Anyone who cares about one of the biggest industries in Canada (agriculture) and its impact on the biggest government spending sector in Canada (health care) should be paying attention to the raging debates going on about Canada’s food future.
Food caught the attention of all five federal parties in the last election, with the Conservatives promising a “five-year national farm and food strategy… to ensure the survival of family farms, the highest standards of food safety and better access to domestic and export markets for farmers across the country.” That includes easily accessible fertilizers, pesticides and veterinary drugs, a surprising defense of marketing boards, and the opening up of new export markets.
While that strategy is being hatched, no fewer than four national organizations are promoting other national food strategies. Food is attracting attention for myriad reasons, including the disturbing impact of rising food prices, the massive health care costs (60% of all chronic disease) attributable to our industry-promoted diets, and, in some circles thankfully, concern about the 10% of Canadians who don’t get enough to eat.
Throw in rising fuel, land and fertilizer costs, fires, floods, pests and droughts due to climate change, and heavy competition for uncertain water supplies and it’s not hard to understand why the average age of farmers is around 60. Young people can’t see any economic future in meeting our society’s most fundamental need.
They’re put off by the economics: a small number of larger, highly mechanized, often subsidized farms are doing well in Canada, but most of the rest suffer badly. Around 85% of farmers have to work off the farm. In B.C., which has mostly small and medium-sized farms, the agriculture industry produced $2.5 billion in revenue in 2010, but lost $87 million—the worst performance in the country.
One of the four organizations working on a national food strategy, the Conference Board of Canada, calls food “one of the mega-issues facing our country today.”
The same realization is driving national food policy initiatives by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, and Food Secure Canada, a barely-funded non-profit whose report Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada was released a year ago.
At a recent Food Summit conference I attended in Toronto, hosted by the Conference Board of Canada, spontaneous applause erupted when a farmer stood up and urged these organizations to get together and not let their egos get in the way of collaboration.
But it’s not just egos that are getting in the way. It’s also competing priorities and vested interests. All of these initiatives share certain goals, especially the desire for safe and healthy food, and security of supply. But when it comes to how we get there, big differences open up. The Conference Board’s mostly industry-funded Centre for Food in Canada leans toward promoting bigger, more innovative industrial farms emphasizing exports and cheap consumer prices from imported food. Food Secure Canada, kept off the podium in Toronto, wants more diverse, close-to-home sources of food, more ecologically-healthy food production, and and end to the hunger and poverty tied to the epidemic of diseases directly attributable to eating “foods” with cumulative toxic levels of sugar, sodium and fat.
Loblaw’s Galen Weston’s ill-advised comment that someone is going to die from improperly-inspected food at a farmers’ market was an indicator of the frustration of big operators with the growing popularity of small-scale producers and unconventional retail trends (direct buying, farmers’ markets, backyard garden sales…).
Weston noted that when Loblaw labels a product as locally sourced, its sales go up 40%.
Securing the safety, supply and affordability of our food is the most fundamental requirement for national security and well-being. It cannot be left to industry lobbyists working directly with government officials consulting their selected researchers and stakeholders– or to kitchen-table solutions that ignore international market realities and opportunities.
All-or-nothing proposals from either side won’t cut it. Get together, people.