Momentum grows for food policy councils

'We’ve had a ongoing farm crisis for many, many years'

Vancouver has one. As does Toronto, Detroit and Chicago. Edmonton and Calgary are working on creating them. In fact, in recent years more than 100 cities across Canada and the U.S. are developing food policy councils.

Reasons for the resurging interest in local food production and consumption are varied. Consumers who once dined on fast and convenient food now want fresh and healthy. Thanks to rising energy costs, cheap food is no longer that cheap. The globalized food system is becoming less economic.

“Right now we have a food system that in the present form of production is not sustainable,” says local food advocate Paul Hughes. “Right now we have quite an efficient food system, but from a social, environmental and ethical perspective it fails miserably.”

Hughes, who once spearheaded the Calgary Food Policy Council, is now pushing for a provincial food policy council, though broader in scale and scope. With that in mind, on July 19, the Alberta Food Policy Council will be holding its founding meeting.

“Food policy councils generally look at the efficiencies and opportunities in the food system,” says Hughes. “This one is going to be heavy on the policy and really try to influence the government towards more sustainable types of agriculture, distribution systems, enhance farmers’ markets, access to land that is presently not being used and looking at all of the innovations that go on in the food role.”

Some argue this is already being done, though mostly on the municipal level. For example, the city of Calgary is aiming to create a “sustainable and resilient food system within the Calgary region” based, in part, on the food targets set out in imagineCalgary, the 100-year sustainability roadmap released in 2005.

Some of the city’s imagineCalgary food targets include:

• Supporting local food production by 2036;

• All of Calgary’s food supply will come from sources that practice sustainable food production by 2036;

• By 2036, sustainable urban food production will increase to five per cent;

• By 2036, Calgary’s consumption of urban and regionally produced food will increase to 30 per cent.

Earlier this year, a city council committee asked administration to complete an assessment of the city’s food system and report back by April 2012. That assessment is to include an inventory of arable city-owned land, a plan to strengthen rural area farmers in local markets and examine existing bylaws and regulations that may hamper those efforts.

Edmonton, too, is working on a “comprehensive strategy” for a food policy, and it hopes that food systems and urban agriculture will stimulate and diversify the local economy, as well as provide opportunities to grow more food in the city.

“There is a need for a policy development group in Alberta and there is a lot going on municipally,” says Susan Roberts, project co-ordinator for Growing Food Security in Alberta. “They’re dotted all over the province so we’re beginning to have some momentum.”

GFSA recently launched the Sustainable Equitable Local Regional System for food (SELRS), a pilot project in central Alberta aimed at uncovering the economic and social benefits of creating a local food system.

It’s a baby step, but a necessary one needed to create a groundswell, or critical mass, among the public that will eventually lead to a network of food councils across the province, says Roberts.

“An overarching provincial one perhaps pre-empts the capability and the potential of a municipality because then you have Big Brother crashing down on you,” says Roberts. “Presently the control of land and how land is used and what’s done is municipality and county driven. So we’re not quite ready for it yet.”

Alberta may not be there now, but at least one province is. In April 2010, the Friends of Agriculture in Nova Scotia (FANS) held its founding meeting with the blessing of the provincial government. Now, one year later, the grassroots organization is moving into its “action phase,” says spokesperson Linda Best.

A key role for a food policy council is to bring various stakeholder groups together to start the conversation, to understand food production, food security and sovereignty, says Best.

“Probably less than 20 per cent of our food, other than fish, is grow here in Nova Scotia and the rest is imported,” she says. “Which means when it comes in the dollars go out.”

In the 1960s about 12,000 farmers operated in the East Coast province. “Now we’re down to less than 3,000,” says Best. “It’s not a good thing to be a farmer these days unless you’re a large-scale farmer.”

In fact, it’s not good to be a farmer in most places in in Canada, says Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy for the National Farmers Union. “We’ve had a ongoing farm crisis for many, many years,” she says.

According to 2006 Statistics Canada figures, the average age of a Canadian farmer is 52. Younger Canadians aren’t replacing retiring farmers at a sustainable rate. Meanwhile, Canadian farm debt has steadily increased over 17 years, hitting a record $66.4 billion in 2010.

“In order to have food sovereignty we need to have farmers that are able to produce good food, get a fair return for it and are able to stay on the land,” says Holtslander.

The recent surge and interest in food policy councils is a reaction to the steady decline of farms and farmland over the past two decades, she adds. “What we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a real shift towards policy that supports globalization and exports,” she says.

While a globalized food system allows Calgarians to eat mango in winter, it’s a system that is both unsustainable. Prices are kept artificially low by generous government subsidies and cheap, sometimes illegal, labour. Meanwhile, oceans are being overfished, crops are threatened by increasingly erratic weather patterns and rising energy costs mean the era of cheap food is nearing its expiry date.

“Is it really prudent policy to be producing grain, oil and seeds and cattle in Canada, exporting it for dollars and then importing our fruit, vegetables and processed foods from other countries,” says Holtslander. “Or should we have one that’s more holistic?”

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