Food policy could end farming crisis

There’s a crisis in agriculture.

It’s an oft-repeated statement, one that at times comes from beef and pork farmers, and other times from the grain or the fruit and vegetable growers.

In fact, it seems as though there’s always a crisis in agriculture – perhaps in different sectors at different times, but it always seems as if someone is teetering on the brink of disaster and asking for help.

I’ve written about this crisis in farming in this column before – and I also work for and with farmers on a daily basis so I know that the hurt is there and that it’s real.

Help is definitely needed, and given that agriculture is now considered by many to have surpassed the auto industry as the largest contributor to Ontario’s economy, I don’t think that’s out of line.

After all, what’s at stake is not just our food but also 740,000 jobs across the entire agri-food industry.

It’s true that sometimes there specific, extenuating circumstances that will land a sector in crisis.

BSE and H1N1 come to mind.

And there are normal ups and downs in any industry, but the problems that have been plaguing agriculture are deeper.

There’s a need to look beyond the short-term causes – like a higher dollar, a closed border or a drastic spike in fertilizer prices – so that we can find a sustainable, long-term solution that will help ensure our farmers aren’t forced to continuously lurch from crisis to crisis.

It would also mean an end to the ongoing need for government help.

The answer for farmers – and taxpayers – may well lie in a national food policy or food strategy.

It’s something that Canada does not currently have, but it’s high time we did.

Most of us – accustomed to supermarket shelves brimming with low-cost food – likely don’t give food and farming issues a second thought.

We have no concept of what it could mean to depend solely on other countries to provide us with what we eat.

After all, we buy and use imported goods all the time: our clothes, our electronics, our household goods and many other every day items.

But perhaps, along with worries about jobs, mortgages and credit card bills, we should spare a few minutes to consider how we want our children and grandchildren to live, and how we want them to nourish themselves.

What kind of value should our society be placing on homegrown food?

How important is it that we have farmers in our communities and in our economy?

How can we protect and nurture our environment while at the same time sustaining food production for ourselves and others?

In Britain, the department for environment, food and rural affairs has just launched a national food policy.

Food 2030, the British government’s vision of what the nation’s food system should look like 20 years hence, focuses on sustainable, environmentally responsible food production for both domestic and export markets, and how this can be achieved in the face of climate change and a growing global population.

Alongside this is a focus on farmers who are competitive and profitable, and consumers who are informed and healthy eaters.

Here at home, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has been advocating for a national food strategy and, together with other farm groups across the country, is involved in a consultative process to explore the issue further.

The OFA began discussions around what this strategy could look like at meetings with its members across the province this month, and the Future of Food is the theme of the upcoming Canadian Federation of Agriculture annual conference.

It is hoped that the outcome will be an official food policy that can be adopted by Ottawa and the provinces to ensure a homegrown food supply that is sustainable for all – and in doing so, also spell an end to the ongoing crisis in agriculture.

Read this column in the Guelph Mercury.

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