Global Issues Eating Away at Canada’s Conscience

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Written By: Allison Cross

TUESDAY, September 7th 2010 (Ottawa Citizen) – Jason Froats and his daughter, Nia, get up in the morning and collect eggs for breakfast from their backyard chicken coop in Mount Albert, Ont.

Sixty kilometres away, Nick Saul takes stock of the onions, beets and spinach growing in his food bank’s greenhouse in Toronto.

And, on the West Coast, Rachel Thexton reads packages and labels on meat products in the store, looking for local, organic options close to her home in Vancouver.

Canadians are taking an increasing interest in how their food is produced and in what route it took on its way to their table.

During the summer, when community gardens abound, it’s easy for Canadians to follow the path of their food and to feel confident in its nutritional value — particularly if it was grown right outside the backdoor.

But the reality of food consumption is that much of what Canadians eat is not grown, packaged or raised anywhere close to home.

Beyond what’s produced in Canada, items such as pineapple, coffee and avocados are brought in from very different corners of the world, making environmentalists uneasy about the resulting carbon footprint.

Coffee beans grown in Ethiopia will travel roughly 11,000 kilometres to reach a cafe in Ottawa.

Back home in Canada, many farmers struggle to make a livable income, while many low-income Canadians, particularly those living in the North, struggle to buy fresh, nutritious food.

Some of the food Canadians consume is packaged and processed, and filled with sodium.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation says that more than 85 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in Canada between the ages of 19 and 70 consume more sodium each day than they should.

Most of that extra sodium is found in processed and packaged foods. Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, which is a precursor for heart disease and stroke. It’s also related to obesity — another growing problem in Canada and the United States.

These aspects of the food system have led some Canadians to wonder if control over food should or can be localized, and whether this would strengthen communities and keep residents, including those living in poverty, healthier and better fed.

Going local has been heralded as the solution because, in theory, it promotes self-reliance and boosts local economies.

The “ethical eating” movement is diverse, just like the people propelling it forward — although most agree something about the food system just isn’t right.

“The changes have been the centralization, consolidation, privatization, commodification of food,” said Cathleen Kneen, the chairwoman of Food Secure Canada, a non-profit agency calling for the establishment of a Canadian food system that is sustainable, and safe.

“There’s absolutely no question in my mind that the epidemic we have of obesity, diabetes, ill health … is all easily traceable to the food system,” she said.

Kneen is part of the People’s Food Policy Project, which is developing a framework for a food policy for Canada.

The policy would be based on food sovereignty, a concept that emphasizes supporting locally-produced food over international imports and moving away from industrialized food production, such as fish farming.

“I think we need to be doing a U-turn and making a statement,” Kneen said. “I think we need to say that sustainable food production is the best answer to climate change … (that) it’s the best answer for economic development.”

Kneen isn’t the only one pointing out the flaws in the way Canada feeds its citizens.

A report released in June by the NDP, based on two years of research, includes recommendations on what should be included in a Canadian Food Strategy.

The report, penned by Alex Atamanenko, MP for the B.C. Southern Interior, called for a food policy that would include public incentives and tax policies “to promote local food production, processing capacity and distribution networks, such as farmer’s markets and agriculture co-operatives.”

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has also promised Canada a national food policy if he is elected prime minister.

The policy would put an emphasis on bolstering the rural economy and helping Canadians better access healthy food through farmers markets and food grown in Canada.

The policy would also focus on maintaining sustainable incomes for farmers by offering regional programs that would help them better handle the costs of production.

But Liberal and NDP plans for a federal food policy are not something the Conservative government supports.

“The NDP and Liberal food policies illustrate their misunderstanding of Canadian agriculture and they have very little to offer farmers,” said Agriculture Minister Agriculture Gerry Ritz in a written statement.

“If actions speak louder than words, the NDP have voted against farmers at every opportunity. … Meanwhile, the Harper government has already taken action and will continue to promote healthier, safer food while increasing the bottom line for our farmers.”

Calls for a food policy, however, continue to come from non-governmental groups.

A report released in August by the Richard Ivey School of Business after a policy workshop emphasizes the need to use food as a tool for both disease prevention and economic prosperity.

The report calls for, among other things, making healthy food more accessible.

Although a focus on local eating is present in most proposals for a federal food policy, there are those who say its purported environmental benefits are only superficial.

“There are a number of problems with it,” said Pierre Desrochers, an economic geographer from the University of Toronto. “(Local food proponents’) basic premise is that producing food is the same everywhere and the only thing that matters really is (the environmental impact of) transportation. They tend to forget that the reason why various foods are produced in different places is that some places are better than others at growing food or raising cattle.”

Rochers presented his research in a paper published in February by the Montreal Economic Institute.

“For example, if you ship something from New Zealand on a container boat, a boat floats on water and it requires very little energy . . . actually, to move things from New Zealand to North America,” he said. “A lot less per unit of (items) because they maximize the amount of things they transport and they move them around in the most efficient way possible. By contrast, if a local farmer puts three bags of apples in his pickup and drives 30 miles in his pickup to the local food market, the energy signature per apple is actually much bigger.”