Food Security ~ A Canadian Discussion
A National Food Security Forum was held at The University of Saskatchewan, well-known for its major research into a variety of ingredients including Prairie cherries and pulse crops. In the late spring of 2013, the primary question asked of the scholars and scientists gathered was: What can Canada do to address global food security issues?
It was a collaborative event co-chaired by Dr Sylvain Charlebois (College of Business & Economics, University of Guelph) and Dean Mary Buhr (College Agriculture & Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan). The following White Paper, published here with their kind permission summarizes both the material presented and the ideas raised at the symposium surrounding food security within the framework of current population projections that, if correct, call for a 50 % increase in global food production by 2050. The mounting pressure from such a powerful statistic raises the greater question to be considered by these forums. In February 2014 a second such forum was held at the University of Guelph.
The goal of the two forums is to bring us closer to a better understanding of both Canada’s current and potential role in global food security and because Canada’s agricultural and food landscape vary from one region to another, the two forums mean to be complement one another by capitalizing on two different agro-food knowledge hubs. In the area of agriculture and food, the East/West divide often prevents Canadian researchers and policymakers alike to fully utilize the knowledge base across the country, therefore, connecting East to West through the Saskatoon and Guelph forums allows participants to experience an innovative opportunity to transfer knowledge, share diverse perspectives, and appreciate how Canada can lead efforts to mitigate food insecurity in the global economy. The Saskatoon forum focused on the role of inputs, genetics, and primary production within the framework of the principles and practices of global food security.
The two day meeting included the following topics: Volatility and the New Normal; The Future ~Agribusiness and Viability; Food Traceability, Inspection, and Health Future; Plant and Animal Biotechnology; Water, Land and Climate; Sustainability, the Environment, and the Strategic Farmer. They will be published in three parts over the coming weeks.
Volatility and the New Normal ~ Speakers: Evan Fraser, University of Guelph and Steve Shirtliffe, University of Saskatchewan.
By 2050 there will 4 billion more people to feed than today. That kind of change in population requires at least an equal consideration of change in policy in feeding that many people, but change in belief tends to be slower than change itself. For example, it has been a widely shared view that low food prices are a curse to developing countries, until recent, dramatic increases in food prices have fundamentally altered this view. However, although the vast majority of current analyses and reports state that high food prices have a devastating effect on developing countries, the methods of production are only beginning to respond to the scientific evidence. Similarly, the research shows that in the years leading up to 2050, agriculture will also face climate change and the challenges it brings, such as weed management. Changes in pesticide-use policy is only at the local level and there has been no policy in response to the impact of the heavy tilling, common in organic farming, on soil quality and sustainability.
In order to reorient agricultural policy from maximum production towards sustainability requires not only a shift from traditional economic models, but actual farming methods as well and it is public opinion that eventually leads to policy shifts. The researchers must find ways to reach out to the public and make the coming pressures on agriculture an immediate reality and not only a problem for future generations. The public includes farmers and people who work for and with farmers, as well as at food packaging and distribution companies, in the food transport and delivery industry and at retail food outlets…and of course, consumers of food products. It is the inter-connectivity of the food industry with so many others that is its advantage and can be used to communicate with the public regarding sustainability and the funding for research required to meet the needs of all of us.
It needs to be made clear to the public that it is within the process of change that multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research can contribute to both the farmers and workers on the ground and the agribusinesses on the stock exchange. Canadian research in these areas is of high quality, but more needs to be done – and quickly – for 2050 is not far away.
Funding for such research must be seen as politically positive and in order for that to happen public support for it must be high. It needs to be demonstrated clearly to the public how the recent legislative move by the Harper government to only fund research that can be related directly to economic outcomes threatens to have a devastating impact on the most viable solution to the growing global need for food security: innovative, multi-and inter-disciplinary study. The immediate challenge to the Canadian arena of agriculture academia is to learn how to connect and educate the public as to the immediacy of the food security issue — and that alone requires innovation and study. Public relations (PR) is itself an area of scholarly scrutiny that needs to be tapped into by scientists to find people who may be better at making the case for sustainability than the researchers themselves are.
The Future: Agribusiness and Viability ~ Speakers: John Cranfield, University of Guelph and William Kerr, University of Saskatchewan.
The challenge of preventative measures is that they are not always obvious and are sometimes in direct conflict with short-term goals. For example, the increase in the national and international productivity of agriculture and agribusiness in recent decades hides the environmental, social, and health costs behind that success. The knowledge and responsibility to prevent such issues from arising is fragmented as they carry their own histories that are not all connected to agriculture and are therefore assigned to separate government ministries. The cost of these disunited and uncoordinated responsibilities is becoming apparent as the success agricultural policy has achieved is bumping up against global realities such as nourishment levels of food products, food security, and the environmental sustainability of agricultural methods.
Within the current agribusiness system these issues are subordinated to unrelated economic issues as agriculture remains preoccupied with traditional business view that focuses on competitiveness and efficiency. In tandem, Canadian government policies, programs, and regulations are designed to support specific commodities, not farming and food systems. Together, agriculture and government practices are not recognizing that the future lies in reorienting agricultural policy away from maximum production towards sustainability, both domestically and abroad.
An underlying premise of sustainability is prevention; for only by preparing for recovery from, or preventing, crises can a system sustain itself. The lack of allegiance to sustainability in favour of more traditional views of agribusiness in Canada – and indeed, around the world — is understandable since a clear, global definition of food security does not currently exist. As an agricultural leader Canada should show leadership by initiating the discussion which will establish the parameters to assist the world in meeting food security needs through sustainable methods based preventative measures.
Any definition of food security will require immediate consideration of the most overt problem: secure access to food in conflict-ridden areas. However, it also needs to take into account world-wide problems such as the lack of income security and what to do with food waste. The pressure for the discussion to occur may appear to be coming from the poorest or war-torn regions, but developing countries are also facing their own rapid changes. The widening gap between what has been called the 1% and the 99% means that many middle-class families in Canada can no longer eat the way they have in the past. Immigrant groups are also changing the popularity of certain protein groups, such as lamb over pork. In a similar vein, in developing countries, such as India and China, where the middle-class is growing, many families wish to no longer rely on a fibre-based diet and are making the switch to a protein-based one. The demand for grain to feed the animals to provide meat protein across such highly-populated countries is altering the global agricultural landscape.
To simply increase crop production to feed animals and not to feed people directly, is an example of meeting a market demand without considering the long-term impact on both animals and people as such land use has the potential to alter entire eco-systems, and to invariably run out of land space. Within the context of sustainability and prevention, Canada’s agricultural land currently being sold at a premium for urban expansion, especially in Southern Ontario where the pressure for residential housing is the highest in the country, is certainly short-sighted.
The economics of the present-day are outweighing the exponential increase in value the land will have for farming in 2050. An increase in protein consumption is up across the globe, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere. This is putting pressure on food systems around the world.
On the other hand, in the industrialized world, the general consumer trend is towards spending less on food relative to disposable income. It has been argued that affordability has been deemed a priority for consumers in wealthier regions of the World..
Coming Next: Part Two: Food Traceability, Inspection, and Health: Plant and Animal Biotechnology; Water, Land & Climate
Finally: Part Three: Sustainability, Environment, and the Strategic Farmer: Conclusions and an array of Future Questions!