Thoughts about food (2007)

In Hastings County farmers produce milk, beef, pork, goat meat, poultry, soft fruits, grains for bread and animal feed, potatoes, vegetables, beans, grapes, and apples and more. Food and beverage manufacturing is a growing part of the local economy. Agriculture is big business.

In Ontario we have some of the most productive farmland in Canada. Unfortunately, we take this for granted and until recently, thought nothing of building on the most productive soils.

Ontarians expect cheap, high quality food throughout the year, and many people care little whether strawberries are local or from California so long as they are cheap.

Urban Canadians rarely get involved in discussions about food or government agricultural policy. In June 2007, Horizons for Friendship, in conjunction with the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, organized a workshop in Belleville to discuss food production, and Canada’s role in international trade in food. This workshop was part of deliberations across Canada and there will be a report to the federal government.

The reasoning behind the workshop was to allow Canadians to think about what is important in terms of how food is produced, what it means to them, and to other countries. The question was what principals should guide Canada in its approach to domestic agriculture and to international trade in food.

In Canada, although farms are getting bigger and the number of farms is declining, the food and beverage industry is now Canada's second largest manufacturing sector.

The consumption of processed and packaged foods is going up in Canada and biotechnology is playing an increasing role in food production. In contrast there is growing support for organic agriculture. Also both exports and imports of food are growing and we have a greater and greater variety to choose from.

Food is cheap in Canada compared with elsewhere. Canadians only spend 9.8 per cent of their income on food, while in other developed countries people spend up to 26 per cent of their income on food. Canada contribution to the world food trade is around 3.5 per cent, with 60 per cent of Canadian food exports going to the United States.

There is growing inequality in the world with one third of world population suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Even in Canada, three million people experienced food insecurity at some point in 1998/1999. The Belleville workshop participants discussed the pro and cons of three different approaches to agriculture and international trade.

1.The first approach was open trade in food is key to prosperity for Canada and other countries. Agricultural trade is an important part of prosperity. The argument was there are too many barriers to trade and if these were removed every one would prosper.

2.The second approach argued the push to produce food cheaply is reinforcing the trend to large scale, mechanized, chemical dependent agriculture that is harmful to environment and human health. Current trade agreements restrict the nation’s ability to take precautionary approach to environmental and health risks. Human health and environmental sustainability should take priority over trade and profit. (The Canadian market could be flooded with cheap food produced without the same quality control as in Canada.)

3. The third approach to food was food is not simply an economic commodity. It is an essential of life and access to food is a fundamental human right. There is a huge economic imbalance between rich and poor, and between farmers and large-scale agri-business.

Food producers are valuable to rural communities, and local control over food production is important. Food is too important to be totally left to the open market or international trade negotiations. Canada should support its farmers.

There are no easy answers. Farmers strive to reduce the unnecessary use of chemicals, manage woodlands, protect ground water and watercourses and meet ever more stringent health and safety standards.

They have to keep learning, to achieve a balance between making a living, producing wholesome food and protecting the environment. We need to think about how we can support our local farmers by buying local produce, backing municipal policies to protect farmland and showing patience when stuck behind slow moving farm machinery.