Food Security in the 21st Century: Are We Prepared?

by Stan Hirst

The question of food security has long been an item of debate amongst the Suzuki Elders. Based as we are in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, we often hear concerns over Canada’s exposure to impacts to the food supply system from factors such as loss of B.C. farmland from urbanization and industrialization, and the threats to our crop imports posed by climate change.

Canada’s food supply

The Canadian food supply system is complex and sometimes paradoxical. Statistics Canada reports that ¾ of the food bought in Canadian stores is produced domestically. But StatsCan data also shows that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries. The records show that the US is the source of more than half of all our imported food.

Is our food supply at risk?

Its a simple question, but one which is difficult to answer clearly from the available statistical data. Just within the past two years California, Brazil, North Korea, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Zimbabwe have had major droughts which has measurably impacted their agricultural outputs and the local food supplies.

Climate monitoring in many parts of the world, including British Columbia as well as in some regions in the U.S. which are the source of foods exported to Canada, has revealed significant changes in parameters such as rainfall, soil moisture and groundwater availability which could be influencing agricultural crop production. But it is not easy to draw firm conclusions on the effects on food production because there are so many other factors besides climate which affect production and marketing, e.g. market prices, trade tariffs, competition, marketing strategies, etc.

A salon on food security

On 24 February 2016 the Suzuki Elders took a step towards a better understanding of food security in B.C. and especially the lower mainland by hosting  a salon on Food Security in the 21st Century: Are We Prepared?   The Elders wish to record their appreciation to the four speakers who provided keynote addresses to the salon:

Janine de la Salle, principal of Urban Food Strategies, a consultancy focussed on planning, engagement, design, and implementation projects for healthy communities and resilient regional food and agriculture systems.

Ross Moster, founder of Village Vancouver, the official Transition Initiative for the city of Vancouver and a hub for communities throughout the B.C. Lower Mainland in taking actions to build sustainable and resilient communities, cities and bioregions.

Heather Pritchard, Farm Program Manager  for FarmFolkCityFolk, a non-profit society working to cultivate local, sustainable food systems.

Rick Barichello: Professor, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, specializing in agricultural economics and public policy analysis.

How is ‘food security’ defined?

The generally accepted definition is that published by the FAO in 2001 in its policy document The State of Food Insecurity 2001:

Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life

What characterizes the current food insecurity situation in Canada?

Environmental factors

Intensive farming on  industrial scales has led to widespread loss of topsoils and a reduction in the diversity of food crops produced for the market.

A number of causative factors have impacted bee populations and reduced the availability of bees to perform crop pollination.

Climate change is affecting agricultural crop production in many areas, and poses an even greater risk for the future. We have passed the point of no return to any previous situation; climatic thresholds have changed.  The costs of climate mitigation are too costly for the poorest sectors.

Economic factors

Control of agricultural food production is now dominated by corporate interests with a primary concern for the bottom line and a reduced sense of responsibility for community welfare. Food production has become a business rather than a social or health enterprise – this affects marketing, ingredients, use of GMOs and other issues. Monocultures and uniformity of growth, season of cultivation and crop conformation are typical preferences of corporate agro-industries.

Agricultural land has become expensive and is subject to usurpation by industrial and urban demands.

The rising prices of agricultural inputs such as energy and water are impacting crop production.

Rejection of science & technology by large segments of society affect the levels and rates at which science and technological innovations are implemented.

Society’s incessant striving for income growth has been leading to more GHG emissions and more demands for improvements in nutrition.

Social factors

Modern society is characterized by unhealthy food habits. Society has a poor knowledge of food origins, composition or nutritive values. Society seldom connect the food back to its origins. Decisions on food purchase are poorly made. Children are often ignorant about food and its selection.

Locally grown foods are usually touted as an alternative to store-bought items. These may not always meet nutritional requirements, especially for proteins.

The farmer cohort is getting older and smaller in numbers.  Agricultural land is coming under the control of younger, less interested ownership.

Economic instability has led to a situation where many people can’t afford food. Urban food deserts are a feature of many metropolitan areas. The ratio of food expenses to family income is a standard metric for food security.

Government Responses

Governments typically cannot afford the luxury of just one food policy. There are too many driving factors, too many competing demands.

Canadian government responses to the challenges of food security has been variable but also progressive. A healthy food system is one component of the Healthy Built Environment programme managed by B.C. Provincial Health Services.

Typical federal responses to the challenges of ensuring food security include institutional adaptation, attempted elimination of trade barriers, directing funds to support public goods, encouraging incentives and providing economic growth to the poor sectors.

Salon Participant Reactions to Food Security

The most important thing I learned today was………

  • food security is complex but not impossible to understand
  • there are trade-offs involved in implementing food security
  • much is being done by individuals and groups to secure our food but they don’t seem to feel very positive about their efforts
  • how complex the problem is, but also how vital it is to solve the problems of economic insecurity, foreign ownership, corporate control without responsibility, education, spending money wisely, supporting local communities, and supporting agriculture
  • we may be facing the end of easy food
  • there are threats but also opportunities: young people are interested in food security work and in farming;  they just need a chance!

supermarket-price-war-looms

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