The OECD recently released its report “Agriculture in a Changing World.” It focuses on four key issues: nutrition, the environment, innovation and agriculture financing. This is an important piece of work. As the OECD notes, there is still a large and critical disparity between rich and poor nations. Just take a look at all the negative things to blame, as the OECD explains, for the poor lack of access to important nutrients in foods that are high in calories and energy (like wheat, rice, etc.).
Additionally, while the opportunities and implications for carbon emissions reduction are tremendous, and the physical and social benefits of diversity and adaptation are enormous, the challenges also are vast. Canada was, and still is, one of the most productive agricultural countries in the world. Yet, our current policies limit the ability of small-scale producers to grow the food and provide employment for a burgeoning population of 21st century Canadians. Agri-foods were once a relatively small part of our exports, but have increased to represent 20 per cent of Canada’s total exports. Meanwhile, our market share in agricultural imports declined from 75 per cent in 1990 to 38 per cent in 2015.
It’s time to shift our focus from the glory days of free trade to an understanding of the changing realities in agriculture. In particular, the OECD and Canadian Agricultural Experience Project remind us of a very stark fact: The average Canadian doesn’t know the name of a single farm and few Canadian households belong to any farms. Those people in the urban, suburban and rural areas of Canada who do know farms should be positioned and supported as they strive to live a simple, traditional agrarian lifestyle with food and animals as a foundational component of their lives.
Our current policies limit the ability of small-scale producers to grow the food and provide employment for a burgeoning population of 21st century Canadians.
Given our food supply is currently facing challenges, this shift in how Canada feeds itself should be at the forefront of our national agenda. Further, a shift in policy that allows for increased market access for small-scale producers to deliver affordable, high-quality and nutritious food for our population could generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year for our rural communities and economy. The global presence of large retail corporations further compromises the market opportunities for small-scale farmers in this country. This includes issues with food safety and marketing. In 2008, the Canadian Consumers’ Association published a consumer guide for seed companies on how to handle seeds when handling manure. This guide, along with much more detailed information on weed and pest issues, recommends consumers purchase less seed, and more from smaller, independent seed companies.
Our demand for food is not going away, it’s only increasing. It’s the realization that a healthy and abundant diet can’t be obtained without a robust, diverse and sustainable food supply. A whole lot can be learned from 30 years of the post-GMO market in the U.S. in terms of how to balance supply and demand as well as how to accomplish this with good biosafety practices. In Canada, a focus on change can require implementing a patient attitude that will take a couple of years to implement. However, when the result is a smaller Canadian food system, a healthier, more sustainable one and one that reflects Canadian values such as respect for nature and for the most basic of farm and animal husbandry practices, then the payoff can be rewarding.
As the OECD notes, Canada’s future prosperity depends on the quality of the food we produce, the productivity of those who grow it and how we access markets. These issues can be tackled in phases. The first phase of a new vision for our agriculture sector includes a significant and sustained effort to improve access to markets for small-scale producers. For rural Canadians, it’s essential to support our family farms and support rural areas, ensuring local and regional economic growth. Ultimately, opening the door to new opportunities is only going to come through a deliberate and respectful national dialogue around our food supply. The stakes are high but if we work together to transform the way in which we produce, raise, harvest and sell our food, we can all make a difference for our future and ensure that our kids are just as excited about farming as we are.