Food security and agriculture largely absent in federal election

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Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. Image: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr

To date, important issues -- such as climate change, food security, poverty reduction, affordable housing, and the decriminalization of all drugs in the face of the national opioid crisis, among others -- have been largely absent from the federal election campaign. Instead we witness attempts by political partisans to reveal the many (dis)guises of one party leader over another.

As we roll closer and closer to the October 21 election, one has to wonder when voters might actually get to hear something of substance from the two so-called major governing parties and the national mainstream media covering the "issues" -- and this at a time when sincere policy discussion and true engagement is badly required.

Agriculture and food issues have not yet made it into the platforms of the two major parties or into any of the interviews or debates with all parties seen so far.

Yet, a high percentage of Canadians want to discuss food and agriculture. A recent poll by Angus Reid revealed that 60 per cent of Canadians see food security as their main issue. And many agricultural groups are calling for discussion on policy as well as the dismantling of key agricultural institutions such as the Canadian Wheat Board.

In a recent report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that food shortages will be part of the carnage created by climate change. Climate change means that there will be nutritional challenges for an ever-increasing number of people around the globe. Some fear multi-breadbasket failures as food crises hit many continents at the same time. The IPCC report notes that droughts, flooding, heat waves, wild fires and other weather patterns are rapidly increasing land degradation and soil loss.

So agriculture and food security are not just "other" issues -- they are deeply linked to climate change and are basic to human life. But little of this is being expressed in this campaign.

The irony is that while climate change is affecting agriculture, our so-called "modern" methods are also contributing to climate change. Loss of wetlands and deforestation to clear land for farming or ranching operations contributes greatly to carbon emissions. While planting trees is seen as an important method of mitigating climate change, tree-planting massive tracks of lands could mean pushing crop production onto marginalized lands, leading to reduced yields, and nutritional challenges.

There are trade-offs when agricultural policy is not thought through. Here in Canada there is a huge opportunity to rebuild our agricultural base -- yes, rebuild -- but adopting the necessary policies requires political will and, importantly, vision.

Agricultural missing in election dialogue

Discussion of agricultural policy in this country should be on the election agenda, along with climate change. There is clearly a need for leadership and discussion on some of the tough decisions that we are going to have to make as climate pressures increase. We need policy discussion linked to action now!

At the time of this writing, neither the Conservative or Liberal parties included agriculture or food security issues on their website platforms. In fact, these party websites contain very little information, period. While the Liberals unveiled their climate plan this week, it's been criticized for lacking detail -- and it doesn't directly address agriculture as part of action on climate change. Yet both parties have had ample time to prepare and release information given that the October 21 election date is fixed.

As for the traditional media, the CBC's issue tracker does not even include agriculture or rural communities as categories. And the Maclean's 2019 platform tracker is missing oodles of information and is not comprehensive -- it is missing a lot of detail on the NDP platform, and agricultural and rural community policies, for example.

The New Democrats have a complete platform online. They also released more information on their climate plan this week. The NDP platform details action on climate change and on agriculture, and calls for a Canadian food strategy, protection of supply management, and programs to support young and new farmers, sustainable practices, and more. The NDP platform also includes policies for rural communities, and boosting the agricultural economy by including key services such as broadband and public transportation, among others.

The Green platform is also online and, as expected, includes detail on the party's climate change plan called "Mission: Possible." It also includes commitments for affordable food in the North, and support for northern farms. Under a section called "Food and Food Security," the Greens outline a detailed plan on how to move away from industrialized agriculture toward smaller farmers, regenerative agriculture, new farmers, and away from the industrial model that has depopulated rural communities and degraded the agricultural environment.

There is a real need for deep discussion of the kind of agricultural model required in Canada. Those voters interested in hearing more might find local debates to attend since it is unlikely these issues will make the national front page. Food Secure Canada, through its Eat Think Vote 2019 initiative, is supporting and promoting events during the federal campaign hoping to spur discussion among voters.

Just imagine a debate on such questions as:

  • While Canada has a relatively large agricultural base, is an industrialized model of export-based monoculture crops the way to food security? What is the impact of that model on climate change and sustainability?
  • How do we move away from industrialized agriculture toward local markets?
  • What is the role of rural communities and the family farm in mitigating climate change?
  • What are best practices in carbon sequestration?
  • Where have all the farmers gone, and how does allowing corporations to buy large tracts of agricultural land have anything to do with food quality or security, climate change mitigation or adaptation?

If a debate were held on agriculture tomorrow, I think we would see both the Conservatives and the Liberals repeatedly faltering and showing their lack of understanding and will.

Meanwhile, the NDP and the Greens would be agreeing with each other.

Too bad that in this election the NDP and Greens are competing for voters' attention.

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.

Image: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr

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