Agriculture seen as way to bridge rural-urban divide

BELLEVILLE, Ont. – A rural-urban split is behind the new two solitudes in Canada but one policy adviser believes agriculture can bridge that gap.

In the past, French and English Canadians led largely separate lives, forging the phrase two solitudes.

“There is a new divide between urban and rural as fewer are connected to the farm through family,” said Gaetan Lussier, chair of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

“Agriculture and health could be bringing them together,” he told a Canadian Farm Writers Federation meeting Sept. 29.

Lussier cited the role that food plays in minimizing risks from diseases like cancer and diabetes and noted agriculture could have a central role in enhancing quality of life and lowering medical costs.

Statistics Canada defines urban areas as those with a population of 1,000 people. There is an 80 to 20 urban-rural population split in Canada and that is accentuated in Ontario with an 85-15 divide.

Roy MacGregor, Ontario author and newspaper columnist, said those figures are deceptive because many living in small towns more closely associate themselves with their rural county than their nearest metropolis.

He said Canadians need to pay more attention to their rural roots and care about what happens there.

“The rural part is what defines Canada,” he said.

A coalition of government, industry and not-for-profit organizations, led by the institute that Lussier heads, is concluding a major study that examines the relationships between population health and the agri-food sector.

It seeks to identify ways to ensure people have access to the foods they need to live long and healthy lives. The study, whose findings will be released in November, will identify food related initiatives that affect the health of the population.

That includes the relationships between agriculture (production, processing, distribution and consumption) and health (protection, promotion and access to healthy eating).

Lussier said Canada needs to use its natural attributes of climate, water and a safe, sustainable food supply as a marketing tool that differentiates its agricultural products from others on the global market.

“If we miss the boat on this, other countries will not miss it,” he said.

That kind of national branding will require alliances with farmers and the co-operation of government departments, said Bob Friesen, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

“We need integration between the departments of health, agriculture and environment. All need to be on the same page and stop competing with each other,” he said.

Lussier said agricultural sectors in rural Canada are facing low incomes, the fallout from an improved Canadian dollar, growing competition from low-cost producer countries like Brazil and made-in-Canada regulations that stifle innovation.

He encouraged producers to partner with other sectors of the food chain to find common solutions and respond to the ever-changing needs of urban consumers.

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