Canadians endorse food sovereignty in public forums

A Food Plan for Industry, or a Plan for the People?

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 17.9.11

Canada’s political parties, and its food movement, have in recent years thoroughly discussed food policy formation. As Australia grapples for the first time with the idea of a National Food Plan, it’s instructive to look at the Canadian experience.

First, the political parties. In Canada’s most recent Federal election, held on 2nd May this year, all the major parties – the Conservatives, the Liberals, the New Democrats (NDP), the Greens and Bloc Québécois – went to the electorate with a platform on food policy. The Conservatives, and to a lesser extent the Liberals, were clearly focused on export agriculture, and opening up new markets. Each of the other three parties, by contrast, spoke of the need to work towards food sovereignty, broadly conceived as the ‘right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies.’

What this translated to in practice in the Canadian context was a need to protect farm incomes, both by reviewing the impacts of trade agreements on Canadian farmers, and by building strong and diverse local food systems so that more value in the food dollar is returned directly to farmers. The NDP identified the need for specific measures to find pathways for new entrants into farming, while the Greens linked climate change and emissions reduction to agriculture.

Of all the parties, only the NDP had carried out an extensive public consultation process of 28 community forums over 18 months in all Canadian provinces. At every forum participants overwhelmingly expressed their agreement that food sovereignty, as summarised above, should form the basis on which the Canadian government approaches its international trade negotiations.

The NDP reported that Canadians wanted a ‘comprehensive food strategy’, with the core objectives of ensuring access to healthy food for all Canadians; helping Canadian farmers deliver such access; and building a sustainable agriculture for the future.

As a matter of interest, the NDP recorded a 13% swing in its favour, nearly trebled its number of seats in the Canadian parliament, and now sits as the official opposition to the Conservatives for the first time in its history.

Also in the lead up to the election, a grass-roots citizen initiative led by Food Secure Canada published its ‘Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada’ report. This was, as I mentioned last time, the outcome of very extensive public discussions over two years, including 350 kitchen-table talks in which 3,500 Canadians participated. The report was embraced by both the NDP and the Greens.

People's Food Policy Project: Resetting the Table
People’s Food Policy Project: Resetting the Table

The report pointed out its unique status as ‘the first-ever national food policy to be developed by the food movement itself – a diverse and dynamic network of organizations and individuals working to build a healthy, ecological and just food system for Canada.’ As the authors state, those involved in this movement ‘are taking actions daily that are transforming our food system from the ground up’, and the challenge is to ‘translate [these actions] into policy’.

The Policy itself draws on comprehensive recommendations and guidelines developed in ten detailed discussion papers generated by the engagement process with the public. The key recommendations are as follows:

  • ‘Ensure food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced’ (e.g. mandatory local procurement policies for private and public organisations, and support for local food initiatives such as farmers markets)
  • Support producers in the transition to ecological production, including entry pathways for new farmers
  • ‘Enact a strong poverty elimination program with measurable targets and timelines’
  • ‘Create a nationally-funded Children and Food Strategy (e.g. school meals, school gardens, food literacy programs) to ensure that all children at all times have access to the food required for healthy lives’
  • ‘Ensure that the public, especially the most marginalised, are actively involved in decisions that affect the food system.’

You won’t find any of this in the Australian Government’s Issues Paper for a National Food Plan, which more closely resembles the food policy platform of the Canadian Conservative Party.