Oct 15, 2009: Canada needs a national food strategy

Published on Thu Oct 15, 2009 – thestar.com

What is most disturbing about Canada's food system is not the degraded quality, the impact on health, the devastation of natural resources from industrial fishing and farming, the impoverishment of food producers, the inequitable access that leaves so many Canadians undernourished, or even the safety scares that have us checking for recalls along with prices.

These travesties can be righted, if we act. But we have lost so much control over our food system that our ability to act is diminishing. Indeed, we can hardly imagine that we can act, that food should be a public good, like health care, to serve people foremost. That the public should decide what food Canada produces, how it's produced, and how we share that harvest.

We have largely left those decisions to the market. Consequently, food has been cheapened into a tool for generating massive profits. And an increasingly small group of companies have gained enormous power over Canada's food supply.
A snapshot: four retailers control more than 70 per cent of grocery sales; two companies control 95 per cent of finished cattle slaughter; two control two-thirds of flour production; globally, just 10 multinationals control two-thirds of proprietary seeds, the basis of food.

Many Canadian farmers, abandoned to compete globally against appalling labour standards, see little future in independent food production here, which is shocking given increasing world hunger. More than a third of our farmers, holding half of all farm assets, are set to retire and most don't want their children to farm. Corporations are most likely to snap up those farms.

But demand for a citizen-led food fix is building.

This past summer, Canadians flocked to political meetings and community talks to discuss our increasingly sick food system and present ideas for a national food policy. Wayne Roberts of Toronto's Food Policy Council said such a policy could be this generation's medicare – a gift of healthy food, and sustainable farming and fishing to future generations.

The People's Food Policy Project held a series of "kitchen table meetings" in rural, fishing, northern and urban communities to gather ideas for a national platform on food sovereignty.

This would mean changing our current export-oriented agriculture to a "feed the family first and trade the rest" policy. It would shift support to local producers and give municipalities and their residents more of a voice in food choices. It would also entail a shift toward ecological food production to protect the natural resources on which future harvests depend. And through fair trade, Canada would extend the same right to other countries to protect their farmers and natural resources.
Finally, it would reposition food as a public good rather than primarily a profit driver, and ensure all citizens affordable access to nutritious food.

Food sovereignty was a key recommendation of the first international assessment of agriculture, the IAASTD report, delivered last year. Of 62 countries participating, 59 signed the agreement. The agriculture policies of the three countries that dissented – Canada, the United States, and Australia – are strongly influenced by multinational food and agribusinesses.

"Our food system is controlled by large and frequently multinational corporations," said Cathleen Kneen, chair of Food Secure Canada. "This is about citizens having a real say in how the system functions. It's food democracy."

Currently, responsibility for food nationally is diced and sliced across ministries, with no coordinated strategy. Agriculture is a minor ministry, oriented to export commodities. Transportation pays for moving it over vast distances. Health picks up the tab for bad food.

Canada needs a national policy on food, say leading thinkers such as Dr. Harriet Friedmann, who contributed to the IAASTD report. She says the policy needs to integrate health, environment and accessibility goals.

In Parliament, the opposition parties have been stirring up ideas for a national food policy. And Canada's major farming organizations have all called for a national strategy for food and farming.

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