There were several reasons to be enthusiastic about the new Canada’s Food Guide. The revised version provides advice on how Canadians can eat for better health, and reacquire some of the essential food skills we lose when we purchase too many packaged industrial foods, spend less time cooking and eat more meals outside the home. For environmental groups, most notably, Health Canada’s move to omit the old recommendations for daily servings of meat and dairy is a sign that they are resisting industry pressures and taking the latest research on sustainable food choices more seriously.
As a described pattern of healthy eating for individuals, the Guide is an effective tool. Its contents, however, quite wrongly assume the social and environmental sustainability of Canadian diets. The information on food labelling changes and the advice to limit highly-processed food, for example, both point to how the main premise of the federal nutrition strategy is to make healthy eating the easy choice for consumers. In fact, choosing a sustainable healthy diet has never been more difficult, because in the future we will inevitably have to confront the interrelated challenges of food insecurity and post-carbon food systems.
Food insecurity happens when our available food is unequally distributed, with the consequence that people do not consume sufficient amounts of the nutrients required for normal growth and development. At present, 1.7 million Canadian households (the equivalent of more than four million people) do not eat often or well enough to meet their nutritional needs. This is not the result of a lack of food, but is instead caused by low nutrition literacy and a lack of income. The fruit and vegetable, nut and legume-heavy dinner plate depicted in the revised Food Guide is simply out of reach for many Canadians.
Poor people spend far more on food than the rich
Considered globally, urban households with low socio-economic status may spend more than 70 per cent of their income to feed themselves, compared to wealthier households that may spend as little as 10 per cent of their income on food. The interconnectedness and complexity of the industrial food chain contribute to food insecurity because people have become dependent on geographically-distant food systems. Preserved and overly processed food may be less nutritious than locally-grown organic produce, but it is more affordable. With the best of intentions, some food experts have supported the idea of ‘relocalizing’ the food supply chain, acknowledging that this may entail paying more at the market. It may be that we don’t value food enough, but many Canadians are not ‘free’ to eat locally and sustainably because they cannot afford to do so. Truly committing to relocalization would mean no longer consuming non-local food, and in our future food systems, market determinations will still be the rule, even locally; if you are wealthy you will eat enough healthy food, and if you are poor you will not.
Equally as important, the Food Guide’s designers would do well to revise their eating advice in advance of post-carbon food systems. Decarbonization efforts along with the end of peak oil will fundamentally change how food systems are organized because of the high energy inputs required to grow, pick, preserve, transport and sell food along the industrial supply chain. The costs of the environmental footprint associated with the agrifood industry already exceed the value of the money that passes through it, and governments around the world have failed to implement suitable controls on what are ultimately unsustainable industrial farming practices.
The end of peak oil will change food systems
The agrifood industry will be unable to conduct business as usual in coming decades. The global food supply chain is responsible for about 16.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent of GHGs (more than a quarter of global emissions), with the farming sector responsible for four-fifths of these. At the same time, deforestation is recognized as a major threat to the world’s essential carbon sinks, with cattle ranching contributing to 80 per cent of current deforestation in the Amazon region. Indications are that reducing global emissions will necessarily mean downshifting agricultural production to eliminate avoidable food loss and waste, at the same time as population pressures culminate in the challenge of feeding nine billion people globally by 2050. Industrial agriculture’s level of intensity has enabled the agribusiness sector to consistently produce more, but this has been accomplished by breeding plants to be crowded together essentially, advancing insect ranges and the spread of disease while accelerating soil depletion and water contamination. Food shortages seem possible and even likely, in light of these emerging sustainability issues.
A food-secure future in a post-carbon world
Revising our strategy for how Canadians can eat healthier is no substitute for initiatives designed to support food security in post-carbon food systems. Poverty and climate change are perhaps the most significant challenges to the sustainability of Canadian diets. Accordingly, there is a need to increase public literacy about the links between health, equity and the environmental impacts of agriculture. A document like the Food Guide accomplishes little in this respect, because it fails to incite consumers to make the hard choice upon which the future of food depends. Should we demand more high-quality and energy-efficient industrial food? Or should we support relocalization and the revitalization of natural agriculture in our communities, while dispensing with highly-technologized, industrial food production? Devising an appropriate mix of solutions to this question will be both difficult and decidedly complex, with the only certainty being the requirement for a transformational shift in how we produce and consume food.
Trevor Rous conducts policy research at Horizon Advisors, a consulting firm with expertise in sustainable development and transformational environmental solutions.