The country’s supermarkets shelves were sporadically empty and restaurants and cafes closed their doors for weeks, a poignant reminder that hundreds of thousands of Canadians had lost their jobs. In June 2020, Statistics Canada reported about five million people, twice the population of Vancouver, couldn't afford to eat.
Months later, restaurants have reopened and food is no longer headline news. Yet as Canadians head to the polls, the future of our food supply and the ability of millions to afford their next meal remain on the line.
“There's a bit of an awakening right now when it comes to merging agriculture with climate change and food resiliency,” said Sylvain Charlebois, head of Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “More and more people are realizing how vulnerable we can be, and how important food autonomy is for Canadians.”
And vulnerable we are: Canada relies heavily on food imports and industrial agriculture, both of which are contributing to climate change, yet they are particularly threatened by the crisis. Widespread consolidation by grocers, agricultural companies, and other key parts of our food supply chain gives a handful of companies overwhelming control over our food. Additionally, the proliferation of precarious, low-wage jobs combined with decades of cuts to Canada's social safety net have pushed ever more Canadians into hunger.
In 2019, the federal Liberal government launched Canada's first national food policy, on top of crafting a suite of policies to keep farmers afloat and help them reduce their GHG emissions. The pandemic also saw emergency federal funds take aim at the food supply chain and tackle hunger. While advocates largely welcomed the efforts, they warned that far more changes will be needed to keep Canadians satiated without destroying the planet.
Canada's National Observer scoured the five main federal parties' platforms for their position on key food-related issues, from tackling hunger to making farms and fisheries sustainable.
What’s ahead for Canada’s farms?
For many farms across Canada, summer 2021 was marred by drought. Fried by weeks of sun and heat, crops and cattle withered in the fields as farmers struggled to get them enough water. Farmworkers, many of them temporary foreign workers living in cramped and overheated houses, also struggled under the unrelenting heat.
For many Canadians, the pandemic wasn't just a public health emergency — it was a food crisis. Here's what the parties have said they'll do about it. #elxn44
As the climate crisis deepens, severe droughts, heat waves, and other extreme weather events are predicted to become commonplace, putting cash-strapped farmers on the front lines. At the same time, agriculture is responsible for roughly 12 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Faced with the crisis, environmental advocates and farm organizations across the country have pushed the federal government to help farmers adapt to the crisis and transition to more sustainable agricultural practices.
Earlier this year, the Liberal government announced about $270 million to help farms use more sustainable practices. However, advocates say far more will be needed over the next decade, while pushing to ensure the next Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial farm funding package renewed about every five years, helps transform how Canadians grow food.
All the parties have said they will support Canada's supply management system for dairy, poultry, and eggs in international trade negotiations.
Here's where the parties sit on the issue:
- The Liberals have promised to dedicate $60 million to help farmers protect trees and wetlands on farms. That's on top of allocating $200 million in the 2021 budget to help farmers adopt more sustainable practices like cover cropping and rotational grazing. The party has also promised to update Canada's outdated pesticide laws, increase transparency from the agency responsible for regulating pesticides, and support farmers who choose not to use pesticides. The party has also committed to continuing to work on the Canadian food policy it launched in 2019.
- The Conservatives have promised to spend $3 billion on so-called “natural climate solutions” aimed at increasing the amount of carbon stored in fields, orchards, and pastures. These efforts include supporting no-till agriculture, which is already common on the Prairies, and helping farmers preserve key ecosystems. The party also has promised to implement an agricultural carbon credit system that would reward farmers for better soil management — an approach some observers doubt can actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. Finally, the Conservatives have said they will make it easier for livestock owners to use provincial abattoirs, potentially boosting the economic viability of smaller-scale and more sustainable ranches.
- The NDP has promised to create a “Canadian Food Strategy,” but it is unclear how the party's approach would differ from the Liberals' 2019 food policy beyond an emphasis on supporting new and young farmers. The party has also promised to monitor and protect pollinator health, and create local food hubs that can help smaller-scale farmers more easily access regional markets.
- The Greens have proposed a “Green Shift” that would see Canada's agricultural policies prioritize more sustainable and resilient farming practices while cutting government support for industrial agriculture. The party has also said it will aim to replace a third of Canada's food imports with domestic production, support farmers' rights to seed, and help young farmers get established.
- The Bloc Québécois has said it will make Québec an island of “human-scale” agriculture amidst the industrialized farms that proliferate across North America. Those efforts include increasing local meat processing capacity and supporting small- and medium-scale farmers. The party has also said it will push for stronger pesticide regulations and will ban genetically modified organisms.
Can we keep fishing?
Earlier this year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) closed about 60 per cent of B.C.'s commercial salmon fisheries for the foreseeable future in a desperate effort to save critically low stocks. Coming after years of declining salmon runs on many of the province's major river systems, the decision had echoes of the 1992 moratorium on cod that devastated Newfoundland's coastal communities.
However, Canada's fisheries are not all in crisis. Many stocks are healthy and fishing remains an essential driver of rural economies on top of supporting the cultural integrity and food security of communities on Canada's three coasts. For researchers and environmental and fisheries advocates, the threat of declining stocks calls for a radical transformation in how we manage our fish and their habitats.
The industry has also been a flashpoint for reconciliation: First Nations on both coasts have called for DFO to adhere to several court decisions upholding their constitutional rights to commercial fisheries — against resistance from the federal government and some non-Indigenous fish harvesters.
Here's where the parties stand on the issue:
- The Liberals in June announced $647 million to restore B.C.'s salmon stocks, with the spending dedicated to fund everything from habitat restoration to buying back licences. The party has also announced a suite of ocean conservation measures, but few explicitly aim to support the country's fisheries and fishing communities.
- The Conservatives have said they'll “prioritize” stock assessment and enhancement measures and enforce conservation measures. The party has pledged to support the growth of commercial fisheries in the North and create a new federal agency tasked with promoting Canada's fish to international markets. Additionally, a Conservative government would double the funds available for small craft harbours — critical infrastructure for small-scale, local fisheries — and would maintain the Liberals' decision to remove open-pen salmon farms from B.C.'s Discovery Islands.
- The NDP has pledged to prioritize habitat restoration and would implement all the recommendations of the Cohen Commission, a 2012 report commissioned by DFO on the decline of the Fraser River salmon. The party has also pledged to support Indigenous food sovereignty, which could include developing more collaborative management practices.
- The Greens have said they will implement consistent fishery policies across the country aimed at protecting small-scale, independent harvesters. In addition, they pledge to work with Indigenous nations to develop collaborative fisheries management systems and marine protected areas. The party has also said it will boost funding for research into fish health and complete long-overdue plans to rebuild critically endangered stocks.
- The Bloc Québécois has pledged to push the federal government to implement a national traceability system for seafood, with the goal of supporting local fisheries and fighting illegal fishing. The party will also push the federal government to better fund port infrastructure and will aim to develop and promote Québec fisheries locally and beyond.
Hunger has been on the rise for decades. Will the parties reverse the trend?
In June 2020, Statistics Canada reported that roughly one in seven Canadians — about five million people — couldn't afford enough food, a four per cent increase over 2018. While the pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated the issue, researchers and advocates have been warning for decades that hunger, a symptom of poverty, is on the rise. That's largely due to low wages or precarious gigs, and inadequate social support for those most in need, according to PROOF, a University of Toronto research program on food insecurity.
Yet despite widespread attention given to the social ill in the pandemic's early days, none of the parties have tackled the root causes of hunger directly, said Valerie Tarasuk, a professor and expert on food insecurity. Instead, party leaders have focused on affordable housing and child care. While both issues are important, the only real solution to hunger is programs that support Canadians' incomes enough for them to buy food.
“It doesn't seem like issues of poverty are very important this election,” she said. “The solutions politicians in this election are offering are way, way out of sync with the problems of people struggling to put food on the table.”
Here's where the parties stand on the issue:
- The Liberals have pledged to invest $1 billion in a national school food program, a decision welcomed by advocates after years of pressure. Canada is currently the only G7 country without a national program to provide food in schools. Moreover, the party has doubled down on its promise to implement nationwide $10/day child care. Their platform also mentions continued support for initiatives to redistribute excess food from grocery stores, farms, and other companies to food charities — an approach advocates say will do nothing to end hunger.
- The Conservatives have pledged to implement a suite of measures to make food more affordable, including implementing a code of conduct for grocers and cracking down on price-fixing by grocers and food processors. The party has also pledged a suite of measures to expand the employment insurance program and increase the worker's benefit. However, it does not address food insecurity directly or propose measures aimed at supporting the incomes of those most in need.
- The NDP is one of the only parties to directly address poverty and has said it will expand Canada's social safety nets, including by reforming the EI system to ensure people receive, at minimum, $2,000 a month. The party has also pledged to create a national pharmacare program, make post-secondary education part of the public education system, boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and ensure temporary or gig workers receive benefits or equivalent pay. Finally, an NDP government would implement a guaranteed livable income, with the goal of eliminating poverty for seniors and people with disabilities.
- The Greens have pledged to support a guaranteed livable income that will ensure Canadians can afford food and accommodation. They have also said they will invest in local markets and urban agriculture to increase access to affordable local food. Moreover, the party would maintain pandemic-related emergency subsidies until COVID-19 restrictions are fully lifted.
- The Bloc Québécois has pledged to push for major reforms to Canada's employment insurance system to better support freelancers, gig workers, and people in precarious jobs. The party has also said it will aim to increase the amount of financial support available to the elderly.