, farm families, local communities and regions must regain control of food production. The National Farmers Union‘s Policy on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Supply will help them do so. It is a document of hope and optimism for the future.

How does “sustainable agriculture” differ from “organic agriculture?”

“Sustainable agriculture,” as it is used by the NFU, embraces organic agriculture but also the intermediate steps in the transition from chemical-based, high synthetic-input agriculture to organic. Farmers and consumers would benefit if all agricultural production was produced by ecologically sound and sustainable means. However, the NFU recognizes that it may not be possible for all farmers to farm completely organically. “Organic agriculture” is a relative term. Currently, it means foregoing certain practices that are environmentally damaging and pose health risks (use of chemicals, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones) while continuing to embrace others (burning fossil fuels). More than this, however, it is a commitment to work with nature, not against it. “Certified organic” means that the production is strictly regulated according to rules set out in the regulations of certifying agencies. “Certified organic” food has to be produced, processed, and stored according to strict regulations.

Policy Foundations

1. Economic Considerations

  • Economics must focus on people–their happiness, health, and security.
  • Rural and urban people must co-operate to make alternative forms of agriculture viable.
  • Agricultural policies affect more than just farms and farmers. Agriculture policies must create economic stability and employment in rural areas.
  • Diversification helps farmers manage risks and, thus, must be encouraged.
  • Government should inform farmers of the benefits of land and machinery co-ops.
  • Young farm families should be allowed co-operative ownership of public lands.
  • The government could encourage co-operative ownership by allowing favourable depreciation on co-operatively-owned machinery.

2. Ecological Considerations

  • Farmers, governments, and consumers must co-operate to create viable and sustainable farming methods and technologies that improve the quality of the soil, water, and air.
  • Farmers and governments should set aside ecologically sensitive areas from any urban or agricultural development that has the potential to damage them.
  • Farmland must be protected from uses other than agriculture. Farmers must be protected from economic losses resulting from the preservation of farmland.
  • Farmers and all citizens would benefit from forest belts, shelter belts, and uncultivated areas. To promote these practices, these areas should be taxed at a substantially reduced rate.
  • Erosion-prone soils should not be cultivated. Such soils could be used as woodlots, forage, or pasture.
  • Farmers use large amounts of fossil fuels. Since methane from manure, ethanol from grain, and bio-mass energy from waste-material could provide renewable energy supplies, this policy encourages research into alternative energy sources.
  • More energy-efficient farming methods, food processing techniques, and transportation systems will increase farmers’ profits and reduce environmental damage. For example, trains are 3 times more fuel-efficient than trucks.
  • The government, through tax breaks or other measures, must encourage the sale and utilization of waste heat for the establishment of greenhouses to supply the local market.

3. Intellectual Property Rights and Genetic Engineering

  • The delicate balance of life is upset when humans manipulate parts of it.
  • Citizens and their governments, not corporations, must control genetic engineering.
  • The products of genetic engineering must remain in the public domain.
  • All forms of life and components of life must remain in the public domain. The current raw material of genetic engineering–seeds and domestic animals–have been cultivated, bred, and improved by farmers for millennia. Changing a few lines in a book, to “make it better,” does not confer copyright. Nor should altering one or two genes confer ownership of a life-form.
  • Products derived, directly or indirectly, through gene manipulation, must be labeled.

4. Food and Food Processing

  • All people need safe, sufficient, and secure food supplies. This is a basic human right.
  • In order for consumers to make informed food choices, they need clear and complete label information regarding ingredients, processing, production techniques, and the presence or absence of genetically-engineered components.
  • Increasing the connections between consumers and producers will increase awareness of food production, nutrition, health, the environment and how they are all interconnected.
  • Organic agriculture and food systems produce safe and wholesome food and, thus, prevent diseases and reduce health care costs.
  • The NFU urges the federal Minister of Agriculture to quickly implement national organic standards.
  • Once national standards are established, governments should make it illegal to use the word “organic” to describe food unless that food is grown in accordance with those standards.
  • Continually reducing farmers’ returns will limit farmers’ options and will drive agriculture away from sustainability.
  • As much as possible, food processing and consumption should be local or regional. It is in everyone’s interest to localize food production and decrease transportation distances.

5. Rural Communities

  • Policy makers must take into account, the social, economic, and ecological impacts of expanding cities and increasingly depopulated rural areas.
  • The family farm must remain the primary food-production unit in Canada.
  • Land must be owned by local citizens, preferably those who farm it.
  • Land should be held and owned in ways that promote the maximum number of active farmers. Provisions should be made for land-banks, co-operatives, and land-trusts.
  • Research should focus on agricultural methods and technologies which promote smaller farm size with a higher degree of production efficiency.
  • Government programs can encourage more farmers and smaller farms by capping payouts and instituting regressive payment formulas on government subsidy programs.
  • Livestock operation must be limited in size to protect the environment and to assure that livestock remains an accessible and profitable diversification alternative for farmers.
  • The number of farmers in Canada has been decreasing for 50 years. It is time that farmers, consumers, and government worked together to help Canadians enter farming. In order for children to take over farming from their parents, government must develop taxation and lending policies that reduce the economic risk of such transfers.
  • Women must have a greater voice and role in all levels of the food system.
  • Federal and provincial governments should immediately make available money to pay for the cost of rural daycare.

6. Marketing, Trade, and International Relations

  • Every nation has the right and responsibility to independently define its own agricultural policies which are in the best interests of its farmers and consumers.
  • Every nation is entitled to formulate and enforce standards in food safety, health, nutrition, and cultural and environmental protection.
  • Nations have the right to undertake measures to improve the market position of farmers.
  • Farmers, the public, and governments must work to understand the economic, social, and ecological implications of a global trade in food and to disseminate that understanding.
  • Trade should increase the happiness, security, and wealth of individuals and protect the environment. Because the current rush toward “free trade” does not, “free trade” should be replaced by a new model which promotes these goals.

7. Research and Education

  • All government research money should go toward alternative, sustainable, organic, or chemical-alternative agriculture. Chemical agriculture research is already well-funded by large transnational chemical and fertilizer companies.
  • Pre-chemical-era agricultural practices were complex and highly refined. As the farmers expertise in those practices die, those techniques are lost. Some agricultural research funding should go to collect and preserve knowledge of how to grow plants without chemicals or fertilizers.
  • Agriculture must be studied and taught in a historic, social, and environmental context, not merely an economic one. Agriculture is closely entwined with democracy, freedom, art, literature, and urban culture.
  • Teachers and researchers must accept alternative farming methods as equal in importance to main-stream methods. This will help increase awareness of alternative, sustainable, or organic, agriculture and give farmers more options.
  • Teachers and students should focus on the practical rather than theoretical aspects of agriculture.
  • More public funding should be devoted to breeding plants and varieties which are suited for regions outside Canada’s main farming areas.
  • Farmers must have increased input into research and education. On-farm research and applied research–in conjunction with extension and educational programs–should be expanded.
  • Research findings must move more quickly to practical application.