Those little identification stickers affixed to fresh produce drive some people crazy. Such stickers are said to add yet another level of human contact to what are already well-handled commodities. And more handling means additional opportunities for contamination, especially for imported produce that travels extensively before arriving here.

But despite the stickers’ shortcomings, they do indeed reveal the produce’s origin (along with the variety and price code). Some people think that’s vital, and seek it out. One of those who want to know where his apples and everything else comes from is U.S. president–elect Barack Obama, a much-feared champion of U.S. protectionism. In the New Year, expect to see the U.S. in particular insist on more country-of-origin identification, as it retracts and tries to shelter its farm sector from competition.

That will inspire a bevy of imposters who’ll claim to be offering authentic produce from the U.S., Canada and Europe, or wherever suits their façade the best. Food fraud is a potentially fatal business, depending on what’s being disguised, and it underlines why we need affordable, on-the-spot molecular analysis technology. University of Guelph Profs. Paul Hebert, Bob Hanner and a team of biologists are finding new ways to analyze genetic codes from a tissue sample, and immediately prove authenticity (or finger an imposter).        

So imagine the power of a designation that combines irreproachable technology with an established environmental sustainability program, such as Ontario’s Environmental Farm Plan. If indeed stickers are a way of life, additional handling and all, then picture a little sticker on your apples, carrots, bread, soy snacks, corn flakes, steaks, roasts or rainbow trout, declaring the product was grown sustainably, in Ontario.

It would do more than simply identify the food’s origin – it would also say something about the way it was grown, and the farmer who grew it. 

The challenge would be to determine what constitutes the term sustainable. But many of the criteria are already firmly in place. Since 1993, more than 27,000 producers have adopted an Environmental Farm Plan, which addresses 23 areas of potential concern on the farm – water wells, energy efficiency, fuel storage, soil management and pest control, among them. With guidance from the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, farmers participate in local workshops where they cite environmental strengths as well as areas of concern.

Then, along with facilitators, they create action plans to improve areas that are lacking. They’re eligible for federal assistance to make environmental changes.

No one needs to ask consumers if they’d rather buy food produced with sustainable practices. They’ve already said they would, as shown by the growth in organic food, and local food, both of which are popularly regarded as sustainable. By working together, the farming industry was able to define organic. “Local” is a bigger challenge. But defining sustainable is certainly possible, because it can be related to responsible management.

As well, there’s another natural-resource model to follow – the Forest Stewardship Council certification. Products with the council’s logo are supposed to be free from what it calls the most destructive practices in forestry, including illegal logging, destroying “high conservation” value forests and converting forests to other land uses.

The council’s certification excludes genetically modified forest species. Ontario agriculture would struggle practically and philosophically with a label that suggested farms growing genetically modified food were not sustainable. Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the province are genetically modified. And those are Ontario’s two biggest crops.

However, numerous meaningful measures of on-farm environmental sustainability exist, led by environmental farm plan parameters. Farm improvements for matters such as water protection, training and safety courses can all be documented and measured.

 Over the past 20 years, farmers have cut pesticide use in half, spent $600 million in environmental improvements and dedicated more than 300,000 days to environmental training courses. A little sustainable-practices sticker, backed by a credible science-based program, would move this momentum along even further.

 And it would give consumers additional confidence in Ontario farmers and the safety of their food. How can it lose?