Beyond niche: How a national food policy can strengthen Canada’s organic sector and build a more healthy, just and sustainable food system

Opinion Editorial by Amanda Wilson and Lauren Martin

Fall signals the beginning of harvest season for farmers across Canada, bringing an end to a year that has been unpredictable and challenging for many producers. However, this fall also marks the beginning of a new chapter in Canadian agri-food policy, writ. Given the federal government's desire to link the social, environmental and economic outcomes of our food system, a key priority of this food policy should be harnessing the growth and potential of Canada’s organic sector to ensure that healthy and sustainable food is a reality for all Canadians.  

The Canadian government is in the last leg of a consultation process on building A Food Policy for Canada. This federal policy has the potential to provide a set of overarching guiding principles and key priorities for the Canadian food system. Canada’s food system is governed by a patchwork of laws, regulations, and policies that cut across multiple departments as well as municipal, provincial/territorial and federal jurisdictions. In short, the governance of food and agriculture is as complex as the food system itself. A federal food policy would help connect these policies and programs, creating a more cohesive and integrated policy environment.

In developing this policy, the government has identified four central themes: increasing access to affordable food, improving health and food safety; conserving our soil, water, and air; and growing more high-quality food. Building on these pillars, Food Secure Canada (FSC) is calling for a food policy that takes a “food-systems” perspective, meaning that the policy actively connects each of these themes. In addition, FSC is urging the government to prioritize reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, innovative collaborative governance mechanisms to ensure civil society has a voice at the decision-making table, and finally that this policy includes dedicated resources to ensure its objectives become a reality.   

Meeting these objectives won’t be easy, but encouragingly we have existing models that connect some of the social and environmental priorities of our food system. For instance, organic farming, the focus of Organic Week events happening all week across Canada, brings a lot to the table. In addition to double digit growth rates, organic farming systems improve soil conditions, leads to lower levels of highly-hazardous pesticide and fertilizer run-off , increased water retention of soil, and greater biodiversity. There are important health and social benefits as well. Organic producers contribute to an open and transparent food chain, improved animal welfare and workers’ health and safety. According to the Census of Agriculture, organic farming families on average earn more from their farms than the typical Canadian farm does, and employ more people per farm too.

Certified organic food is sometimes criticized for being more expensive and less accessible than conventionally grown food. Affordability is a challenge for many Canadians in accessing healthy and sustainably-grown food. However, Canada has some of the cheapest food prices in the world and research shows that issues of food accessibility and food insecurity have more to do with income levels than food prices. This is a great example of why advocates have been calling for a national food policy. A set of priorities and principles that cut across sectors is needed to ensure the equally important goals of food security and environmental sustainability are not competing.

The organic sector should be positioned as a strategic investment area within A Food Policy for Canada. In doing so, the federal government can harness the social and environmental benefits of organic production methods to meet the goals of the  Food Policy. As a first step, A Food Policy for Canada should ensure that agri-food policies and programs are inclusive of a diversity of farmers in terms of type and scale of farming, in both commodity and non-commodity sectors, domestic and export markets, and particularly in emerging, non-traditional sectors. At present, organic farmers and food businesses are under-served within current agri-food policies and programs. For instance, organic agriculture represents 2% of Canadian agriculture, yet receives a mere 0.25% of research funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The Food Policy should also establish supports and training opportunities for farmers and fishers to transition to more ecological production methods such as organic. By ensuring that organic producers are on equal footing to all other producers, and by making it easier for both producers and consumers to choose organic, the federal government can meet its objectives and ensure the sustainability of our food system for generations to come.

 


Canada’s National Organic Week is the largest annual celebration of organic food, farming and products across the country. This year's edition took place September 16-24.

To hear more about Food Secure Canada’s plan for national food policy, check out Five Big Ideas for a Better Food System.  


 

Amanda Wilson is a PostDoctoral Fellow working with Food Secure Canada, and Lauren Martin is the Manager of Government Relations and Regulatory Affairs with the ‎Canada Organic Trade Association.