Friday, February 11, 2011

Tough Times Ahead

     The headline on the front page of the 08 February 2011 Globe and Mail reads "A Warning to Canada: Start Growing", and opens with:

Canada has lost its statue as a food-producing superpower and needs a drastic overhaul of its agricultural policy if it hopes to compete in world markets and feed more of its own people.
The country, hobbled by out-of-date policies and a continuing battle for scarce government dollars, has dropped from third-largest global exporter of food to No. 7 at a time when we can least afford it: Climate change and population growth are putting enormous pressure on the food system while diet-related healthcare costs are weighing on the national economy.
     The article is by Jessica Leeder, the full time "global food reporter" at the G&M. Leeder also reported on the cuts at NSERC a while back. And I've gotta say, she's doing a bang-up job of reporting on global food issues. But that the G&M has felt it necessary to appoint a full time reporter shows that we're about five years past the tipping point on the issue.
The problems we face here in Canada can, according to Leeder, be boiled down to three points:

• Farm incomes have stagnated over the last two decades, debt levels are "soaring", even with direct government subsidies tripling to $8 billion over the same time period.
• "Food processors have also struggled, squeezed by demanding retailers who have been lured by higher margins they can reap by selling cheaper imported food."
• "Consumers, in turn, have grown used to spending only a fraction of their income on food and demand cheap prices--at any cost."

Funnily enough, these three problems look familiar. They look exactly like the problems being encountered by other producers and manufacturers in a globalized neo-liberal economic regime.

     The report that sparked this front-page article is Canada's Agri-food Destination, released by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI). As Ms. Leeder writes:
[A new approach would include] a new cabinet committee on food, which the authors say would harmonize policies on environment, food, and health, which are often at odds.
The regulatory system would be overhauled to promote sustainability, and foster innovation and collaboration among Canadian producers. A new regulatory scorecard would be implemented [....] A common industry complaint is that when one arm of government invests funds for new product research, the innovation is later smothered by a regulatory arm unequipped to handle novel applications. Funding to boost crop production is not often matched with a corresponding effort to open export markets.
     The problem I see is that the last fifty years teaches us that when we "harmonize policies on environment, food, and health", they are generally harmonized almost out of existence in order to ensure maximum profits at the expense of "environment, food, and health".
The pressures noted in the report are not unique to Canada. A British report, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability understates:
The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier,
creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation [sic] will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.

     While Canada isn't in perfect shape, we're not quite as bad as the report makes out. We still produce about 68% of our own food, according to CAPI. What the report's authors suggest is that we should be producing 75%, with a strong export focus. If we were faced with sudden supply problems, a Victory Garden program could make an appreciable dent in our shortfall--assuming that the supply problem wasn't here at home. And we could all stand a reduction in our meat consumption, another way to free up a tremendous amount of plant calories for human consumption.
     When I was growing up, back in the *Sixties*, this approach was still common. My grandparents owned two adjacent lots, one of which was given over to food production. Mostly vegetables, but also a rabbit hutch for a steady supply of meat. Well, they had to--they did have an oversized family. But even our smaller nuclear family always had a garden, as did the majority of homes in our neighbourhood. So even a significant interruption in supply, given some fear and encouragement from various levels of government, wouldn't mean starvation in Canada--although it might mean a lot more of us eating better and closer to our ideal daily caloric intake (after all, rationing during the Second World War in Britain lead to the healthiest generation that island has ever seen). 
     What I fear is that this report, and the others like it, are actually nothing more than stalking-horses for the industrial food industry. The prescription seems to be for more of the same, with the addition of "technical advances" (meaning, of course, greater use of genetically modified foods). The problem is, it's this system (and its reliance on cheap fossil fuel) that got us to this point. 
     But the problems are real; globalization, neo-liberal economics, reliance on fossil fuels, and climate change. The solutions will involve significant readjustments in our style of life. The 100 Mile Diet is one starting point for these changes, as is a return to home storage and production of food.

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