What do community gardens on vacant urban lots, mobilizations against sea-lice infestations on the B.C. coast, support for small-scale fishers, university and community-led elementary school food programs that promote local food, and farmer protests against the Canadian Wheat Board and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have in common?
They are all part of a growing movement in Canada towards food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. More importantly, it is the right to define and control our own food and agriculture systems, including markets, production modes, food cultures, and environments.
Since the mid-1990s, an international social movement of peasant, farmer, rural women’s, and indigenous people’s organizations has mobilized against the devastating effects of an increasingly globalized and concentrated agri-food system on their livelihoods, communities, and ecologies. Advocating for sustainable regional food systems that can “feed the world and cool the planet,” members of La Via Campesina, along with food sovereignty activists across the globe, seek to enact land and food governance policies that meet linked social, economic, and environmental goals -- including the human right to food and food security, biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes, and low-carbon agricultural systems.
In Canada, organizations including the National Farmers’ Union, the Union Paysanne in Québec, Food Secure Canada and the People’s Food Policy Project, among many others, are all working on building food sovereignty in Canada.
In our first book, Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community, we show how the global food system is contributing to the global food and environmental crisis; we also discuss the historical roots of food sovereignty and what it looks like in different places.
In our second book, Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems, we focus on a Canadian food system in crisis to show how communities are responding at the national and local level.
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Almost 45% of Canada’s food production is exported, nearly quadrupling between 1989 and 2009 to meet government food-export targets. Despite these massive increases in food production, however, Canada’s farmers still struggle to make a living; net Canadian farm income since 1985 hovers around zero! Almost half of Canada’s farmers are over 55 and the number of farms has declined by 10% since 2006.
The most recent data indicate that food bank use is on the rise: in 2011 alone, nearly 900,000 Canadians were using food banks each month. Meanwhile, obesity rates have doubled and the Canadian government is far behind other countries which, in the interest of the health of their citizens, have introduced stronger regulations on the amount of sodium allowed in food processing.
This industrialized, high-input, export-driven agricultural production sector, along with concentrated corporate processing and retailing, is ecologically unsustainable, increasingly unaffordable, unhealthy and unjust, as noted in the recent report prepared by civil society organizations across the country in preparation for the UN Special Rapporteur’s report on his Right to Food Mission to Canada.
Building Food Sovereignty
Reconfiguring the food system presents serious challenges. The 2011 dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, still in appeal, represents a significant loss of voice for Canadian grain operators in their marketing decisions, since it now offers unprecedented access to Canada’s grain to transnational corporations, just five of whom already control 80% of global grain trade.
Canada’s recent entry into negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement also threatens some of the last remaining fair-price supports for the Canadian dairy and poultry sectors, since ending supply management is one of the main items on the negotiating table.
Finally, the proposed Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) poses serious concerns for the growing movement in Canada to promote food security and healthy eating programs in schools, hospitals, and other public institutions through public procurement programs oriented to local and sustainable food.
In Canada, food sovereignty means connecting the right to consume food with the right to produce food for local consumption. Land access is of ongoing concern – farmland investment funds and corporate ventures such as One Earth farms have acquired family farms and indigenous lands across Canada, almost 240,000 acres since 2005 in Saskatchewan and Alberta alone. Aspiring farmers near thriving urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver struggle to enter land markets where agricultural land prices have risen as much as 20% in five years and thus remain out of reach for the rapidly growing small-scale and organic farming sector.
The loss of farmland as a result of development re-zoning, government expropriation for transportation corridors (e.g., the Gateway Program, a massive road building and infrastructure project in Metro Vancouver), and the development of residential housing and other non-food-producing uses has increased the operating costs for existing farmers. It has also given speculators more grounds for claiming that family farming is no longer economically viable.
Complex land use restrictions and the federal push for harmonization of health and food safety regulations have also limited the flexibility and creativity of Canada’s small farmers, who are oriented to production for local food systems. In addition, government inattention to the social and environmental impact of large-scale and export-oriented commodity sectors has had devastating effects on biodiversity and indigenous food systems.
One key example can be found in the system of open-cage farmed Atlantic salmon on the B.C. coast, over 90% of which is controlled by three Norwegian companies. Farmed salmon has been B.C.’s largest agricultural export since 2005: the industry now employs almost 3,000 workers, including many in First Nations communities. Although proponents of salmon aquaculture emphasize the benefits of job creation and export income, critics note that, as wild salmon stocks fall, equal (or greater) numbers of jobs have been lost in artisanal fishing operations, wild fish packing and processing jobs, and tourism. And the decline of salmon runs has serious implications for indigenous food sovereignty in the region.
The challenges are formidable. But, if we are concerned about people’s health and their ability to be involved in decision-making on the policies governing the food they produce and eat, and if we’re concerned about the well-being of the environment and the planet as a whole, then it is clear that we need to rethink our food system.
Here are some of the steps that will help build a more just and sustainable food system in Canada:
Organizing Consumers: Coupled with rising demand for local and organic food, neighbourhood associations and consumers across Canada are organizing innovative food production initiatives and are actively forming food policy councils in municipal and provincial forums. These community organizations view food issues as integrally related to climate, energy, and health concerns. For example, as a way to connect social welfare and public nutrition programs to sustainable agricultural development, public food procurement programs like the University of Toronto’s Local Food Plus and community-nutrition and farm-to-school programs across Canada seek to recreate links between local food, public health, and climate-friendly agriculture.
Training a New Generation of Farmers: Young farmer training programs like the FarmStart initiative in Ontario, the Richmond Farm School at the Kwantlan Polytechnic School in British Columbia, and Green Certificate Farm Training Programs in Alberta and Saskatchewan are preparing new curricula for sustainable, small-scale, urban, rural and mixed farming systems that are designed to foster “human-scale” agricultural systems that link food production, processing, adding value, distribution, marketing, and sales. These programs are attracting a new generation of agrarian and urban youth who don’t take their food for granted – and are interested in connecting food-related careers to larger concerns around energy, climate change, public health, and nutrition.
Securing the Land: Protecting and enhancing access to prime agricultural land through Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and Greenbelt policies are important steps towards sustaining food production and other ecological goods and services threatened by urban sprawl. Both public and privately-owned lands can be secured for agricultural uses through municipal and provincial zoning – with growing numbers of municipalities prioritizing urban and peri-urban agricultural initiatives as part of strategic regional development plans. Community farmland trusts are another alternative land tenure model that removes land from a volatile market, normally providing long-term leases to young and aspiring farmers. Private trusts like The Land Conservancy of B.C., the Ontario Farmland Trust, and the Genesis Farmland Trust in Saskatchewan work with communities and donors to secure land through purchase, donation, and agricultural conservation easements.
Demanding Fair Trade: Finally, food sovereignty is not a policy of food self-sufficiency – imported food will always be an integral part of Canada’s diet. But fair trade policies that include paying the true costs of food production – fair labour practices, production standards that don’t degrade the environment, and the development of food systems that respect the cultural and nutritional needs of Canada’s diverse population -- are necessary to enact a truly sustainable and sovereign food system.
(Hannah Wittman is a faculty member in Land and Food Systems and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia and is a research associate with the CCPA’s B.C. office. Annette Desmarais is a faculty member in the Department of International Studies at the University of Regina. They join Nettie Wiebe as co-editors of Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems: Halifax, Fernwood Publishing, 2011).