Do Our Politicians Care About Food?
Last week, the big whigs of the federal Liberal Party headed out to Holland Acres, Ontario to announce the framework of their National Food Policy. This, they pronounced, was a decisive moment for the country, the development of the first food policy at a national level. Other parties have also put forward proposals on food security, local agriculture, or alternative food systems. Yet, many interested in changing the food system are frustrated with the political system.
There are, perhaps, several good reasons to be skeptical that change can be created through the political system. Canadian governments have tended to ignore agriculture and farmers, supported industrial-scale agriculture and agri-tech companies at the potential expense of the environment and farmers, and have made little, if any, effort to support smaller-scale agriculture or local food systems. The record is not good, but this does mean that it cannot change.
Mainstream political parties in Canada have all done a pretty miserable job addressing agriculture. Conservatives take rural Canada, at least in the west, for granted. Liberals have become primarily an urban party with little hope of success in rural areas. The NDP, meanwhile, has found some success in rural regions with other resource-based economies (northern Ontario and BC, for example) but have been chased from their traditionally fertile fields in Saskatchewan. No party exerts much energy in addressing policies that address the challenges of rural areas or small scale farmers. Agriculture is ignored during elections, and has been forgotten while either the Liberals or Conservatives have governed.
Yet, there is some hope. Increasingly, mainstream political parties are recognizing the importance of developing sustainable food systems. They are, by no means, leading the charge. Rather, they have slowly recognized that urbanites also care about food. Suddenly, an important component of the electorate, in the political mind, is interested in food. So the parties have scrambled to catch up.
Only in moments of great political courage do political parties rarely lead the way of the social change. They are, however, a reflection of societal values and priorities. As more people become interested in local food systems and sustainable agriculture, Canadian political parties will do the same. The purpose of this article, however, is not primarily to debate the merits of creating change through traditional political channels. Rather, I want to lay out what each of Canada’s parliamentary parties is saying on the issue of local food or small scale agriculture. Here’s a look at the four main political parties and what they are talking about on food issues:
Well, judged by their record in government and their policy documents, nothing. Nothing good at least. Occasionally Conservative MPs have made statements (three of them) to celebrate Canadian farmers and encouraging consumers to buy locally, but this has had little effect on government policy.
The Liberals are the newcomers to the local food scene. Last week Michael Ignatieff outlined a food policy to help Canadians ‘eat healthier, home-grown food through a new National Food Policy based on healthy eating, safe food, sustainable farm incomes, environmental farm stewardship, and international leadership.’
This announcement was accompanied by a few specific promises. These included an $80 million Buy Local Fund to promote farmers’ markets and home-grown foods and $40 million to help 250,000 low-income children access healthy foods. The Liberals also promised to ‘reward farmers for their role in clean energy production and protecting wildlife habitat,’ although there was no indication how this would happen.
What to make of this? On the one hand, $80-$120 million is far less than industrial agriculture continues to receive, on the other it would certainly help develop much needed infrastructure for chronically cash-poor local food systems. The policy also links health and agriculture together in a way that has not been done often before in the Canadian context. I think it does demonstrate a recognition by the Liberal Party that food is an important issue, and one that appeals to people across the country.
Would anything come of such a fund should the Liberals surge up the polls and form a government? It is hard to say. $120 million is not a big promise, so should be fairly easy to keep. Yet, Liberals have a history of ‘campaigning to the left, and governing to the right,’ and perhaps this fund is part of this tradition. The Liberals have also not shown any commitment to the issue of local food in the House of Commons. Since the last election, Liberals have only raised the issue once, and that was to announce this new policy. So while the Liberals obviously have enough interest in local food systems to develop a policy on them, they don’t seem to see them as a significant issue to raise in the House of Commons.
The NDP got to the food issue before the Liberals, but have seemed to have done less with it over the last while. In 2009, NDP Agriculture and AgriFood critic Alex Atamanenko conducted a cross-country ‘Food for Thought’ tour to examine alternative food systems. He wrote, “our goal as parliamentarians must be to work together to design and implement a National Food Policy to meet the increasing chaos we face from a changing climate, dwindling fossil fuel supplies, trade disruptions, and other calamities.” Atamanenko highlighted several themes of his tour:
- Support for local food initiatives by senior levels of government (such as local food procurement for government)
- The negative impact of trade agreements on our ability to control our food supply and food sovereignty
- The desire by many citizens to have access to good quality local produce and the many benefits this has for communities
The NDP has been the most vocal party in the House of Commons on the issue of local food, raising the issue five times since the last election. It is one of two parties (the Bloc being the other) who has raised the question of food sovereignty in the House. The NDP has also raised questions about genetically modified foods and have been vocal proponents of the Canadian Wheat Board. On 22 June 2010, the NDP released a report based on Atamanenko’s tour. Its key priorities include: offering incentives to promote local food production, processing, and distribution, improving nutritional labeling (including indicating if genetically modified products have been used), and requiring imported foods to meet Canadian environmental standards.
The Bloc Quebecois is less familiar to many in English-speaking Canada. Yet a search of the Bloc’s website led me to their Agriculture Platform. A whole platform just on agriculture! The policy begins with a lengthy discussion on food sovereignty. It declares that the right to food is more than an individual right but also a collective responsibility. This program goes on to outline support for the supply management system and helping young people get into farming. It criticizes the federal government for promoting industrial agriculture over local options. Moreover, it argues that local food should be promoted through policy initiatives and that fairer trade should be promoted. In many ways, the Bloc’s policy is the most complete of any of the major federal parties. While I must admit that my knowledge of the Bloc’s policy is limited by my poor French (and reliance on Google Translator) the Bloc appears to promote many significant agricultural policies that promote local or alternative food systems.
Canadian governments have yet to take much action to address concerns about the industrial food system or to promote alternatives. Yet I don’t think that we need to completely despair. Three of four parliamentary parties now have policies or have engaged in work that promotes local food and/or alternative food systems. True, a party policy is a long way from government policy. Nevertheless, the increasing interest of Canadian political parties in this issue demonstrates that the political system is beginning to take notice of the growing public interest in local food. Our parliamentary system has rarely been a leader in social change (usually following provincial or other leads first). Now, as an increasing number of other governments at the provincial and municipal level develop policies that promote local or alternative foods and an increasing number of Canadians are interested in these issues, change at the federal level is inevitable.
Stefan Epp is a Research Associate at the University of Manitoba.