Leya Russell/the Gauntlet

The state of food security in Canada

Is enough being done to ensure all Canadians have the right to food?

Publication YearIssue Date 

Food security is a broad topic that we need to learn more about. The next four features will be a series on different aspects of food security, ranging from a Canadian viewpoint to a New Orleans viewpoint, and how to reduce and recycle food waste. Stay tuned for a student’s trip to urban farms in New Orleans next week.

A human right is something everyone is entitled to. It’s born from the notion that all human beings should be endowed with a sense of dignity and pursue certain fundamental freedoms. When Canada joined the United Nation’s human rights conventions, the federal government pledged to uphold certain human rights standards. Additionally, Canada consented to an increased level of scrutiny.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

By signing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada has a duty to protect and fulfil the right to food. The Covenant states, “The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

In May 2012, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, undertook an official visit to Canada at the invitation of the government. In the 11 days that he was in Canada, De Schutter intensively examined the state of food security. He talked with a multitude of people, including federal, provincial and municipal government representatives, political party officials, civil society groups, farmers, academics and aboriginal community members. He released his preliminary findings after his visit. 

De Schutter will submit a final report about Canada’s food security to the UN Human Rights Council on March 4 in Geneva. De Schutter’s report expresses concern about the discrepancy between Canada’s international human rights commitments and domestic human rights. He is encouraging the development of a national food policy strategy to address some of the economic and social barriers to food security in Canada. 

According to De Schutter’s report, Canada does not currently have constitutional or legal protection for the right to food. Furthermore, an increasing number of people across Canada are unable to meet their basic food needs. In 2007–08, approximately 1.92 million people lived in food-insecure households, meaning they could not access the healthy food they needed, for economic or physical reasons. Furthermore, data from the 2011 Canadian Community Health Survey indicates that 1.1 million households — or an estimated 4.3 million Canadians — may not enjoy the right to food. 

In his report, De Schutter also stated that certain demographics were more vulnerable to food insecurity than others. More than 55 per cent of people accessing social assistance could not meet their basic need for food. Households headed by single women and non-homeowners suffered from particularly high levels of hunger. De Schutter was deeply concerned by the high levels of food insecurity in aboriginal communities. In 2007–08, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut — areas with the highest concentration of Aboriginal Peoples — had some of the highest rates of food insecurity in Canada.

Hopefully, the Canadian government’s response to this final report will not mirror the reception De Schutter’s findings received after his visit last year. De Schutter’s 2012 visit incited contention among the ranks of parliament. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney attacked De Schutter, accusing him of wasting the resources of the UN and lecturing a wealthy nation like Canada that sends billions of dollars of aid to people who are actually starving in developing countries. However, NDP MPs supported the UN’s special rapporteur, arguing for policies that would protect farmers and the working poor. 

Diana Bronson, executive director for Food Secure Canada — a Canada-wide alliance of civil society organizations and individuals working together to improve national and international food security — was not surprised by De Schutter’s report.

“Much of what he is saying is not that new,” says Bronson. “It’s just that the UN is saying it and not just ourselves. So it’s very interesting for FSC members to find this echo with an official of the UN, and it is our hope that his recommendations will be taken seriously by the government of Canada this time, unlike last May.”

Bronson welcomed the official visit of the special rapporteur and even facilitated some of the dialogue that took place between De Schutter and civil society groups. Bronson was happy to finally have an international body recognize the unstable state of food security in Canada. 

“I don’t see it as controversial at all because it’s not only poor countries that have human rights issues — wealthy countries have them too,” says Bronson. “There are a large number of people — millions of Canadians in fact — who do not enjoy the right to food. So I think it was entirely appropriate that he would come here and undertake an investigation on the right to food in Canada.”

Bronson points out that the special rapporteur embarked on his investigation at the invitation of Canada, a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When Canada signed this treaty, it accepted the duties of upholding these rights. 

“When it comes to economic, social and cultural rights, the nature of the obligation for states are a bit different than they are for civil and political rights,” explains Bronson. “For example, torture. Torture can never be justified — it’s a blanket prohibition. For economic and social rights we talk about progressive realization. Therefore, the obligation for states is to consistently improve. Nobody expects a state to eliminate hunger or realize full health care or 100 per cent education for its citizens overnight. These take a lot of resources and they take a lot of time. What is required of the state is progressive realization. In other words, things must be better this year than they were last year. You have to show that there is continual improvement, and as long as you’re showing continual improvement you’re meeting your human rights obligations. But that’s not what we’re seeing in Canada.”

Instead, says Bronson, the conditions of the poorest people in Canada are deteriorating. 

“We’re seeing a decline of the middle class and we’re seeing an increased polarization of the rich and the poor,” she says. “Even more serious is that we’re not getting a clear message from the government that this is a matter of concern — that’s what we need to be hearing. On the contrary, we’re hearing that De Schutter is ill-informed and patronizing. This is not the appropriate diplomatic response.” 

The appropriate diplomatic response would be to acknowledge this human rights violation, and be sensitive when addressing more than two million Canadian citizens who are living in hunger.

“How we think about food changes a little bit when we think about it as a human right,” says Bronson. “Rather than seeing someone who can’t afford food as a person who needs charity, we can see them as someone who has human dignity with the same right to food that you and I have.”

Aboriginal Peoples in Canada suffer a disproportionate amount of hunger when compared to other populations. A long history of economic and political marginalization has led to many Aboriginal Peoples struggling to meet their need for healthy food. The Inuit Health Survey, conducted by the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at McGill University reported that 70 per cent of adults living in Nunavut were food insecure in 2007–08. This percentage was six times higher than the national average and is the highest documented rate of food insecurity among all aboriginal populations in developed countries. 

Northern communities are particularly at risk for food insecurity because of their increasing dependency on expensive southern foods, and the encroachment of industry on traditional hunting, fishing and land rights. 

“One of the things that we have noticed in our community is the quality of foods that are available,” says Chief Allan Adam of Fort Chipewyan, a small community in northern Alberta. “The Northern Store is the only store that we have in the community of Fort Chip, so they have a monopoly on food.” 

Produce sold in northern communities lacks freshness and the price of fuel to ship them contributes to the increased prices. 

“Vegetables and fruits are very high in price because we are in an isolated community,” says Adam. “If you buy four or five apples it’s going to cost about $6. A loaf of bread costs us something like $5.69.” 

A four litre jug of milk at the Northern Store costs $12.97 compared to $4.99 at a Safeway in Calgary. 

In Fort Chipewyan, eating a traditional diet raises many health concerns. Located approximately 300 kilometres downstream of the Alberta oil sands, the residents of Fort Chipewyan claim to have experienced unusually high cancer rates. 

In 2009, Alberta Health Services reported that 51 cancer cases were found in 47 people in Fort Chipewyan. Community members attribute these cancers to the mercury, arsenic and hydrocarbons from tailings ponds in Fort McMurray. 

A 2006 Suncor study estimated there would be 312–453 additional cancer cases per 100,000 people eating moose, berries and other wild foods from the environment surrounding Fort Chipewyan due to arsenic contamination. Community members try not to eat fish more than once a week for fear of mercury poisoning. 

Adam has been a huge opponent to the drastic changes to the Fisheries Act included in Bill C-38 that removed protection of fish habitats for unhampered industrial activities. 

Adam says the government “needs to put stronger regulations in place to hold industry accountable for their actions. By weakening the Fisheries Act and environmental laws, the people suffer.” 

And it is the people, especially the farmers, who should be protected according to Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy at the National Farmers Union. The NFU is a voluntary, national farm organization dedicated to ensuring dignity and security of income for farm families. They work for fair food prices for both farmers and consumers and try to ensure an adequate supply of safe, nutritious food for all Canadians. 

In recent years, Holtslander has seen a growing trend where the government satiates corporate appetites rather than acting in the interests of the people. 

“Recently, certain changes to Canada’s environmental laws were brought into effect,” says Holtslander, referring to Bill C-45 and Bill C-38. “The Canadian citizens were not asking for those changes, but certain oil corporation were. And we see this same dynamic in agriculture where the government seems to be putting policy and laws in place that are not actually helping farmers, but are helping the agri-business corporations, global food processing companies and chemical companies. We want the government to be involved in a way that is representing a public interest rather than a private interest.”

A major function of the NFU is agriculture and food policy analysis. “One of the big policy areas that we have been working on is the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement. Some of the measures in that agreement would make it very difficult for small-scale farmers to continue selling into local markets through public procurement policies. What the EU is really asking for are rules that would prevent local procurement over a certain dollar threshold,” says Holtslander. 

CETA’s rules, for example, would prevent municipal organizations paying extra for locally produced food. CETA would make it mandatory for public bodies to buy the cheapest food on the market. 

The ability to preferentially purchase from local farmers promotes food security and protects food sovereignty. “We would be growing the food that Canadians eat on our territory rather than importing something that was cheaper but came from Mexico, China or Chile,” says Holtslander. 

Most fruits and vegetables available in grocery stores come from outside of Canada. This puts food security at the mercy of global markets. Food travels on average 3,000 kilometres to get to Canadian’s tables. Some food, like rice from Asia, travels over 9,000 km. Canada’s agricultural system is unsustainable because it is highly dependent on fossil fuels. This puts food security at risk for all Canadians. Moreover, when Canadian food comes from farther and farther away, Canadians can’t recognize the dignity in the people who are producing their food. 

Farmers are the cornerstone of food security in Canada because they produce food and in so doing, ensure the human right to food. However, farmers’ livelihoods have come under threat by corporate encroachment and rising land and input costs. 

“We have an ongoing protracted farm income crisis here in Canada, which means that farm incomes are depressed. That makes it really hard for farmers to earn a living,” says Holtslander. “We’re seeing corporations purchasing farm land and renting it back to farmers and they’re demanding the highest rent they can get. Farmers are not getting enough from their farming to keep going so they have to get extra jobs and that makes it quite stressful.”

When asked what the biggest challenge to food security is in Canada, Kathryn Sim of the Calgary 
Interfaith Food Bank does not hesitate to answer, “People do not have the funds.”

Thirty years ago, the first food bank in Canada opened in Edmonton, Alberta, originally intended as a temporary measure. Today, there are approximately 800 food banks across the nation. Food Banks Canada, a national, charitable organization representing the food bank community of Canada, calculated that nearly 900,000 Canadians a month were accessing food banks in 2011. 

What most people don’t realize is that the people accessing food banks are not necessarily jobless. “A third of our clients report that their income is from wages,” says Sim. “So people are earning a monthly wage, or perhaps they have seasonal employment or a job that doesn’t involve benefits, or people that are unexpectedly sick find themselves in a tight spot all of a sudden.” 

For many Calgarians, things became tough about five years ago when the recession hit. Sim reports that the number of Calgary Interfaith Food Bank users has started to drop in the past 18 months, which is the first time since the recession. Even still, the food bank is about 50 per cent busier than it was before the recession.

Despite being ubiquitous across Canada, there continues to be a stigma attached to food banking. “If you walk into client services where people are waiting in line to show their identification before they pick up their food, people’s gaze will drop to the floor,” says Sim. “They don’t want to be recognized. They don’t want to make eye contact or connect with anybody.”

Clearly, food bankers experience a loss of dignity, which demonstrates there is not enough protection of the right to food in Canada. 

“Changes need to happen at 
every level of government,” says Sim. “Changes also need to happen at a community level just in terms of food distribution and the sharing of resources.”

Food production is abundant in Canada and there is no reason for anyone to go hungry here. Canadians can increase national food security by supporting local farmers and by putting pressure on government to enact policy frameworks that put the public’s interest before private interest. 

All stakeholders must come together and develop a strategy that will help Canadians realize their economic, social and cultural human rights. On March 4, when the special rapporteur presents his report to the UN, the government needs to heed its recommendations. In a way that is dignified, sustainable and healthy, we can all come to the table and partake in the bounty of the right to food in Canada.