The Honourable Lawrence MacAulay
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
Re: A Food Policy for Canada
October 18, 2017
Dear Minister MacAulay,
Thank you for initiating this important conversation. Canada needs a fresh new approach to food policy. We are a nation of farmers and growing families, and what unites us all is a common interest in the food we put on our tables. We expect it to be grown sustainably, handled and packaged safely, and, most importantly, provide healthy nourishment to our loved ones.
The path from farm to table is a long one, touching on many elements of Canadian society and the economy and requires consistent, values-based government policies at every turn. I’d like to highlight a few policies on which the government should focus. I would also like to preface my recommendations with the following concern: increasingly your government has relied upon overbroad, meandering policy consultations that while creating a lot of sound and fury, ultimately signify nothing. I urge you to avoid this trend, and move quickly and meaningfully on the results of this consultation exercise. Canadians expect it.
Supporting family farmers through biodiversity
Sustainable practices, while overall more cost efficient, can place undue burden on small family farms, especially in the short term. The government must incentivize the use of Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) that improve ecological outcomes for farmers, and, as a direct result, strengthen Canada’s biodiversity and climate adaptability potential. BMPs are toolkits to help guide and scale efforts to improve environmental and sustainable management of agricultural resources. As the Green Budget Coalition’s 2018 (GBC) report recommends, the government can, and should, leverage insurance mechanisms to promote their use on farmland by making them more affordable to producers.
The report also calls for federal fund matching for landowners who pursue restoration of ‘ecosystems goods and services’ (EGS). Alongside the GBC’s proposed National Perennial Cover Incentive program to improve grassland management practices, these programs represent concrete initiatives to appropriately compensate farmers and landowners as co-managers of our shared biodiversity. The way that policy makers increasingly reduce farmers to agri-food export producers, belies their role as long term partners in restoration and stewardship. The National Farmers Union submission to the Agriculture Committee’s study points out accurately that the government’s current approach, particularly laid out in the most recent Advisory Council on Economic Growth report, would “sideline farmers, consumers, food sector workers, and the democratic process that defines the rules and regulation governing our food system” and puts multinational agribusinesses in the “policy driver’s seat.” The report concludes with a dire prediction: if the Council’s report is followed, it will serve as a “blueprint for corporate rule.”
The National Food Policy for Canada has a chance to signal a strong commitment to farmers through concrete policy recommendations to support sustainable, small-scale farming. Family farmers are already at the vanguard of sustainable approaches – for example, Colin Rosengren in Saskatchewan.
His family has been using intercropping for over a decade, mixing canola and pea crops as well as chickpea and flax combinations. As a result, their farm is more carbon efficient and more resilient to climate change. As Colin tells it, the benefit of intercropping to soil resilience and health was a bonus. The real incentive was economic; greater yields, with lower upfront costs, including saving on seeds and fertilizer, as the intercropping naturally prevents weed growth.
Biodiverse mixed farming systems can help achieve pest management without harmful pesticides, and can be “two to four times more energy-efficient than large conventional farms, in terms of total energy input/output ratios.” The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (iPES) report also lays out that diversified agroecological systems can have beneficial impacts on soil health, combat erosion and degradation and encourage natural pollination and the restoration of nutrient cycles. The effects on human systems are also clear: biodiverse approaches to food policy can provide reduced risk for farmers of variable yields and seasonal shortages, and the economic damages from natural disasters.
This leads us to food security. We must take concrete steps toward regional food self-sufficiency across Canada. Where I’m from on Vancouver Island, increasingly farmers are finding ways to grow the food our communities need. Southern Vancouver Island has specifically embraced the ‘200 kilometre diet’ and the benefits have been enormous. Locally grown food is sold at bustling farmers markets that promote local culinary tourism. But we can do more: promote rooftop gardens, cultivation of green urban space for agriculture, food production in cities and suburbs, and community gardens.
The roots of a reliable domestic food supply are in the family-owned and operated farms of small to medium size. They constitute the most reliable, high quality, and economical food production system, now and into our uncertain future. We must protect their right to save their own seeds and promote heritage seed banks and seed exchange programs.
The climate is changing rapidly and we must respond. Food production invariably will be a core element of our response as it represents nearly 20% of human caused GHGs. As the iPES report points out, primary drivers of GHGs in our food system are large-scale deforestation for cropland, and ‘feedlot’ animal rearing that is disconnected from “landscapes and local feed sources.”
Here too soil degradation plays a part. As Équiterre points out in their submission to the Agriculture Committee, soil quality and its capacity to act as a carbon sequester are intertwined. Taking steps to improve our soil quality, particularly by increasing its organic matter content through decreased use of synthetic pesticides, will benefit farmers, our environment and our global effort to combat catastrophic climate change.
I also agree with the Green Budget’s Coalition recommendation to invest in the science capacity, research and monitoring to increase public trust in Agriculture and to reduce potentially harmful and risky agricultural practices. Increasing the government’s capacity to preserve ecological integrity and the resilience of our ecological system is a crucial element of climate adaptation and mitigation policies.
Gender and social justice
Our national food policy should take an approach that considers the impact of our food systems on social-economic outcomes for women and marginalized groups. The iPES’s report on Food Systems is clear that “the general shift from traditional food crops to high-value cash crops has been associated with men taking control of land, water and productive resources at the expense of women.”
In Canada, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) has become the primary vehicle for large scale farms to hire labour. In 2015, SAWP and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program brought in nearly 20,000 more workers than it did in 2008 and the rate continues to grow. Crucially, these workers pathways to citizenship are severely limited, despite being brought back to Canada year after year. And despite contributing to EI and other social assistance programs they are not full beneficiaries under them. This must change. I support the 5 recommendations of Food Secure Canada’s brief on migrant workers in Canada. I would bring to the particular attention of the government their recommendation to provide permanent resident status upon arrival – from this key provision would flow corollary benefits for this group that is often neglected under the law.
The agriculture sector has (along with the natural resources sector) the largest gender pay gap in the Canadian economy. Canada itself ranks in the lowest third of OECD countries when it comes to the severity of the gender pay gap. We must do more. Women face many barriers in working in the agriculture industry. Ensuring affordable access to child care in rural communities is one concrete way to help women farmers. Where women face the worst discrimination, however, is not out in the fields but in the board room. Women in agriculture consistently report that it’s in the business of agriculture that the ‘old boys club’ culture persists and is the most harmful.
Canada needs healthier food for its citizens. We must do more to make organic foods readily available and affordable for all. But at the forefront of our policy on healthy food should be providing access to affordable healthy food for Indigenous communities. I wholeheartedly agree with the testimony of Dr. Evan Fraser at Committee that the government should approach the issue of food security and affordability like it should all others with First Nations, Inuit and Métis – under a nation-to-nation framework.
Organic agriculture is also far healthier for producers – reducing farm family’s exposure to harmful pesticides. It also, as noted above, is far better for biodiversity, protects pollinators and improves Canadian water quality. We can also move to support local food markets, by encouraging adequate shelf space in grocery chains for products from local farms and local food processors. Additionally, Canada can work to address food waste in supermarkets and households while simultaneously providing greater access to healthy foods. The unnecessary disposal of food for illegitimate reasons, such as appearance, is a wasteful practice which must be ended. It is estimated that more than $31 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada each year. I support the adoption of legislation similar to that passed by the National Assembly, which would require supermarkets to donate food to local charities or food banks, rather than throwing them out. Local charities and food banks that frequently face food shortages would benefit from this law, ultimately helping many others in their communities who cannot afford to eat.
Energy-rich crops and their social prevalence remain a major factor in our obesity epidemic. We must do more to provide healthy food for our children. There are two concrete ways to approach this issue in Canada. The first, and most important, is a long needed school lunches program. We must establish a federally funded, community-guided school lunch program that serves students across Canada. It would ensure that our children have daily access to healthy local food and the added benefit of teaching them about healthy eating and sustainable food production. Secondly, I support the creation of a tax on sugary beverages, and a banning of advertisements directed at children. It’s the only way to ensure that consumer goods harmful to children’s health are not within reach of most Canadian families. Revenues accrued from a sugary drink tax should be linked directly to fund the healthy lunch program.
Finally, I wanted to include a simple recommendation that I believe would benefit food and conservation policy a great deal, transferring responsibility for fish aquaculture from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to your department. Then DFO could resume its appropriate role of protecting coastal ecosystem health and wild fisheries rather than promoting what is essentially a marine-based agricultural sector. This is far more suited to regulation and oversight from your department.
There are many avenues of reform this government could take to improve Canadian food policy. The discussion at committee and with stakeholders has been thoughtful and should form the strong basis for a push for reform. While there are lots of issues to tackle, Canada would be served well by a new Canada Food policy that prioritizes access to healthy, local food: improving biodiversity, mitigating the most harmful effects of climate change, focusing on family farmers and improving outcomes for women, marginalized groups and Indigenous communities. We can, and should, do more to make Canada’s food supply a better, fairer and greener system for all of our citizens.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my thoughts.
Elizabeth May, O.C.
Member of Parliament
Leader of the Green Party of Canada
A PDF copy of the original submission is available, here.