Opinion

Looking Back from 2037: How Canada’s Food Revolution Began

A vision of future food democracy — and a chance to take the first critical steps to make it happen.

By Anelyse Weiler and Sophia Murphy 16 Aug 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Anelyse Weiler and Sophia Murphy are Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholars. Anelyse Weiler is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto focused on agriculture, immigration and the environment (@anelysemw). Sophia Murphy is a PhD candidate at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability with over 20 years of international food policy experience (@foodresilience).

[Editor's note: What will Canada’s food system look like 20 years from now? What food issues will face us? The authors imagine themselves in 2037, looking back at the food policy failures of 2017. And at what they hope will be a turning point this year toward a new food future, leading to a more accessible, nourishing and sustainable food system for all.]

In 2017, Canada celebrated 150 years of Confederation. The headlines were not all congratulatory. Along with the rich and famous guests, there were protests and a contentious debate about the government’s relationship with the peoples who have lived here for more than 10,000 years. Many people pointed out the Canada was founded on violent struggle and colonialism, and the legacy still festered. One group of Indigenous peoples built a teepee on Parliament Hill (unceded Algonquin territory) as part of a reoccupation ceremony to draw attention to the crises affecting Indigenous peoples in Canada.

One of the most urgent was food insecurity and hunger, especially for remote and Northern communities. Indigenous territories and the food practices linked to those landscapes had been devastated by displacement, state-supported starvation and resource grabs by extractive industries.

Twenty years ago, one-third of First Nations reserve communities could not cook carrots for supper without worrying about the potential risks from their drinking water systems. In Nunavut, more than half of Indigenous people could not access or afford nutritious food. Climate change was thinning the ice cover and altering animal migration patterns, further complicating people’s access to food.

Canada’s food system did not just fail remote regions; it also denied a political voice to the food and farm workers. Labour and immigration policies made many workers vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses: 2017 was the 51st year of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, and the government was expanding related programs. Some 50,000 people of colour from poorer countries left their families for most of the year to produce Canada’s greenhouse tomatoes, wine grapes and other agricultural commodities.

Food retail power was highly concentrated in a handful of national supermarket chains, which had the power to set prices. Their ability to demand lower prices from suppliers shaped workers’ wages. Migrant farm workers could labour in Canada for decades without a raise or full access to the employment insurance schemes they subsidized. The law did not allow them to settle in Canada with their families, nor did it give them a political voice.

That summer, smoke from wildfires across British Columbia ghosted through the orchards and curled into cherry pickers’ lungs. With climate change, severe wildfires were predicted to swell across the country by at least 25 per cent by 2037.

Was this Canada’s food future?

2037: A new food vision

Twenty years later, we certainly see the effects of climate change. But people have figured out imaginative ways of moving food from soil and sea to stomach, ensuring far less waste along the way.

Indigenous and northern communities’ calls for decision-making power over the issues that shape their lands and lives, including food sovereignty, have been heeded, at least in part. There is more respect for Indigenous legal systems, nation-to-nation and north-south networks of food trade, and philosophies of environmental stewardship.

Indigenous-led initiatives focused on wild-harvesting and cultivation are being used to revitalize languages, support community self-sufficiency and address the crisis of youth suicide, building on 2017 projects like Aroland Youth Blueberries in northern Ontario and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Teaching and Working Farm in the Yukon. Faced with the challenge of wildfires, communities in B.C. began to heed longstanding Indigenous practices of controlled burning, bringing a resurgence of native plants.

Agriculture and local food processing has proved to be a major catalyst for community well-being. Twenty years ago, sustainably produced food was unaffordable for most people. Now, in 2037, farming works from ecological principles, restoring microbial life to the soil. We hear more songbirds and tree frogs. When new food technologies are proposed, people have the power to consider which members of the living world might be harmed, and which might benefit. Farmers and other agrarians work with dignity, their social value rewarded. Migrants supporting themselves and their families no longer suffer substandard housing or pressure to under-report workplace injuries.

Today, people who move to this part of the continent for love, asylum or a better life are granted permanent residency when they arrive. The laws of whichever Indigenous territory they enter are respected and protected. People’s immigration status is no longer an excuse to deny their human rights.

When families pick up their groceries for the week, they can swing by a community-owned store in their neighbourhood. These co-ops offer a beautiful array of goods produced by worker-controlled, unionized enterprises that celebrate the contributions of people with diverse abilities. Smart use of new technologies like container farms have expanded the frontiers of fresh food access, reducing reliance on long, fragile and expensive food delivery systems in remote areas.

Each person has an income that supports a high quality of life, and dignified access to healthy and culturally relevant fare. When people dine out, sexual harassment in the restaurant industry due to low wages and dependence on tips is no longer a problem.

In 2037, Canada has reversed the appalling health outcomes of a food system built on too many poor quality calories. The manipulative marketing of junk foods and beverages, especially targeting children, is no longer part of the media landscape. Consequently, we have witnessed a dramatic decline in health-care costs from preventable illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes.

Just as in 2017, we in 2037 do not share a single vision of the perfect food system. But there is a broader acceptance that when markets are poorly regulated the ecological consequences hurt us all. Canada has reversed its weak regulatory record and prioritized the protection of rural communities from agricultural pollutants. Local food systems have expanded, creating shorter, more accountable food chains. Democratic institutions have been set up to prevent market actors from gaining a dangerous concentration of power. Global trade rules have reinforced and supported this vision.

How we got here

All this progress started with a watershed moment in 2017.

The federal government launched a consultation to establish a national food policy. It is timely. Four million Canadians were living with food insecurity. Animals in the industry faced systemic cruelty. Extractive energy and mining projects were destroying fish and wildlife habitats, operating without Indigenous communities’ free, prior and informed consent.

Food Secure Canada, a national network of food activists and organizations, had long campaigned for a national food policy to address this predicament.

As executive director Diana Bronson said during the public consultation process, “We need an integrated and open approach to food policy that will connect the health of people in Canada with the health of our ecosystems. We need the voices of diverse communities at the decision-making table. We need a food policy that thinks not only of short-term priorities over the next five to 10 years, but one that will help shepherd our food system for generations to come.”

People decided to organize. They filled out the government’s consultation survey, participated in community engagement events, met with MPs, and successfully pushed for a national food policy that would better meet the needs of all humans and all forms of life.

But that was only a starting point.

A critical mass of people recognized the urgency of establishing a national food policy and worked for change together, putting first those who had traditionally been silenced. Communities recognized and resisted the racism, sexism and exploitation that produced “cheap” food at the expense of great suffering. They rejected the seductive notion that they could change the world by changing what they put in their shopping carts and demanded systemic change. They imposed taxes on food waste and pollution, and established new indicators of prosperity that were premised on well-being, not wealth.

There was plenty of argument and debate. Many worried that food would become unaffordable if standards were raised too high. But the costs of ignoring social and environmental harm were undeniable. And all levels of government recognized the importance of listening to the informed political views of those who eat, those who grow and distribute food, traditional knowledge-holders and scientists.

This neck of the global woods was blessed with abundant food, with problem-solvers from all over the world, and with Indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years. We knew more than enough about how the dominant food system fills our bellies but sickens us and the land, air and water we depend on.

And our path to the more accessible, nourishing and sustainable food system for all of 2037 began in 2017, when people in Canada decisively acted on that knowledge and pushed for a food future that better respected all forms of life.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food, Environment

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