My wonderful partner recently came back from a conference on Food Security. While I had images of armed tomatoes fighting back, at it’s core it is an issue all of us should be worried about - after all there are few things more central to our lives than healthy food (water, maybe shelter being up there as well)!
While in Canada we have regulated certain sub-sets of our agricultural industry to ensure quality (I believe there are no growth hormones allowed in our milk for example) or profits (I believe turkeys in Canada have a quota system to ensure turkey farmers make a buck), overall we are still pretty removed from where our food comes from. What’s interesting is that once you look into it we’ve been riding a system that has allowed us some cheap food, but we’re probably going to pay for it in environmental and health costs moving forward. What’s crazy is that in a huge country like Canada (with some great agri-regions), with such a relatively small population, there is no reason why we can’t all eat healthy, while providing a profit for all farmers. After all, who really is more important to you in life - your farmer or your lawyer? Stop eating for a while and see how important you other problems are…
Some discussion about the conference got me thinking - what would a ‘made in Canada’ food security policy look like? We’ve made some good steps in the right direction, but could we make a clear policy that;
a) Provides a fair price to farmers, making family-sized operations profitable again?
b) Reduces reliance on petrochemical inputs to the agricultural cycle?
c) Maximizes the natural health of agricultural products (i.e. reducing reliance on CAFOs, ensuring food systems are disease resilient)
d) Is clear about GMO vs. non-GMO products, and ensures clear protection of seed saving practices?
e) Does not tick off the general public with massive increases in cost?
Food is a profitable industry - both the retailers and processors seem to have a solid cost structure. How can more of the rent be passed onto the farmers? Some potential solutions include;
1. Stronger regulatory framework - Regulate the size and scale of operations, set requirements for the space and access to land animals have, strong protection for seed saving, etc. Essentially define the framework of what Canadians consider ‘healthy food’ then let the market do it’s thing.
2. Education - Massive push towards educating Canadian consumers about the difference between organic food and industrial food (all tomatoes are not created equal, etc.), much stonger labelling requirements on food.
3. Price incentives - There is a tax on cigarettes partially to cover their expected cost to the health system. Perhaps a tax on HFCS or other highly synthetic additives would help to better reflect the true cost of producing and consuming those foodstuffs (we’re going to pay for it one way or another, better with a consumption tax than something else). I believe the democrats are toying with this in their current attempts at health care reform.
4. Urban renewal - Support urban/community gardening systems. Government owned/managed greenhouses and plots within urban areas could be setup to allow people to grow more of their own food. These systems could also provide a location for recent immigrants to feed themselves and provide a social network as they integrate into society and look for employment. Individuals would rent for the plots using an old system of providing some of their harvest to the garden as a whole, which would then be sold off to help offset the cost of the operation.
5. Try the anti-monopoly tack - Breaking up the food distributors/retailers thus lowering their bargaining power over farmers. Fairly heavy handed and prone to loopholes however.
Yah yah, there is the possibility that some of these suggestions will lead to either more government (usually something to be avoided) or higher costs at the market. But we’ve been so spoiled buy an expectation of cheaper and cheaper products that we seem to be forgetting that you often get what you pay for. Food quality is one area we cannot afford to skimp on as a society, and hiding the true costs of a mangled food system will certainly bankrupt us in the end.