As the federal government puts together its pandemic recovery, feeding Canadians more sustainably should be at the heart of its plans, according to a coalition of leading Canadian environmental organizations.

Last week, the Green Budget Coalition released recommendations for the federal government to use in implementing throne speech commitments to a green recovery. Sustainable agriculture and fisheries play a key role in the plan, with proposals aimed at everything from increasing pollinator habitats on farms to spearheading community-led fisheries programs.

“Within our political system, there are embedded structures and ideologies and policy agendas that are sometimes hard to shift,” said Abra Brynne, a B.C. food systems policy specialist who was not involved in writing the recommendations.

“These kinds of initiatives are really important for shaking up (the status quo) a bit and presenting new ideas.”

About eight per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions came from farms in 2018, making it the sector with the sixth-largest carbon footprint in the country, according to Statistics Canada. Most originated from cattle, degraded soils and the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer.

Emissions aren’t the only concern.

Bees and other native pollinators are in rapid decline, in part because of the pesticides and monocropping techniques used in industrial agriculture. Canada relies heavily on imported food — for instance, roughly 60 per cent of B.C.’s produce comes from the U.S. — meaning the country has little control over how its food is grown and transported. And at home, climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of droughts, floods and pests that can devastate crops.

These are challenges the coalition hopes to help the federal government address.

The report notes that “feeding the world’s increasing population sustainably in the context of climate change requires resilient and diverse food systems that minimize environmental impacts, protect and restore the ecosystem services that are vital to a thriving agricultural economy, and offer long-term solutions for climate adaptation and mitigation.”

“Our recommendations detail the investments needed to make this and more happen to protect nature, tackle the climate emergency, and support jobs and communities through a green recovery,” said David Browne, the Green Budget Coalition co-chair and director of conservation for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, in a statement.

Supporting ecological farming methods, enhancing pollinator and habitat conservation initiatives and supporting projects that rehabilitate wildlife habitats in disused or marginal agricultural land are the program’s key pillars. These initiatives should be aimed at supporting ecosystem services like clean water, pollination services and flood and drought control, the report says.

“Within our political system, there are embedded structures and ideologies and policy agendas that are sometimes hard to shift,” says @AbraBrynne. “These kinds of initiatives are really important for shaking up (the status quo)" #GreenBudgetCoalition

Fisheries also play a key role in the coalition’s recommendations, including allocating more money for fisheries monitoring, creating more marine protected areas and riparian restoration initiatives and increasing fisheries science and management capacity. These shifts need to be paired with a range of economic and social supports for fish harvesters and coastal and Indigenous communities, like co-management frameworks or community quota and licence banks.

That shift will come with a cost: roughly $445 million over five years for several fisheries and ocean protection programs and another $665 million for a suite of programs ranging from habitat restoration to public seed breeding to improving pesticide management and regulations. An additional reallocation of $1 million that’s currently allocated to the Business Risk Management and Canadian Agricultural Partnership programs, two key agricultural subsidies, is also among the coalition’s recommendations.

These reallocations would aim to encourage a widespread transition to ecological farming and processing methods without cutting into farmers’ bottom lines — particularly important as Canadian farms are already struggling with soaring debt and land costs. They would also help the industry remain competitive on global markets.

“Taking proactive steps now to address the practices that undermine environmental sustainability would shift the current risk of ecological standards to a competitive advantage for Canadian producers,” the document says.

Nor are market pressures the only thing that should encourage Canada to shift towards sustainable agriculture.

“(The pandemic) is forcing us to rethink what is really important and essential, and how we adapt when our food options are not as broad,” Brynne said. For instance, meat shortages have highlighted the vulnerabilities in the convoluted global supply chains feeding Canadians. That’s encouraged a reconsideration of how Canada’s farms and fisheries work, from land and water use to processing, distribution and marketing.

“I’ve been promoting place-based food systems for a long time, not because they’re necessarily ethically superior — although I’d argue that in many ways they are — but because it’s only sensible to have secure sources of the basics of our diets as close at hand as possible. The pandemic demonstrated the wisdom of that approach.”

It’s a goal that the coalition’s recommendations, if picked up by the federal government, will support — and not a moment too soon.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer