A United Nations expert sees Canada's "export-led" agricultural and trade policies hampering the farming sector's ability to move to "sustainable and decentralized" food systems.
Olivier De Schutter, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food, wrapped up his official visit to Canada on Wednesday with a statement that credits Canadian farmers for their support of a national food strategy.
However, the Belgian human rights expert and university professor said Canada's "export-led policies in agriculture have resulted in increased concentration, vertical integration and buyer consolidation in the agri-food sector."
Free trade deals, he said, have been "detrimental" to many farmers, whose "net incomes have decreased and whose debt has increased dramatically over the past decades."
Canada's food safety regulations, De Schutter added, "do not meet the unique needs of less industrial, more seasonal, and alternative production methods."
"A thriving small-scale farming sector is essential to local food systems," he said, noting the work of "food policy councils and localities throughout Canada" to that end.
Such systems can deliver "considerable ecological and health benefits" for schoolchildren, "underserved" urban and northern communities and care home residents, he said.
However, he added, all levels of Canada's government may be restricted in their use of "institutional sourcing" to encourage such a transition. He cited "legal requirements of non-discrimination" on public procurement and, possibly, the negotiation of free trade deals.
Initiatives to rebuild local food systems, ensuring "adequate incomes" for farmers and consumers' access to fresh and nutritious foods, "were not sufficiently supported at (the) federal level" and are "currently under threat," he said.
The federal government, he said, had also moved to "gradually dismantle existing orderly marketing systems," such as the Canadian Wheat Board's single desk for Prairie wheat and barley, and to revise the Canadian Grain Commission's governance and mandate.
Concentration in the ag sector has also left it "heavily reliant" on temporary foreign farm workers, about 30,000 of whom come to work in Canada under federal programs but are "in an extremely precarious position," De Schutter said.
"What I've seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and Aboriginal (and) non-Aboriginal peoples," he said in a separate release Wednesday.
The federal government, he said, should convene a national food conference that would clarify allocation of responsibilities between the federal level, the provinces and territories.
All political parties have expressed support for the establishment of a national food policy and the engagement of citizens through food policy councils is "truly impressive," he said, but Canada "must first recognize the reality of the challenges it faces."
Among those, De Schutter said 800,000 Canadian households are “food-insecure” but the government "fails to adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities."
Adequate diets “have become too expensive for poor Canadians,” he said, citing Canada’s obesity rates. The poor “have to pay the most when they live in food deserts and depend on convenience stores that charge higher prices than the main retailers."
De Schutter also called for reform of the Nutrition North Canada program that subsidizes retailers to serve remote communities.
"In particular, he is concerned that the retail subsidy is not being fully passed on to the consumer and that in the absence of adequate monitoring by those it is intended to benefit, the program is not achieving its desired outcome," the end-of-visit statement said.
He also called for "a structural approach to tackling the socioeconomic and cultural barriers to opportunities for those living on reserves."
Responding Wednesday, federal NDP ag critic Malcolm Allen said the rapporteur's review shows the government is "failing to guarantee" Canadians' right to safe and nutritious food.
The federal Liberals said last week that De Schutter's next step will be a formal report to the UN Human Rights Council, "which will become part of Canada's official human rights record."
"The fact that Canada is now the first developed country to be investigated by (De Schutter) is nothing short of a failure for the Harper Conservatives," interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said.
A spokesperson for federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Wednesday that officials from the ag department were booked to meet with De Schutter during his visit. No "formal request" had been made for De Schutter to meet with Ritz, the spokesperson added.
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