Fall signals the beginning of the harvest season for farmers across Canada in a year that has been unpredictable and challenging for many producers and businesses in light of trade tariffs and tough NAFTA negotiations. Yet this fall also marks the beginning of a new chapter with the government’s forthcoming announcement of Canada’s first national food policy.
In developing the policy, the government identified four central themes – increasing access to affordable food; improving health and food safety; conserving soil, water and air; and growing more high-quality food – which are perfectly aligned with key priorities of the organic sector, says Tia Loftsgard, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA).
This alignment creates potential for engaging the organic community to collaboratively address some of the key challenges in the Canadian food system, Ms. Loftsgard explains. “Canada needs a co-ordinated national food policy led by the federal government to achieve what many other progressive countries have achieved: ensuring healthy food is accessible to its own citizens,” she says. “Our Canadian food system is disconnected in too many ways, and a solution needs to be sought to resolve some key challenges.”
First and foremost, Canada is a leading agricultural exporter, yet four million Canadians struggle to put food on the table. Rates of food insecurity are twice as high among Indigenous populations, and catastrophic levels of hunger prevail in parts of northern Canada, according to Ms. Loftsgard, who references a report by Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
“Secondly, increasing amounts of highly processed food in our diets are contributing to the rise in chronic disease like diabetes, hypertension and obesity, which threatens to overwhelm our health-care system,” she says. “Yet food is not getting the attention it deserves in health policy circles.
“Thirdly, we import 30 per cent of our food despite the fact that we know that growing and processing our own food has economic benefits and a reduced carbon footprint, in addition to delivering the fresh, local food Canadians want to eat,” says Ms. Loftsgard. “And the price we pay for food ignores environmental and health externalities, which ultimately affect our economy, health and the Earth.”
Addressing these challenges won’t be easy, but Ms. Loftsgard says existing models that connect some of the social and environmental priorities in our food system, such as organic farming, can help to point the way.
“For instance, Canada-wide events during Organic Week highlight the important contribution of the organic sector,” she says. “In addition to double-digit growth rates, organic farming systems improve soil conditions, lead to lower levels of highly hazardous pesticide and fertilizer run-off, increase water retention rates and enhance biodiversity. And there are important health and social benefits for both producers and consumers.”
Organic producers commit to practices that contribute to an open and transparent food value chain, improved animal welfare and workers’ health and safety, says Ms. Loftsgard. “According to the Census of Agriculture, organic farming families on average earn more from their farms than farms operated with conventional methods and employ more people per farm, aiding rural economies to be successful economic contributors to Canada’s GDP.”
Ms. Loftsgard recognizes that affordability can be challenging for many Canadians looking to access healthy and sustainably grown food. “Certified organic food is sometimes criticized for being more expensive and less accessible than conventionally grown food,” she says. “However, Canada has some of the cheapest food prices in the world, and research shows that issues of food accessibility and food insecurity have more to do with income levels than food prices.
“This is a great example of why advocates have been calling for a national food policy. A set of priorities and principles that cut across sectors is needed to ensure that the equally important goals of food security and environmental sustainability are not competing.”
Were the organic sector positioned as a strategic investment area within the national food policy, the federal government could harness the social and environmental benefits of organic production methods to meet the policy’s overall goals, Ms. Loftsgard suggests.
She recommends three steps that can help the federal government meet its objective of ensuring the sustainability of food system for generations to come: one, establishing programs and training opportunities for farmers and fishers to transition to ecologically sound production methods, such as organic; two, ensuring that organic producers are on equal footing with other producers; and three, making it easier for producers and consumers to choose organic.
“We need to agree on the common goal – to achieve a food system that is not only economically viable but also healthy, just and sustainable – across silos and sectors, such as government, civil society and the private sector,” she says. “This requires recognizing that food is not simply a commodity but a central aspect of our social, cultural, historical and environmental realities, with a tremendous impact on the quality of our lives as citizens and as communities.”
Ms. Loftsgard believes that Canada’s food policy is long overdue. “Its importance cannot be underestimated,” she says. “We need to ensure that our trajectory forward will be one that empowers Canadians to access food, eat well, farm and fish sustainably and live healthy, productive lives.”
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