On the surface, the $50-million Surplus Food Rescue Program recently launched by the federal government is simply a sensible response to highly unusual circumstances.
The government is buying up surplus fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and seafood from farmers and fishers who would normally supply the foodservice sector and distributing it to Canadians suffering from food insecurity during the pandemic. Foodservice remains one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy.
Not only does the program help support producers who might otherwise be put out of business, it helps put food on the table for Canadian families suffering from income shortfalls due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn. The bonus is that it prevents large quantities of nutritious food from going to waste.
The program is consistent with the message Canadians sent during consultations around Canada’s first national food policy a few years ago.
Canadians responding to the government’s call for input were pretty clear: they want governments to prioritize safe and affordable food for Canadians — but not at the expense of farmers.
This convergence of economic and social policy around food is a first for Canada, although these approaches are common in other countries, most notably the U.S. where the “food stamp” program for the hungry is a major component of its farm policy.
However, the triple-win scenario embodied in the surplus purchase program is symbolic of a much bigger conversation that’s bubbling up around how recent events could — and should — force a rethink of Canada’s agricultural and food policies.
“The COVID crisis lifted the veil on our food system,” says Nourish Food Marketing president Jo-Ann McArthur in a recent online article. “There is now a spotlight on how we treat workers, whether migrant labourers in the fields or employees in a meat-processing plant.
“Consumers increasingly want to know how it was made or grown, how the workers involved in processing, growing or harvesting, including non-resident farm workers, were treated, and if animal and environmental welfare matter to their brands.”
Whereas “fair trade” has become a popular marketing niche in recent years, McArthur is questioning whether the broader concept of food justice will take over.
“While still focused on making a profit, conscious capitalism recognizes that some stakeholders lack a voice in the process, like the environment or the migrant worker and need to be represented,” she says.
Changing consumer ethics are already rippling back to the farm through programs and initiatives such as 4R Nutrient management that lighten agriculture’s environmental footprint and track and tell the story.
The program announced this week is evidence that these pressures are influencing government policy too.
In their latest policy note, economists Al Mussell, Doug Hedley and Ted Bilyea with Agri-Food Economic Systems say there is an urgent need for agricultural policy-makers to acknowledge that the assumptions on which current agricultural programs are based are no longer valid.
Rules-based trade at the global level is unravelling despite the continued efforts to implement multilateral and bilateral agreements, and governments elsewhere are digging deep into their treasuries to support their agricultural sectors, which places Canadian farmers at a competitive disadvantage.
Pandemic and other market pressures are causing market volatility that is much wider than current business risk management programs for farmers were designed to handle, and the same regionalism that is creating havoc with trade on the global scale could easily resurface domestically as well.
“Agri-food is especially vulnerable to provincialism as it is a portfolio of joint federal and provincial authority,” they write.
Rather than succumbing to “beggar thy neighbour” approaches that weaken the sector, they’re suggesting Canada examine how the agricultural sector can collaboratively capture more value from its relatively clean environmental track record and its ability to supply traceable assurances to customers.
“Broad public concerns regarding deforestation and aspects of agriculture’s footprint on the environment are no longer the concerns of a fringe element of the population — rather, they are focuses of retailers and governments in a range of countries throughout the world in responding to consumers and planning how they will feed their populations respectively,” the economists note.
Rising to that challenge doesn’t necessarily mean radical changes to how we farm. It does however, require sector-wide buy-in.
Canada may not be able to change the rules. But it can change how it plays the game.