Several years ago, a group of Canadian organizations gathered to discuss one of their shared funding priorities: sustainable food systems. Hailing from across the country, this informal funders’ group began to contemplate how best to come together to share learnings and in some cases, support of strategic partnerships to deepen their impact.
Earlier this summer, the group commissioned a high level landscape assessment of the Canadian food system to help inform its work. As a Social Innovation Fellow in Sustainable Food Systems at the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, I had the unique opportunity to complete interviews in support of this assessment, which Eco-Ethonomics is conducting.
My questions included the following: When you think about the Canadian food system, what catches your attention? What are the key levers for change? How can we most effectively collaborate across sectors and regions to make lasting change?
I spoke with 22 leaders, actors and influencers who represent a spectrum of expertise within our national food system, from production, processing, distribution, and industry work, to the academic, non-profit, private, and government sectors. Some compelling themes emerged.
Although the farmer population in Canada is aging rapidly, soaring land prices and the anticipated burden of compliance cost may deter younger farmers from launching careers in the agricultural sector. These costs and the organizational flexibility required to meet them often preclude small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from achieving long-term success. Furthermore, corporate concentration has made it difficult for SMEs to compete in the food sector.
Interviewees noted that the food industry relies heavily on carbon to fuel food production and distribution processes, and suggested that efforts to “green” conventional agriculture could address this. In terms of the social sustainability of the food system, disproportionately high incidence of food insecurity in Aboriginal communities and lack of assured employer accountability for migrant and refugee workers’ rights are prominent barriers to an inclusive and resilient food system. These issues in particular are representative of macro-level political, social, and economic marginalization of these community groups. Targeted support in the food sector could dramatically shift these systems and outcomes.
While the interviewees had a diversity of stances on key barriers to sustainable development in the Canadian food sector, there was more consensus on the levers for change that they identified. Policy, education, advocacy and financial incentives are all powerful levers: interviewees often mentioned accessible food literacy programs and integration of new incentive structures to support sustainable purchasing at an institutional level as key initiatives to catalyze impact. Most interviewees list a national food policy as a keystone of a sustainable Canadian food system.
Similarly, interviewees found that investments in both rebuilding supply chains and in scalable alternatives to conventional supply chains like food distribution hubs and farm incubators would support the sustainability of our food system. The creation of accessible, practical resources and incentives for sustainable farming practices in conventional, large-scale agriculture are also important levers for change to mitigate negative externalities of industrialized agriculture such as soil depletion and excessive waste.
It is a momentous challenge to begin to understand the Canadian food system, which is itself an expression of the interplay between so many other systems, actors and forces. Over the course of these 22 interviews, I was grateful to take in such a huge amount of wisdom. I emerged at the conclusion of these conversations with some answers, but perhaps more importantly, with a new set of challenging and engaging questions.