Food policy action required in the face of COVID-19

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Image: Aaron Cloward/Unsplash

There was a run on seeds and soil in the spring while urbanites were still wondering how long lockdown might be, and whether or not fresh veggies and fruit might be scarce, particularly given the close of the Canada-U.S. border.

Gardening has grown in popularity this year, for sure. But now many are discovering that it is not so easy to grow all that food, even if you are lucky enough to have access to land -- and that it takes knowledge and lots of effort to get that small basket of peas.

Growing food when you are new to the practice is definitely an adventure. It takes persistence to ensure a plentiful garden. And it takes persistence to create a solid agri-food strategy as well. Food does not just automatically appear.

COVID-19 should be forcing us, along with policy-makers, to reflect deeply on Canada's food security and sovereignty.

There have been several interesting studies over the years that show that in Canada we could do much more to support homegrown food production and sustainable agricultural policies. There are also some really innovative food production models in urban areas -- such as this green roof farm -- that show cities can also contribute to low-carbon food production.

What is really demanded at this point is that we acknowledge that Canada can grow much more of its food, and that we lessen our reliance on the export/import game this country has been engaging in for far too long.

Until August 7, the House of Commons standing committee on finance is accepting briefs from individuals and organizations as part of consultations in the preparation for the 2021 budget. These consultations happen annually, but this year the topic is about measures the federal government could take to restart the Canadian economy as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is lots that could be done on the food production front.

A report published in late May by Food Secure Canada is calling on the federal government to support local food systems and hubs to address the food security needs, now more evident than ever because of COVID-19.

The report, titled "Growing Resilience and Equity: A food policy action plan in the context of Covid-19" champions several recommendations, including harmonizing "Canada's national and international food policies, prioritizing food sovereignty approaches, supporting family farms and low-input, low-emissions agroecological food production as well as sustainable processing and distribution."

The report notes that local food systems would go a long way towards alleviating food insecurity and poverty, particularly in Indigenous, Black and racialized communities.

As this and other reports have underscored, Canada imports 30 per cent of its food, yet exports more than 50 per cent of what we grow and raise. Canada is the fifth largest food exporter in the world, and the sixth largest food importer. Go figure!

Essentially, we export more than 50 per cent of the fruit and vegetables that we grow -- and yet we import many of these very same horticultural products. Some of these imports are due to seasonal demand and Canada's growing season. But at the same time, studies have shown that a significant amount of these horticultural imports could be grown and stored in Canada if it were made a priority in our agricultural policy.

Generally, the rate of growth in imports exceeds the rate of growth in exports. Ontario, for example is a net food importer, importing annually about $10 billion more than it exports, with roughly half of those exports being products that we grow, store and process within the province.

A study published in 2015 concluded that more than half of the food products imported by Ontario could be produced in the province. The report, "Dollars and Sense: Opportunities to Strenthen Southern Ontario’s Food System" concludes:

"If local production were expanded to replace even ten percent of the top ten fruit and vegetable imports, the Ontario economy would gain close to quarter of a billion dollars in GDP and 3,400 full-time jobs. The research also demonstrates that when more food is produced locally, energy use and pollution from transportation are reduced."

The report goes on to detail many more opportunities and advantages of local food production.

I am sure similar studies could be done in other provinces. As well, it would be important to review on a national scale how provinces might be able to support each regional food need when there is a shortfall in certain food products locally.

Many organizations and economists have argued for decades that our current import/export model is a fallacy and that we should produce food for our own domestic needs first and export only when our own needs have been satisfied -- in other words, export the surplus.

The Canadian Commission on UNESCO and the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies have also released several briefs related to the COVID-19 recovery. One is a detailed look at sustainable food systems.

Given COVID-19 and how precarious and, frankly, economically backward our current food policies are, the federal government must move towards supporting local food systems, and local producers, as it considers ways to stimulate the economy and recover from the pandemic. It must also adopt policies that ensure we produce and market for the domestic market first -- and withdraw from the export/import game.

The pandemic is tough on us, but it is also showing us a path towards a healthier future.

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: Aaron Cloward/Unsplash

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