Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Food Sovereignty in Canada

Environmental Book Review 

Food Sovereignty in Canada

Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems edited by Hannah Wittman, Annette Aurelie Desmarais and Nettie Wiebe

Fernwood Publishing, 2011

 An ideal, accessibly academic and historically-rich choice for the curious. A wealth of insights regarding the evolution of the Food Sovereignty movement in Canada, this book explores every reasonable question someone new to the topic might ask. Although a variety of authors are profiled within, each piece is written an open tone that conveys idea-sharing and urgency at the same time, supported with studies and solid, well-noted research.

Prefaced with a three page list of acronyms, the compilation introduces the toil behind a surprising number of organizations invested in what lands on your plate. Concerningly, some of the most noble among them, such as the misunderstood Canadian Wheat Board, (which operates a one-desk “monopoly” that has staunchly protected farmers from gouging by corporate agricultural interests) are threatened like never before. The book explains that the self-image Canada maintains, as “breadbasket to the world” was created in the Forties, when Canada supplied ship-loads of high-quality wheat to “war-needy Britain or hungry nations else where.” From the early Forties to the late Eighties, Chapter one author Nettie Weibe explains, Canadian governmental policy functioned under one of two paradigms that have controlled our farms. Our “breadbasket” days were supported by the core premise that “because agriculture is a unique sector due to its importance for national food security and economic development, it is therefore entitled to special attention from governments.” Special regulations protected Canadian farmers from brute market forces and created mechanism that increased their market power. However, at present, “the neo-liberal paradigm (late 1980's to the present) holds that agriculture is an economic sector no different from any other,” an outlook that has resulted in the removal of subsidies and protection while changing essential controls (such as in the area of food safety) to “regulation for competition.” While failing to solve issues that existed for Canadian farmers before the “breadbasket” era, the result of the Eighties-era neo-liberal paradigm shift is visible everywhere, in the form of environmental degradation on a mass scale as large corporations take advantage of this vulnerable market, as well as a heart-breaking depopulation of rural areas, and all-time low farm incomes for the producers remaining. Remarks researcher Darrin Qualmann, “Canadian net farm income from the markets has been negative for the past two-and-a-half decades.” Weibe and co-author Wipf suggest that paradigm shifts occur in the event of a crisis, when assumptions about the social value of public policies become incorrect. Because of this, the arrival of a third paradigm, that of Food Sovereignty, has taken a natural and prominent place in challenging the destructive course of corporate power over Canada's agricultural heritage. Contributor Darrin Qualmann explains in Chapter 2, “as farm families have watched their net incomes deteriorate, and as taxpayers have been tapped to cover farm losses, the dominant agribusiness corporations have consistently racked up record and near-record profits. Many of the worst years for farmers have been the best years for agribusiness companies. This is no coincidence.”

Still, perhaps because Canadian populations are overwhelmingly urban, as many of us roll down the supermarket aisles of misleading labelling experiencing a disconnect from the practices and processes that produce our food, we may have missed the fact that Canada, “breadbasket of the world” is under seige, and that the infrastructure and the literal roots of Canada's agriculture are being pulled asunder by corporate interests. Comments Weibe, “this relentless pressure to adopt new technologies and increase production in order to protect Canada's 'global leader' reputation is coupled with an equally virulent drive to protect and increase the Canadian agricultural trade advantage.” The impact is that food quality, and the sustainability of Canadian agriculture, crushed under the control of consumer and profit-oriented markets, is faltering. And Canada is paying dearly, not only culturally, but, financially, as we offer our devalued product to other nations more savvy in establishing national policies to control the influx of GM food. “The experience of having GM-contaminated Canadian flax rejected by European buyers has been costly for Canadian farmers.” However, farmer resistance to the damaging use of pesticides and “terminator seeds” for profit, and the greater issue of global food security, is under ruthless attack by large corporations, a nightmare that nation after nation is confronting. Sadly, in some cases, such as starving African nations resisting GM-contaminated corn in 2002, the corporations have exploited political circumstances to overpower them.

Writes Weibe and Wipf, “a clear, public way of institutionalizing the food sovereignty paradigm in Canada would be to entrench food rights in the Canadian constitution and laws, as has been done in several other jurisdictions.” In fact, quite a number of other nations, including India, (as detailed in Soil Not Oil by Vandana Shiva) have new laws emphasizing the right to food. “The Food Sovereignty paradigm views agriculture as part of an entire food system...a new national food policy also requires a significant departure from the current policy process in order to be both meaningful and successful.” Fortunately for Canada, the groundwork for input exists in the form of a formidable and long-standing network of relevant organizations available to provide expertise to policy-making process, vital to integrating both consumers and farmers with government policy-making.

The book remarks, “achieving food sovereignty in Canada hinges on making some fundamental changes in our domestic and trade policies, our diets, our 'food cultures' our view of our place in the wider world, and many of our relationships to each other and our environments,” calling for “sweeping changes to current agricultural policy. The first challenge is to develop a comprehensive national food policy, incorporating the presently seemingly disparate policy areas such as agriculture, health care, social welfare, the environment and justice,” thereby “institutionalizing a food sovereignty paradigm in Canada.” Duly noted by export data from Statistics Canada and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, Neo-liberal trade policy has resulted in mass dumping of low-cost Canadian surplus onto other markets, creating destabilization globally, and offering further evidence that a coherent food sovereignty approach would benefit other nations as well. Remarks Qualmann, “Monsanto realized record sales for a fifth consecutive year in fiscal 2008, delivering compound annual earnings growth of 20 percent plus during that time...” (Monsanto annual report 2008.)” However, “the policies and strategies advanced by Ottawa, the provinces and the large agricultural corporations, such as Monsanto, are money-losers for Canadian farm families.”

In the chapter “Indigenous Food Sovereignty,” Dawn Morrison notes that “the highest level of agricultural production in the mainstream economy take place on areas that were once important traditional harvesting sites.” Morrison sensibly calls for “adaptive management,” as a “flexible, process-oriented approach, “ providing the necessary “methodological framework for working across cultures to redesign the global food system” and “restore traditional harvesting and management strategies.”

Fortunately, the necessity for a fresh paradigm waits for no one. Food Sovereignty as a national concept has grown in the hearts and minds of many, and is taking flight exclusive of public policy changes. Writes Rachel Engler-Stringer, “In the latter part of the 1990's the term 'community food security' began to be used in North American public health discussions,” and “the emergence of a community food security network developed independently from the discussions about food sovereignty, which were being developed at about the same time.” Nutritional researchers soon realized that locally grown produce was far healthier for community nutrition and strengthening to local food systems while promoting good working conditions for farmers. Social justice soon blended with nutritional concepts, and new incentives around sustainable food choices cultivating an awareness of food sovereignty ideas. Soon collective kitchens, farmer's markets, food hubs, and urban agriculture emphasized locally produced food.

“Urban food charters, food coalitions and food policy councils are all positive signs of this trend,” writes Yolanda Hansen in her piece, Growing Community. Describing a rich history of community urban gardening in Canada that dates back centuries, Hansen comments that “the participants in community gardens were often marginalized people, primary the working poor and immigrants, who used these gardens as empowering spaces. These principles continue to influence contemporary community gardens and demonstrate the applicability of food sovereignty to this urban practice.” On the larger front, in the chapter “Getting to Food Sovereignty: Grassroots perspectives from the national Farmers Union The NFU, which is “the largest voluntary direct-membership national farm organization in Canada,” talks about the extraction of wealth from farmers. Terry Boehm, President of the National Farmers Union, explains “from a tactical perspective, working with agricultural critics and others in political parties has been important in delaying or amending legislation. For local food movements and consumer-based food movements, small regulatory changes and legislative pieces make huge differences, so that political piece is terribly important. We've often been told that governments have to act a certain way because of international obligation or that trade agreement. But really its national political decision for governments to participate in those agreements and then behave how they want to behave using those agreements as justification. So I can't emphasize enough, whether it is on seed sovereignty, genetic sovereignty or control issues, autonomy, the ability to organize cooperatives, to engage in class action lawsuits, whatever it might be, it's all political engagement in that respect.”

Interestingly, in Transforming Agriculture: Women Farmers Define A Food Sovereignty Policy for Canada, the need for such political action is reiterated with a very special perspective. The writers explain, “farm women are significantly involved in decision making on matters concerning the ongoing operation and management of the farm...Women farmers have a distinct analysis of agricultural policy and specific ideas about what an inclusive agricultural policy would look like. Yet farm women were conspicuously absent in the department of agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's (AAFC) consultation process leading up to the Agricultural Policy Framework (APF) and it appears no specific efforts have been made to include them in subsequent national agricultural policy development. We have to ask what kinds of issues would women have raised if they had participated in the consultations.” In fact, farm women provided a detailed response, including four major policy strategies to be included in a domestic food policy: “Shift government focus from free trade to fair trade; shift government focus from cheap food to quality food; emphasize production for local and domestic consumption; and reduce importation of foods that can be grown domestically.”

A comprehensive and admirable work, I would encourage any Canadian with an interest in partaking in any discussion of Canada's food to read this book. In the spirit of the Food Sovereignty movement, I'd like to close with a quote from Hilary Moore, president of NFU Local 310. “What I'd like to see groups do, instead of trying to work within the system, is to radically challenge the status quo...There needs to be a cultural shift. You almost wish for a sense of wanting to be self-reliant and the national pride that goes with that.”