Canadian food security doesn’t look like it does in other countries

Accessibility to food is one thing — but resilience in production and processing is another

Canada is a land of abundance. Food security is based more on transportation and distribution than storage.

As some countries stockpile agricultural products, Canada continues to ship them out despite feed affordability concerns in parts of the country.

Would investments in a stockpiled grain supply have helped what appears to be a developing food production crisis?

As a leading exporter, however, the question for Canada should be different. A true food security policy must simultaneously focus on resilience in production and processing, as well as food affordability.

The trouble is, someone has to pay the cost.

Why it matters: Food security in the Canadian context relies on infrastructure investment rather than stockpiling. Keeping food affordable is intrinsic to this process.

In circumstances such as those being experienced on the Prairies, better access to affordable animal feed could have offered respite from the financial pressures of herd maintenance. Similarly, wider stockpiles of frozen fruits and vegetables could hypothetically alleviate price hikes or constricted availability during times of major production disruption.

According to Keith Currie, pastpresident of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and current vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, such scenarios might make stockpiling an appealing stopgap measure.

The solution gets complicated when the cost of storage is in play, both the hard costs of keeping a product and opportunity costs lost from not selling it.

"Storing grain? Farmers can do it, but at some point I need to get it out because I need to make money and pay taxes," says Currie, adding production security in each sector within agriculture will have its own flavour based on the characteristics of each commodity and its infrastructure requirements.

"If we're going to keep some in reserve for drastic events, is the government going to put it aside and have some kind of contingency fee or programs for large companies to store it? Do they have capacity to do that?"

Assuming a contingency plan was set in place, Currie believes the costs would likely go downstream rather than up. On one hand this is good because it supports the affordability and accessibility factors within the country's food security framework.

But on the other, it's a continuation of primary producer frustration.

"We're price takers and not price setters. Farmers likely are the ones that ultimately have to pay for it. Is this something which will go over well? … Some kind of a strategy that's workable is not going to be easy to come by."

Security from full-system investment

A more effective approach from Currie's perspective would be widespread investment across all aspects of the food value chain, including research and technology development.

"We hope even though we see more severe weather incidences because of changing climate, we're also seeing rapid advancement in technologies.

"Our understanding of the value of food production systems is also better…There are a lot of balls in the air. It's going to take some provocative thought from everyone, from farmers to suppliers and the public."

Currie's sentiments are shared by Mike Von Massow, associate professor of food, agriculture, and resource economics at the University of Guelph.

Unlike countries reliant on imports, Von Massow says Canada has no incentive to stockpile. The sheer volume of food produced in Canada means that major production disruptions don't lead to domestic famine, as it might for people in countries heavily reliant on Canadian exports.

Canadian food security thus relies on financial stability and viability, the ability to adapt existing food production strategies to changing circumstances.

The federal government's efforts to develop a national food policy, however, are still broad and nebulous, says Von Massow.

"Do we need to irrigate, or have the water to irrigate? What can we grow now? We need to think about how we might do things differently in order to weather these changes," he says.

"Technology is providing exactly the opportunity to do that kind of adjustment. We need to make sure we think about technological innovation in a way which will make the system more resilient."

Regardless of what a food security policy looks like, Currie reiterates any true long-term planning must receive government buy-in. That's a challenge given the time frame in which governments generally operate.

Production and social challenges intertwined

Underlying any discussion of food security lies the fact that one in every seven Canadian households is estimated to be food insecure; that is, living under conditions where maintaining good nutrition represents a major financial burden.

As described by Evan Fraser, director of the University of Guelph's Arrell Food Institute, this makes food insecurity, not food security, the fundamental issue. Linked primarily to poverty, investments in more resilient production, storage, processing and other parts of the food value chain must not exacerbate individual insecurity.

"These things will make the system more expensive to run…We need policy which produces resilience on the farm end, and on the other hand, we need to protect consumers from price rise," says Fraser.

"It's low wages and economic shock which makes poverty and equity issues worse. Investments in social policy are needed here. We could quadruple production and this problem remains."

For Fraser, it is critical to understand that economic and environmental shocks are a reality, and that existing food system structures have been developed during a prolonged period of relative stability.

"The lesson to take over last 60 years, though, is our system is based on a productive environment, good production conditions and easy trade. These things are not guaranteed. It was the lesson of Trump…We're one angry tweet away from massive trade disruptions."

On top of it all, Fraser believes Canadians, and the world more generally, is on the cusp of "one hell of a disruption" in terms of what is produced and how it makes its way through the food system.

"I think we're in an opening act in the way we feed ourselves. There's going to be people that suffer, and some that profit enormously…The next 30 years is going to play out very differently than the last 30 years."

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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