Industrial food production in Canada has unexpectedly collided with COVID-19. Outbreaks on farms and meat packers. Supply chain disruptions and panic buying. Spikes in food insecurity and blackboard use as a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic.
As a result, Canadians think differently about their food and where it comes from. Surveys show the ability to purchase locally grown food is high on the list of environmental concerns.
Food policy largely unfolds at the municipal, municipal and provincial levels. But the federal government has a key role to play in mitigating the risks of industrial food production and ensuring that the post-pandemic recovery creates a new food model: fair, local, and low-carbon.
This week’s COVID outbreak at a meat packaging factory in BC is another reminder of the risks we face. Researchers, writing in the British Medical Journal, called meat packaging facilities “a new frontline in the COVID-19 pandemic”. The spread of the virus is made possible by the processes of such institutions, often inadequate labor standards, and reliance on vulnerable workers and migrant workers who fear being punished for reporting diseases. This latest outbreak follows several others on farms and meat packers in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba that have exposed the injustices migrant workers face across Canada.
For the average grocery store buyer, the industrial food system creates the illusion of being separate from the natural world. In reality, factory-farmed animals live in cramped conditions in confined spaces, where diseases can spread like wildfire and the risk of zoonotic diseases that can spread to humans increases exponentially. Globally, 31 percent of zoonotic outbreaks are related to land use changes, such as deforestation for livestock. Closer to the point: Worldwide meat production causes an enormous 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Satisfying the appetite with industrial meat is a risky business for our health, our wildlife and our climate.
Here in Canada, agriculture is responsible for about a tenth of national greenhouse gas emissions. Much of these emissions are caused by the use of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers. These fertilizers release laughing gas, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide – emissions are increasing, according to scientists, due to industrial agriculture.
Against this background, we need a three-pronged strategy to save our broken food system: justice, community and the environment. With this trio of values at the center of agricultural policy and investment decisions, the Federal Government can reduce risks and build a resilient food future.
Since it does not come from the farm to the table without migrant workers, the federal government must first guarantee these important workers permanent residence status. Justice considerations must also take into account the fact that food insecurity is expected to double by the end of 2020. A universal basic income would go a long way towards ensuring that everyone in Canada eats well.
We can also make food more accessible by maintaining the grassroots momentum that took hold during the pandemic. Almost 20 percent of Canadians started gardening this year, while communities with tight budgets got local food initiatives running at full speed. The Kanesatake First Nation, for example, founded “Gardens of Hope”, provided the local elders with food and taught young people about organic farming. Organic or regenerative agriculture encompasses a variety of plants and practices that mimic natural systems to control pests and provide plants with easier access to soil nutrients. It can reduce reliance on external fertilizers and increase the ability of farmland to store carbon. Many of the principles of this type of agriculture are rooted in ancient indigenous knowledge.
To move from industrial to regenerative and community-centered agriculture, we need the federal government to invest in things like: training farmers; Marketing support; urban farms and community-based agriculture; Community gardens and kitchens; Permaculture; Construction of organic food processing plants; and financing of compost and seed sites.
Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has a leading role to play here and to ensure that federal subsidies for industrial meat production also come to an end. Instead, support should be shifted to plant-based agriculture, including pioneering oat and pea farmers whose crops are processed into meat and dairy alternatives. Last year alone, sales of Canadian oat milk rose by a whopping 250 percent. This emerging climate-friendly food revolution offers tremendous opportunities for Canada’s economy.
These are the priorities we would like to see in the Economic Update for this Fall and in the 2021 Budget if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is serious about his promise to ensure that plans for economic recovery are “healthier and safer”, “greener” and “more” build just “society.
Shane Moffatt heads Greenpeace Canada’s Food & Nature campaign.
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