Feed the world, food for thought: a new national strategy with a moral imperative

9 minute read
21 October 2021

This article was originally published in The Hill Times and has been republished with permission.

Before the pandemic, food security was elusive for many. The global pandemic underscored the need for increased investment in the food supply chain to grow the sector and mitigate risks regarding food security.

Now that the 44th general election is over, ballots cast and counted, and the Liberals have secured their third mandate, it is critical to consider what's next to create wealth and get our economy on a track that will pay for the deficit we have now inherited thanks to COVID-19 and cover the costs of the expensive new social welfare programs anticipated over the near horizon.

Wealth creation, the economy, and monetary policy were not a focus during the weeks of this summer's election, yet these topics require serious concentration now if we wish to continue to maintain our standard of living and position in the world as a leading and vibrant economy. So let's look to one area, agriculture and agri-food, which were certainly not prominent themes in the recent campaign—even though food systems are essential for survival and hold incredibly vast potential for economic growth in Canada. This field also garners a potential sense of pride if addressed well, as we can become a global leader in this landscape.

The 2017 Barton Report and the 2018 Agri-Food Economic Strategy Table report both declared that Canada could be one of the most "trusted," "safest," "sustainable," "nutritious," and "reliable" food suppliers for the 21st century. The sector's strengths (i.e. resource availability, water, arable land, and strong research clusters) can position Canada to attract investment and resources to leverage what we possess. In addition, Canada can turn the growing global supply constraints in land, water, energy, and carbon emissions into phenomenal agri-food opportunities. One of this generation's greatest challenges is to meet the increasing global demand for food while reducing the environmental footprint of food production.

The challenge of feeding the world now and in the future is daunting. The United Nations predicts that the world population will reach 11.2 billion by the end of the century, with nearly a billion mouths to feed added in the next decade.

In the global race to meet net-zero emissions, the C02 sequestering power of Canadian agricultural soils, for example, will be essential to fight climate change. In the meantime, crop farmers have already shown quite amazingly that they can grow crops every year and still enhance soil volume and quality, while lowering the carbon footprint of the cropland, by using zero-till methods instead of leaving the land fallow every couple of years. We are also seeing many food manufacturers minimizing their environmental footprint by adopting sustainable best practices in how they deal with raw materials, product innovations, production methods and logistics to ensure the stability of the food supply.

While the Liberal electoral platform promised to triple funding for clean-tech on farms, and has also pledged to work with provinces, territories, and farmers to fully integrate climate risk management environmental practices and climate readiness in business risk management agriculture programs, what's missing is its link to the food industry. We realize there is much more that can be done to "unleash the growth potential" of the combined sector.

Canada's obstacles however in this sector as a whole, are very challenging and this must be recognized by our governments. The global pandemic has further magnified Canada's fragmented approach in regulating the country's food system. The federal government, as well as provincial and territorial counterparts, share responsibilities in a broad range of components critical to Canada's food system, including primary agriculture, food safety, manufacturing practices, the environment, transportation, broadband access, energy, labour, and health. The lack of regulatory alignment and co-ordination between multiple levels of government leads to duplication and overlap of regulations and increased costs that hinder productivity, impede competitiveness, create confusion, and discourage investments. Overall, every effort must be made to create new policy initiatives and incentives to promote investments to ensure Canada achieves global status as a leading food supplier.

Before the pandemic, food security was elusive for many. The global pandemic underscored the need for increased investment in the food supply chain to grow the sector and mitigate risks regarding food security.

We believe the Barton and Economic Strategy Table reports have already mapped out the playbook on how Canada can leverage its agri-food strengths to feed the planet. The government can start by taking bold steps to accelerate regulatory change based on a common understanding among stakeholders of what science- and fact-based regulations are actually required. As well, it can find a reasonable consensus on the science in this sector to identify best practices. The federal government should also adopt a fully integrated approach to policy and program development with provincial governments and territories and collaborate with industry, NGOs, and academia to identify outcome based targets of sustainability to measure agri-food performance. In essence, the government should focus its efforts in establishing a policy environment along the entire food supply chain to fully support positioning Canada as a leading agri-food provider.

However, it is essential to note that all this must take into account overcoming the monumental hurdle of Canada's labour shortages. To achieve this, the government must act now to take bold steps to address the potentially catastrophic shortfalls we are facing regarding our diminishing labour pool. This is a problem we are seeing in almost every sector of business. There is an urgent need now to solve our labour shortage crisis.

The inability to maintain 100 per cent employment levels in agriculture and agri-food is affecting production levels and the overall food supply chain. Although unemployment levels are higher because of the global pandemic, the shortage of skilled workers, and the need for seasonal labour, have increased their toll in food manufacturing. Our economy will falter if we don't solve this problem soon.

Political parties of all stripes have come to recognize the need to develop a sector-specific agricultural labour strategy to address persistent labour shortages. To be effective, this strategy must be developed on the understanding that a diverse labour force with the right set of skills is required to help the sector achieve its maximum potential.

Investments in innovation could in fact play a key role in relieving labour pressures in the sector. This means revamping existing federal innovation programs premised on job creation and the development of avant-garde technologies, which are not well suited for food manufacturing. While drones can be used for crop fertilization, they have limited use in a manufacturing setting. One needs to contemplate how best automation can allow manufacturers develop new production methods and processes to boost the production of value-added products.

COVID-19 has raised the bar for everyone. The world is grappling with profound social, health, environmental, and economic challenges. Canada has the potential to become a leading agri-food provider in a world seeking to transform how food is produced and supplied. Last month, during the UN General Assembly High-level Week, the UN held a Food Systems Summit—a virtual people's summit to set the stage for the global food systems' transformation to achieve a more sustainable, equitable and resilient food supply. We will need to monitor and engage in next steps that ensure that Canada is positioned to play an active leadership role to motivate the adoption of practical policies.

Canada is not the only country that has the ability to offer safe, sustainable, and high quality food, but it is the one country now best positioned to demonstrate our ambition to be second to none and gain the respect of other nations to achieve the goal of being a global food provider. Canada and humanity would benefit greatly if we succeed. We must seize this moment and commit to becoming a world leader and a reliable food basket to play a major role in meeting our planet's needs.

This subject merits being a major feature of the federal government's policy agenda to address urgent domestic and global goals while leveraging the strength and opportunities of our food system to enhance economic prosperity for Canadians. Seize the need, embrace this exciting national purpose, and galvanize our agri-food sector to recognize its duty in this effort. The byproduct of our success would surely energize our economy. This focus, one might conclude, would be a moral imperative for Canada both at home and abroad. Food for thought.

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