This post was written by Jesse Firempong, Policy and Outreach Intern, Oxfam Canada
If UN Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter’s report on the right to food in Canada had you nodding in agreement, you’re not the only one. On the eve of last Saturday’s Oxfam Maritimes Regional Assembly, the future of food was the entrée that guests and panelists were serving up.
In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (PEI), we brought together Oxfam Executive Director Robert Fox with three local experts: Marie Burge of the Cooper Institute, organic farmer Reg Phelen, and Ian MacPherson of the PEI Fisherman's Association.
What emerged from the conversation was that fair trade for farmers and access to nutritious food for all are common issues affecting Canada and developing countries alike. Panelists were frustrated by the increasing concentration of wealth and power at all points within the food system.
Robert Fox emphasized the fact that 90 per cent of the world’s grain is controlled by just five companies. Adding insult to the injury done to small-scale farmers and the environment by industrial monocultures is the dysfunction of agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries and dumping in the markets of poor countries. To illustrate, Robert shared an anecdote from his days in Nicaragua, where butter produced in Ireland—refrigerated and shipped halfway across the world—was less expensive than butter produced locally!
The situation is mixed in PEI, fraught with successes and threats. The good news is that beef production remains relatively deconcentrated and about 40 per cent of PEI farmers are small-scale. Alternative marketing arrangements are also becoming increasingly popular, including farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture arrangements and fair-trading.
The flip side of these gains is that low beef prices are pushing independent farmers out of business. Canada has now lost about a tenth of its farmers in the past five years. Not coincidentally, there has been a 7 per cent increase in the size of farms. Reg Phelen shared that there were 40 farms on his road when he was young and now his is the only one remaining.
Today, lobster is the driver of PEI’s fisheries economy, said Ian MacPherson. About 30 per cent of the country’s lobster haul is caught by Islanders, while Canada supplies 30 per cent of the world’s lobster. At present, there are just two cooperatives and three processing plants owned by Islanders.
When it comes to the fisheries, independent fishermen lack long-term storage, not unlike producers in the Global South. This makes it difficult for fishermen to get the business of larger chain stores where most Canadians shop. Such stores demand a 12-month supply of seafood, which requires long-term storage facilities that small-scale fishers just don’t have.
With anticipated changes to the Fleet Separation Policy and Owner Operator Policy, Oxfam’s own Bill Hynd worried about the possibility of an “ocean grab” in the fisheries—that changes to these rules would increase the concentration of control to large corporations, similar to the “land grabs” issue in the Global South. Ian pointed out that on Canada’s West coast where these policy changes are already in effect, most of the salmon fished and sold is controlled by one or two (now) wealthy individuals.
“There’s not much money in being a farmer,” people have told Marie Burge, to which she replies, “No, but there’s a lot of money in the food system.” Similarly, Ian MacPherson quipped, “He who has money or might gets the food.” These sentiments highlight how industrial-model agriculture is undermining small-scale producers in the Maritimes. Just like in developing countries, individual food producers see their livelihoods threatened on a day-to-day basis while corporations and traders profit from food commodities.
So, after all of these revelations, the question on everybody’s minds echoed Robert’s opening question: “As citizens, consumers and activists—what are we doing?” But also, how can we do more?
Like Marie, Reg sees farmers’ markets as one marketing venture with potential to change the system for the better. While improvements are needed on the supply-side, consumers have a responsibility to purchase ethically, demanding local, fair price and fair-trade products. To do this, we need better labeling laws. We need to know where our food comes from and to be able to identify local products to support Canadian farmers. Ian also suggested getting chain stores to enhance their product content sourced from the local, regional and national levels.
Like Olivier De Schutter, panelists suggested that Canada needs a national food strategy. This policy should include food reserves, since PEI has only enough food to last two days should transportation to the Island get cut off! Reg Phelen thinks we should ensure dialogue with farmers and students, two groups traditionally left out of social protection schemes. "These groups should enjoy a minimum guaranteed income", he said.
Let’s also look past the statistics and dollar signs. These can be vital measures, but we need metrics with a human face. "Let’s measure climate change in the number of minutes women must walk to find clean water or hours of school lost by girls pulled out to help their mothers", suggests Robert Fox. "Let’s measure agricultural development in the number of independent farmers and fishers who stay in business."
As Robert Fox said, we need to be “rethinking the whole picture.” It’s not just about cheap food, but it is also about good health, earning a decent living, and enabling a more equitable distribution of food for all at a fair price. Participants seem to agree that bigger is not better and this holds true whether you live in Pakistan or Prince Edward Island!