Manitoba Food Systems and Sustainability: Leadership in a Changing World

Special to Food & Beverage Manitoba

Maple Leaf Foods has served Canadians for more than 100 years by delivering high-quality and nutritious food.  We have continued to innovate, transform, adapt, and grow to become one of Canada’s leading producers of fresh and prepared meats, poultry, and plant-based protein products, and are deeply connected to Manitoba and its many communities.  The province is home to several of Maple Leaf Foods’ flagship processing plants and the focus of our hog production.  We employ over 5,000 workers at our Lagimodiere, Brandon, and Paquin processing facilities, and through the almost 200 farms and five feed mills in our Maple Leaf Foods Agri-farms division.  

The resilience and sustainability of agricultural production in Manitoba, as elsewhere, is greatly impacted by climate patterns and weather events.  Unfortunately, both are changing: globally, the eight hottest years on record have occurred since 2014, and temperatures in Northern Canada are already 2-3 degrees Celsius higher than what they would normally be.  Manitoba has seen less deviation from historical temperatures, but spring is arriving earlier, and summers and falls are growing longer.  While these seasonal shifts allow for a longer growing season, models predict that precipitation is likely to vary further from year to year. Extreme weather, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and intense storms, are expected to become more common as well.  These changes impact not just food production but also food security, water resources, nature, and human health, with associated linkages to poverty and inequality.

Beyond being affected by a changing climate, food production is also recognized as a key contributor: studies indicate that between 20-30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to agriculture.  Agriculture is also responsible for the majority of the world’s water use and land degradation.  The challenge is clear: how do we continue to feed a growing global population in the midst of a changing climate, while mitigating our own environmental footprint.

At Maple Leaf Foods, we believe it is imperative to act now, and that Canada has the potential to lead the way.  Today, Canada’s agriculture contributes 8.1% of Canada’s total GHG emissions, far less than global averages and largely attributable to Canadian farmers with a long history of sustainable practices.  Further, in Manitoba, 98% of electricity comes from clean and renewable sources such as hydroelectricity and wind.  Continuing to build on this leadership, Canadian food systems are uniquely positioned to be a meaningful part of the solution in the fight against climate change.

Within this context, companies play a significant role and Maple Leaf Foods chose to own this responsibility.  In 2017, we developed a vision to become the most sustainable protein company on earth – a commitment built out across four sustainability pillars: better food, communities, animal care, and environment.  Within our environmental pillar, we became the world’s first major carbon-neutral food company and the first food company in Canada to set, in 2019, Science Based Targets.  This includes a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030.  

Manitoba is central to these efforts; we have invested considerable time and resources over the last several years to investigate opportunities for anaerobic digestion in this province, which would take hog manure – the single highest component of our in-house (Scope 1) carbon emissions and convert it to usable energy.  We are also investing in regenerative agriculture, a set of farming principles that captures carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soils, which also improves soil health and landscape resilience.  In collaboration with Nutrien, a Canadian company and the world’s largest provider of crop inputs, we have expanded our work in regenerative agriculture from 20,000 to 160,000 acres in three years, and hope to exceed a quarter million acres by the end of 2024.

We all have a role in the fight against climate change.  However, this unprecedented challenge is far too complex for any individual, organization, or sector to accomplish alone.  Collaboration, partnerships, knowledge-sharing, and transparency are required to assure success at scale.  The 2024 Cultivate Conference, with the theme of Net Zero agriculture, provides an excellent opportunity to convene industry professionals, experts, and innovators and bring forward solutions that can advance Manitoba and Canada as a leader in resilient and sustainable 21st century food systems.  Maple Leaf Foods is proud to be part of this event.