Hungering for commitments on a new Canadian food policy

Harvest season may be over in Canada, but for activist farmers the work is never done. In fact, winter can be just as busy a season as spring or fall as they advocate for long-term policy changes that are increasingly urgent.

Since its election last year, the federal Liberal government has committed to public consultations on a number of topics (recently I counted more than 80 still open), including agriculture and food. By November 30, the online consultations to hopefully inform a new agricultural framework will be closed. You still have a few weeks to participate if you are interested.

The mandate letter written for Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, included several key points including to "develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country."

These online consultations have spurred me to "blue sky" a bit on just how far the federal government really needs to go to ensure that agriculture and food policy in this country meets the needs of both producers and consumers -- or growers and eaters in the current vernacular. It's great to consult, but there are lots of people who have been pushing for changes for a long time. Those interested in food issues have long known what's required. And I think the Liberals know something needs to be done. The question is, will they have enough understanding and courage to advance? I can play along with consulting for a little bit, as long as the outcome is clear action in support of family farmers, and agriculture issues related to the environment, health and climate change.

Food policy in Canada

My "blue skying" led me to remember some interesting moments in the history of Canada's food policy.

Federal governments in Canada have long used official commissions and inquiries to delve into pertinent issues. In the '70s there were commissions on the non-medical use of drugs, and on corporate concentration, the status of women, and many more. But I have yet to find a federal commission on agriculture and food. If you do, let me know. Recognizing that gap, some groups over the years have held their own commissions.

Harken back to The People's Food Commission, which crossed Canada for more than three years in the late 1970s, accepting briefs and hearing from individuals and groups concerned about food. It was a grassroots initiative led by individuals and non-profit organizations, church groups, unions and farmers. Hundreds of Canadian organizations and more than 5,000 people participated in these hearings, an initiative supported through donations. The People's Food Commission's final report, The Land of Milk and Money, was published in 1980 by Between the Lines and was a call to action on a number of issues, including cheap food imports, loss of family farmers and land concentration, the environment and use of chemicals in agriculture, poverty and hunger, food additives, labelling, food quality at home, in schools, hospitals and seniors' homes, obesity, co-operatives, orderly marketing, community gardens and much more. Reading through the pages of the report, so many of the issues sound familiar. The paper is a bit yellower these days, but most of the sentences could have been written last week. The hearings brought out passions and hopes for a better food system, one which puts people at its centre. So what has changed since 1980?

One thing that has changed, I think, is that consumers or eaters are much more aware of issues surrounding land, food production and the environment. The other is that instead of talking about agriculture or farm policy, the trend among those who advance food sovereignty issues is to use the term "food" policy because it is much more inclusive.

Reigniting work on food justice

Fast forward to the late 2000s, and the initiation of another grassroots movement centred around the food system, one meant to reignite and advance the work begun in the '70s by The People's Food Commission. The People's Food Policy Project (2008-2011) mobilized approximately 3,500 people across Canada in an effort to educate and to develop a national food security and food sovereignty policy. It was also the beginnings of the growth of an organization called Food Secure Canada. A series of small meetings organized through networks, Kitchen Table Talks, brought people together to share their experiences and thoughts about Canada's food system. The process eventually became a public call to join in the "table talks" and culminated in a report called Resetting the Table: A People's Food Policy for Canada. The process also helped to bring people to organize together through Food Secure Canada.

Resetting the Table is a comprehensive look at the food system and includes recommendations related to science, environment, land reform, farm incomes, the fisheries, local production and food quality, and much more. It is worth a read. Here is but a sampling of what the 3,500 individuals came up with.

  • develop solid and coherent policy to promote just land reform and prevent foreign investors and financial speculators from acquiring agricultural land.
  • ensure that farmers are able to earn a decent living, and  enable the entry of new farmers into farming. Policy success should be measured by net farm income rather than by export volume.
  • the food processing system should: be designed for human-scale and community-scale processing equipment; support and encourage community-owned, sharable infrastructure; encourage more co-operative models; focus on creating skilled workers.
  • Agriculture Canada should shift significant resources away from commodity-based, export-focused agriculture and toward a community-based, sustainability-focused agriculture that prioritizes healthy eating for all Canadians. 
  • Canadian food land must be owned and controlled, as much as possible, by the citizens who live on and work that soil, with prohibitions enacted on foreign, corporate, investor and absentee ownership. Additionally, new ways of getting land into the hands of those who want to farm are required, such as community-owned land trusts, debt-free or interest-free land transfer mechanisms, and government agencies that support seller-finance options.
  • develop solid and coherent policy to promote just land reform and prevent foreign investors and financial speculators from acquiring agricultural land.

Resetting the Table contains solid recommendations on food policy, and also on agricultural and fisheries policy. And during the last two elections, Food Secure Canada has worked hard to gain commitments to implement a national food policy from political parties. The Liberal government's mandate letter includes some of those commitments. These consultations and where they lead will be part of the commitment that needs to be kept. There's a lot more to dig into in Resetting the Table. And a lot that can be adopted into a new Canadian food policy.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Joseph Morris/flickr

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