January 7, 2010- We have food issues

January 7, 2010- The Ottawa Citizen

The British government has a new strategy to ensure a sustainable, secure food supply for the next 20 years. Canada's political leaders, by contrast, haven't even begun to talk about this.

This unpreparedness will almost certainly cause unnecessary hardships for Canadian farmers and consumers, sooner than we think. The global crisis in food prices in the second half of the past decade was mitigated somewhat by the global recession, but prices are still high and aren't likely to go down.

A report last year from the respected British think tank Chatham House warned that consumers in the rich world can't expect cheap and abundant food forever -- or at least not if the food system continues as it is, without a major shift in the way food is produced, transported and consumed.

Already, farmers and consumers in wealthy countries have seen some changes. For example, the price of U.S. corn and soybeans -- two major feed crops for livestock -- more than doubled between 2005 and 2008.

Chatham House warns that despite good harvests in most of the world over the last few years, demand outstrips supply. As consumers in countries such as China get wealthier, they adopt a diet that "consumes available resources to no good effect, adding to the upward pressure on prices." Meat, dairy and processed foods require more land, more feed crops, more energy inputs.

Agriculture -- particularly conventional fertilizers and livestock production -- is a major contributor to global warming, which in turn threatens crops, land quality and water supplies. The concept of "food security" must now include environmental sustainability.

The British strategy, Food 2030, recognizes that food production can't be dealt with by a single department. Food safety, nutrition and zoonotic viruses affect human health; agricultural practices, transport, packaging and food waste affect the environment; trade regulations affect international development; food prices affect the economy. Even international security is linked to food: Chatham House predicts the emergence of a new colonialism, in which countries such as China start to use countries such as Sudan as sources of agricultural land.

Interestingly, the British strategy doesn't swallow whole the accepted wisdom of urban eco-foodies.

Local food can be best in some sectors, but the British research shows that transportation is actually a fairly small contributor to the overall environmental impact of food. "Not all systems of production have the same greenhouse gas impact and in many cases, emissions from transporting food will be offset by lower production emissions compared to a local alternative." Open international trade has many benefits that shouldn't be discounted out of a slavish adherence to the 100-mile diet.

The strategy is also open to exploring the potential of genetic modification -- a hugely unpopular practice in Europe. If Canada is to develop its own food strategy -- and it should -- it should also be willing to take an objective look at the facts and the big picture. In Canada, it's pointless to have a conversation about agriculture that doesn't include an honest assessment of the supply management system for dairy, eggs and poultry.

Whether at the family dinner table or in the House of Commons, food is one topic that is sure to rouse strong opinions. But we can't afford to remain silent and hope that Canada's food supply remains sustainable and secure over the next century despite so many global threats.

To access this article in the Ottawa Citizen, click here.

To access an article on Britain's Food 2030 Strategy in the Gov Monitor, click here.