Canada needs a global food policy

The Canadian government plans to soon release a new national food policy.

The engagement has encouraged a welcome debate among many departments, and it speaks to the growing understanding in policy circles that food security rests on a series of interlocking systems that are not easy to co-ordinate, but whose interdependence can no longer be ignored.

Understanding interdependence means addressing climate change, soil health, and the acidification of our oceans; improving access to affordable housing and adequate social protection; rethinking what kinds of food production and distribution the government supports; and looking at what production and distribution systems should be more heavily taxed, or more closely regulated, to better internalize the costs they generate.

Access for everyone in Canada to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food means all these things. Already, many pieces are in place to build something innovative, interesting, and useful to guide Canada’s future food policies.

But for all its promise, the proposed national food policy has a profound limitation: it stops at the border.

The new policy will affect Canadians. But what about people in other countries? Canada grows 1.5 percent of the world’s food — pretty significant for a country that has just 0.5 percent of the world’s population. It is the fifth-largest agricultural exporter in the world.

How do these exports affect people around the world? That’s a big question, but one that so far hasn’t been mentioned in discussions about the new national food policy.

One area where Canada can get guidance is through the United Nations sustainable development goals, which Canada has endorsed along with other countries.

Known as Agenda 2030, the second goal is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture globally. Canada cannot meet this ambitious goal if it divides food policy into two baskets: home and abroad.

We need to ask: how does our food production and consumption affect other countries?

Agenda 2030 challenges every country to think about how they might improve their performance, not just in relation to their citizens, but also in relation to everyone on the planet —and the health of the planet itself.

Since Canada profits from being a global food exporter, as Canadians we should ensure our wealth is not at the expense of the well-being of others, especially the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

One area to consider is climate change. Agriculture is a contributor to the problem and at the same time, agriculture is one of the most affected sectors.

Canadian agriculture relies heavily on fossil fuels, which have an impact on the climate. The whole world pays a price for Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We should also consider the production of crops that originate elsewhere. For example, Canadians are now big consumers of quinoa. The creation of a global quinoa market has brought wealth to the Andean highlands in South America, including to small landholders, but it has also raised the cost of quinoa for poor urban consumers in the same region, undermining their nutrition security.

Finally, what about those exports? When people say we need to grow more food to “feed the world,” we need to think about the impact of our exports on small-scale farmers in the world’s poorest countries. They are also actively “feeding the world,” on a smaller scale but often more sustainably, if less competitively.

A national food policy should delve into the international implications of the food we ship overseas.

In other words, a robust food policy should span from local to global. A broad policy discussion with such a scope could be a model for the world.

Sophia Murphy is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia and is a senior adviser on trade to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. This column, which was originally published in the Hill Times, was written on behalf of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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