By Brynne Sinclair-Waters
and Ann Wheatley
In his report to the United Nations last week, Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food called on Canada to implement a national food policy, something that organizations such as Food Secure Canada and the P.E.I. Food Security Network have been advocating for many years.
The need for action on this issue is urgent. According to the UN report, nearly 900,000 Canadians use food banks each month. One in 10 families with at least one child under the age of six and 55 per cent of households that rely primarily on social assistance are food insecure. Among the provinces and territories, P.E.I. has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in Canada. At the same time, the capacity of farmers and fishers to provide the food we need is under pressure, from increased debt, higher costs of production and competition from cheap food imports. Changing this situation is the driving force behind the work of the P.E.I. Food Security Network.
All of the major federal parties, even the Conservatives, have acknowledged the need for a national food policy. And in Prince Edward Island, during the 2011 provincial election campaign, in a letter to the P.E.I. Food Security Network, Premier Robert Ghiz stated that his party "is supportive of a national food policy and will continue to encourage the federal government to work on this initiative." Moreover, the premier expressed total agreement with the following building blocks (from Food Secure Canada's People's Food Policy, based on input from thousands of Canadians, including many who took part in a series of kitchen table talks in P.E.I.) for a food policy:
• Localize the system so that food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced, and so that food dollars support the local economy;
• Support a widespread shift to ecological production and distribution of food;
• Ensure adequate income for farmers and fishers;
• Develop programs to help new farmers and fishers get started;
• Enact poverty elimination and prevention programs to ensure that all Canadians can afford healthy food, and;
• Ensure that the public is actively involved in decisions that affect the food system.
In reality, however, the P.E.I. government's recent decision to invest in a corporate sector-led process convened by the Conference Board of Canada suggests an entirely different set of priorities when it comes to food policy.
The Conference Board of Canada is the newest voice in the debate about a national food policy for Canada. They have tried to situate themselves as "objective and non-partisan" as they set out to develop "a shared vision for the future of food in Canada." But look just an inch below the surface and you'll see the Conference Board represents a clear set of interests - industry, and not the little guys. Companies like McCain Foods, Cavendish Farms, and Loblaws are paying a whopping $30,000 to $50,000 annually to sit at the table that guides this initiative.
Islanders may be surprised to learn that the Government of P.E.I. is also paying the Conference Board $30,000 annually to sit at this table with big business. You might be thinking - shouldn't industry be coming to government with their ideas, not the other way around? Absolutely. The Government of P.E.I. should be consulting Islanders, including industry players, but also people living on low-income, farmers, other food sector workers, families, women, and all eaters. After hearing what we have to say, it's their job to develop a provincial food policy and advocate for a national food policy that would be best for everyone. Instead, they have chosen to spend our tax dollars to become an investor in a process that most certainly will end up reflecting the interests of those charting its course - big business.
The Conference Board's approach to policy development in which the Government of P.E.I. has invested excludes those who cannot afford to have their voices heard. As inequality increases and poor and middle-class families in Canada and P.E.I. continue to fall behind, they are more likely to be affected by food insecurity. We need a national food policy that addresses this reality. The preliminary goals laid out by the Conference Board emphasize "industry prosperity", increased scale, and profitability - creating concern that other issues, such as food access and protecting the environment are being sidelined.
If there is no opposition, corporate Canada could be allowed to set the agenda for a national food policy and call it a "shared vision", when it is anything but. We hope that Islanders will join us in our support for a government-co-ordinated national food policy that reflects the best interests of all Canadians.
Brynne Sinclair-Waters is from Georgetown, P.E.I. and is a member of the board of Food Secure Canada. Ann Wheatley is a member of the board of the P.E.I. Food Security Network.