Dear Minister Vanclief,
As delegates to the recent national food security coalition founding conference at Ryerson University, we would first like to thank you for the support of the Ministry of Agriculture in helping to sponsor this conference. It was an extremely productive opportunity for the diverse people working on food security across this country to meet and begin to collaborate formally for the first time. We appreciate that the federal government is beginning to consult with civil society in a deeper and broader way than has happened in the past. We also thank you, and your representative, the Hon. Bill Graham, who delivered your remarks, for addressing the conference.
As we begin to find our collective voice, you will not be surprised to hear that we are going to begin to use it– and at the moment, use it to respectfully disagree with you. The comments of delegates throughout the conference indicated a widespread consensus on many issues– one of which was a feeling of deep concern about your address, delivered by Mr. Graham. The content was so far out of line with how most of us at the conference define the problem of food insecurity and its solutions that we felt we could not let it pass unchallenged. We have written this letter as a response, which has been signed by those who attended the conference who agree with its contents.
We must not sit by while 800 million– or 400 million– are hungry, abroad or at home
First of all, we would like respond to your reference to the global hunger reduction target that Canada endorsed at the World Food Summit– reduction in the number of malnourished people worldwide to 400 million by 2015– and to say that the target itself is unacceptable to us. We stand with the many around the world who say that nothing less than a commitment to total eradication is acceptable. We are saddened that our representatives would put the signature of the Canadian people on a piece of paper that explicitly states that we will sit by and watch as 400 million people sicken and die from hunger. When we consider the issue that you raise of our shortfall in meeting even the modest goals set, it is clear that the commitment and passion required to do what is necessary to solve the problem are lacking. We want our government to be a leader in helping to ignite a movement that sees the existence of one hungry person as a reproach and an outrage.
A good place to start would be here at home. Yet we have not seen progress on our own domestic food security issues in the past five years, despite the good intentions laid out in Canada’s Action Plan. Though the intervening years between its formulation and now have been a period of relative prosperity, there has been no “trickle-down effect”, and we have not seen a reduction in poverty– in fact, policies put in place by the federal government (such as the abolition of the Canada Assistance Plan) have worsened the problem. Indeed, hunger has been growing for twenty years in Canada. More than three quarters of a million Canadians resort to food banks every month. There has been no large-scale housing initiative to alleviate the plight of the many Canadians who are homeless, at risk of being homeless, or simply being forced to use food banks to subsidize their rent. At the same time, our farmers are being driven into bankruptcy by environmental crises and international trade policy. The sad fact is that the human right to food as ratified by Canada in a number of international conventions continues to be neglected domestically and overseas.
Is more and better trade the solution to food insecurity in developing countries?
We do not agree with your statement that Canada’s role as “a reliable and growing supplier of safe, high-quality food to the global marketplace” is, in and of itself, “a very tangible contribution to global food security,” The implication is that there could be a neat solution to both Third World hunger and our local farm crisis which involves the rest of the world purchasing food from us, thereby creating a market for our farmers. The supposed mechanism to ensure this smooth transaction is export-oriented trade policies and the elimination of trade subsidies. You say also that trade will encourage developing countries also “to acquire technology and expand their capacity to produce and export.”
We see export-oriented trade policy– both at home and globally– as being one of the prime causes of food insecurity, not the solution. We agree with the dictum: “Feed the family first and trade the leftovers.” Increasing focus on export trade in developing countries over the past decades has led to the loss of land by small farmers to large corporations, because they lack the capital to invest in the intensive technological and chemical inputs necessitated by industrial agriculture. Small farmers who do produce for export receive a pittance for their crops, leaving them either in the paradoxical situation of being unable to feed their own families or forced to purchase inferior food (and imported food) for cash.
At the same time, Canadian food exports have been far from having a wholly beneficial impact on the developing world. “Dumping” of Canadian grains at cheap prices in developing countries has undermined the viability of local farmers, while contributing to an unsustainable shift in food habits and long-term dietary and health risks.
We strenuously disagree with your assertion that functional foods and nutraceuticals are a valuable weapon in the struggle to combat hunger worldwide. We have only to look at the results of the “Green Revolution” to see the outcomes of a technological approach to hunger. The problem of poverty and hunger worldwide is complex, and has primarily to do with the unequal distribution of land and wealth – a situation that has been in part created by the aforementioned globalization of agricultural trade. Canada’s promotion of biotechnology, the genetic modification of food and other life forms, in general, and in particular, as a solution to hunger, is a policy that we oppose.
And what about the situation of farmers here at home?
Focusing so intensively on the international marketplace is driving Canadian farmers– whose labour costs can never be as low as those of many other countries– out of business. At our conference, we heard many moving stories of the human costs of the destruction of Canadian farming. Similarly, we heard about the devastating effects on fishing communities in Newfoundland, Labrador and on the west coast of the single-minded pursuit of a trade-oriented, industrialized fishery.
The emphasis on food production for export also increases food insecurity for consumers (leaving us vulnerable to trade disruptions caused by extreme weather, fuel shortages, etc.), as well as compromising the viability of the family farm and the environment. So-called “efficient” production for export generally equals large-scale industrial monoculture-based agriculture, with all the environmental costs (soil erosion, excessive chemical and pesticide dependency) that it entails. Exporting food over great distances also requires the unnecessary burning of large quantities of fossil fuels.
We need to start by formulating our own Canadian food policy, one that emphasizes servicing local markets, fair trade, environmental sustainability, health and social justice. We fear that globalization and international trade agreements are compromising our ability to do this.
We thank you again for supporting us in our effort to create a voice for civil society on food security. We hope that you will heed that voice as it is expressed in this letter, and that you will take it with you to Rome, to other international tables at which you sit, to your own Ministry and to your colleagues in the government, when you are developing the agricultural and social policies that affect the many beleaguered farmers and people who suffer from food insecurity here at home.
We welcome future opportunities to consult with you on the development of a food policy that addresses food and hunger issues in a way that Canadians want to see them addressed.
Toronto Food Policy Council
Farm Folk, City Folk – British Columbia
The Ram’s Horn – British Columbia
British Columbia Food Systems Network
Ottawa Food Security Group
Newfoundland and Labrador Food Security Network
Canadian Organic Growers
Saskatchewan delegates: Don Cossick, Don Mitchell, and Darrin Qualman
Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
Graham Riches – School of Social Work and Family Studies, University of British Columbia
Elsie DeRoose – Northern Nutrition Association – Northwest Territories
Pam Coates – National Anti-Poverty Association
Jackie Gaudreau – Morin Heights, Quebec
Ed Goertzen – Oshawa, ON
Marcie Fofonoff – Chetwynd, BC
Elaine Power, Msc, RD – Toronto, ON
Kim McGibbon, RD – Thunder Bay, ON
cc. Mr. Bill Graham, Member of Parliament, Toronto Centre – Rosedale
The Hon. David Anderson, Minister of the Environment
The Hon. Maria Minna, Minister for International Cooperation
The Hon. Allan Rock, Minister of Health
The Hon. Jane Stewart, Minister of Human Resources Development Canada