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With the global devastation of COVID-19, there is heightened attention on hunger and malnutrition. While rates of hunger began declining in 2005, they have been steadily increasing since 2014, with economic inequality, climate-related disasters, and conflict as main drivers. And then came COVID-19, further driving figures up.

Even in wealthy countries like Canada, food insecurity was trending in the wrong direction before the pandemic, and then worsened. Pre-pandemic, more than four million Canadians were food-insecure, primarily due to systemic inequities. In both the global North and the South, we have heard those most marginalized by the food system call for communities to define and control their own food systems.

This “food sovereignty” recognizes that food, and how it is grown and harvested, is the foundation for healthy lives, communities, economies and eco-systems. Food sovereignty puts the voices and concerns of small farmers — most of whom are women — centre stage, along with fishers, Indigenous peoples and others marginalized by the global food system. Systemic oppressions of gender inequality, racism and colonialism must be tackled in unison, both at home and abroad.

Canada’s recent federal budget indicates a commitment to move toward a more inclusive and green society and investments that recognize the essential nature of basics, such as housing, child care and the need for better income distribution. The budget also underlines the urgency of moving toward sustainable food production systems with the goal of reversing environmental degradation. While this is a good step forward, the time is now for Canada to think globally and more systemically and show food policy leadership. Is the upcoming, but contentious, UN Food Systems Summit an opportunity?

Summit organizers have been heavily criticized from the outset for bypassing established multilateral processes, such as the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, in favour of a multi-stakeholder approach where the voices of large corporations (e.g., synthetic agricultural input companies) risk overshadowing those of civil society organizations and small-hold farmers.

With the September event fast approaching, it’s a scramble to try to get more civil society voices to the table and address these legitimate concerns. This is by no means a fringe issue, with the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, and his two predecessors publishing a scathing critique in March.

More recently, the former deputy head of FAO, renowned Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, did the same. One key call to action that is gaining momentum worldwide is for governments, civil society and the private sector to adopt 13 principles of agroecology.

While the summit process is fraught, it can be an opportunity for Canada to show its leadership on both the domestic and world stage by harmonizing Canada’s domestic and international aid, trade, and development-related food policies, prioritizing food sovereignty approaches, supporting small producers and processors, and encouraging food production systems, such as agroecology, that move rapidly toward a more environmentally sound future. Communities should be empowered through sustainable livelihoods and access to appropriate and affordable technologies that they control, rather than be sold expensive inputs they cannot afford, which destroy the planet and price out family farming.

The World Food Program is warning of the risk of a major global food crisis, and on July 12, the UN’s Rome-based agencies will release the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition report, with alarming numbers of hunger expected.

The time is now for Canada to think globally and more systemically and show food policy leadership, write @gyasmeen and Eric Chaurette of @Inter_Pares. #FoodSystems #COVID19

Canada can play a stronger role on the world stage to encourage a global response that will not only address immediate food needs, but build more resilient food systems longer term. Coherent and integrated policies, programs and approaches must be designed to both support small farmers who produce more than 70 per cent of the world’s food, and to prioritize food systems that will help us get through subsequent shocks and crises.

Here are three concrete steps Canada should take:

  1. Build on Canadian leadership in having created a federal-level Food Policy Advisory Council and provide greater political and financial support to the civil society mechanism of the UN Committee on World Food Security to ensure a stronger voice for those most affected by hunger in decision-making spaces.
  2. Increase Canada’s overseas development assistance for food system transformations that will advance biodiversity, climate change and gender equality goals. A shift toward agroecology and away from high-input agriculture approaches can advance all these goals. This commitment would be coherent with Budget 2021’s orientations.
  3. Honour the commitment from Budget 2019 to work with provinces, territories and other stakeholders to develop a national school food program. Canada is the only G7 country without such a program; UNICEF has ranked us low in terms of child nutrition. In high-income countries such as France and Korea, school food programs have been well-designed and delivered, resulting in multiple health, social and economic benefits. There are also countless examples from the Global South, such as Guinea-Bissau, where food procurement for school food programs directly supports women’s livelihoods and agroecology and has positive outcomes in terms of child nutrition.

Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and responsible for the whole of government Food Policy for Canada, Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Minister Karina Gould, who holds the International Development portfolio, have a unique window at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit to collaborate on the domestic and international fronts in an integrated, strategic, systemic and forward-thinking way. The time to act in a co-ordinated, outcomes-based way is urgent. If not now, when?

Eric Chaurette is program manager at Inter Pares, and Gisèle Yasmeen is executive director of Food Secure Canada.