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Without national strategy, local food producers struggle to stem Canada’s growing hunger problem

This article is the introduction to Globe B.C.'s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada.

Gustavo Glavao harvests English cucumbers from the first ever crop at UBC Farm in Vancouver on Oct. 03, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

At the 24-hectare UBC Farm, chickens peck at bugs and grass, protected from coyotes by an electric fence. Nearby, students sort squash, pumpkins and other produce for distribution through the farm’s community-supported agriculture program.

The farm is a pocket of tranquillity at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, where new housing projects have added thousands of new residents over the past decade. Formerly slated for development, the site was rezoned as “green academic” property in 2011 following a public outcry.

It is also an outpost in the global campaign for food security, which the World Food Summit of 1996 defined as existing “when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain an active and healthy life.”

Pumpkins for sale at UBC Farm in Vancouver on Oct. 03, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

The farm, along with community gardens and farmers’ markets across the country, reflects growing consumer demand for local food and heightened awareness of issues ranging from pesticide use to animal welfare. But it is not part of a cohesive national strategy. Canada does not have a national food policy, despite indications that food security is worsening in some parts of the country. According to a recent report, Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2012, four million people in Canada, including one million children, experienced some degree of food insecurity in 2012. The problem is most severe in Nunavut, where 62.2 per cent of children were found to be living in households deemed “food insecure.”

Those statistics, along with other trends – including a shrinking land base available for farm production, aging farmers and even rising health-care costs related to obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes – suggest there is a need for a national food policy, says Diana Bronson, executive director for Food Secure Canada. “Despite the fact that all five political parties in the 2011 federal election said they were in favour of a food and farm strategy … we haven’t seen it,” Ms. Bronson said. “It hasn’t come together.”

In a 2011 report called Resetting the Table, Food Secure Canada called for a food policy that includes elements such as ensuring food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced, and support for food providers to shift to “ecological production.”

Canada trails other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in developing a “joined-up” national food policy that recognizes food as a biological and cultural necessity rather than a product to be bought and sold, says Rod McRae, a professor in the faculty of environmental studies at York University.

Calls for a national food policy in Canada are part of a broader, global debate around food and how it is produced and sold.

“There is an awareness, broadly speaking, that to a large extent the food we buy, the food you and I participate in – we are not paying the full cost of that food,” said Evan Fraser, a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph. “We are not paying the cost to future generations of climate change, we are not paying an appropriate value to ensure animals are cared for and husbanded in way that is appropriate, we are not paying the cost of water pollution or soil degradation.”

Despite the fact that all five political parties in the 2011 federal election said they were in favour of a food and farm strategy … we haven’t seen it
Diana Bronson, Food Secure Canada

The issue has made it onto government agendas. At the provincial level, the B.C. government backs programs such as the Community Food Action Initiative, which involves initiatives including community gardens and farmers’ markets. At the federal level, the International Development Research Centre is working on projects that include research on small-scale agriculture, generally viewed as one of the best ways to reduce poverty and boost food security in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa.

At the UBC Farm, programming emphasizes community connections – such as a community kitchen for urban aborginal people – and pushing to get more local produce into B.C. hospitals. In the process, the farm links UBC students and researchers to nearby residents and to corporate and government interests. Those kinds of connections are essential to ensure food security in coming decades, says Veronik Campbell, academic programs manager for the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm.

“If we are to fundamentally improve or transform our food system, we need to do it in a way that is rooted in reality,” Ms. Campbell said. “So this is a real farm, with real issues. And we need to do it in an inter-disciplinary way, making sure we involve students and researchers and the community.”

Katherine Hastie harvests leeks at UBC Farm in Vancouver on Oct. 3, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

How will the world feed a population projected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050? Evan Fraser, a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph, has proposed a four-part strategy:

Technology: use it to produce more food. That doesn’t necessarily mean lab-produced meat, new crops or more powerful fertilizers; significant gains could come from ensuring farmers in, say, Sub-Saharan Malawi, have access to high-quality seeds and suitable tools.

Distribution: according to United Nations data, the world produces enough food to give every person on the planet about 2,800 calories and 75 grams of protein per day - more than enough to survive. But much of that food - estimates range between 20 and 50 per cent - is wasted, fed to animals or used as fuel. Dr. Fraser advocates a distribution system that would reduce waste and give international aid organizations better access to food in times of crisis.

Local food systems: Such systems may not be able to feed the world but they can be a buffer between consumers and problems that might occur on global markets and so are a “critical line of defence against hunger”, Dr. Fraser maintains.

Regulation: Governments should do more to protect air, soil and water from the impacts of food production, ranging from carbon emissions to water use to soil degradation.

– Wendy Stueck

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