UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food consults with Québec civil society

by Janina Grabs

A day after Olivier de Schutter arrived in Canada, his first consultation with civil society took place in Montreal. During an intense day of dialogue, 13 organizations had the opportunity to share their perspectives and recommendations on the right to food in Canada and Quebec with the Special Rapporteur. One after another, participants spoke of their work in building community initiatives, working against poverty and hunger, showing how our current system is leaving too many people hungry and too many farmers and fishers vulnerable to market forces they do not control.  Many acknowledged the usefulness of the human rights framework  to  achieving food security and sovereignty and underscored the importance of cross-cutting partnerships.

Mr. de Schutter’s lively introductory statement highlighted the fact that Canada was the first OECD country to extend an invitation to the Special Rapporteur and thus the first developed country he has visited during his mandate. He called the existence of 2 million people living with food insecurity in a country as wealthy as Canada a scandal. He put special emphasis on the country-specific challenges to food security – not occurrences of famine, but rather the unacknowledged presence of poverty and food deserts that lead to food insecurity, as well as the ongoing obesity crisis with its public health impacts. He also emphasized the necessity of continued civil society involvement, inviting participants to utilize his upcoming reports to their full potential in order to combine top-down and bottom-up policy reform.  Furthermore, he explained that the realization of the right to food required countries to adopt national food policies, as underlined in General Comment 12 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Several key points stood out from the discussion. First, many groups stressed that the right to food could not be protected in isolation, but was closely connected to the protection of – amongst other things – the right to work, education, adequate housing, and indigenous land rights. Members of Collectif pour un Québec Sans Pauvreté demonstrated the inadequacies of Québec social security protection, which forced low-income people to decide between a healthy diet and covering their other basic needs. Indigenous activist Ellen Gabriel presented the unique struggles that Native peoples face in protecting their land and thereby their livelihoods, physical health and cultural survival. Jean-Paul Faniel from the Table de concertation sur la faim et du développement social stressed the need for governmental intervention that provided a basic food basket at low prices for consumers and yet adequate profit margins for local small-scale producers. Marie-Paule Duquette from the Dispensaire diététique de Montréal further pointed out that many Québecers’ right to food is compromised by high rental costs and therefore called for general income increases.

Further, the need for a more localized food system and a closer consumer-producer relationship was a cross-cutting issue highlighted by many organizations. Members of Santropol Roulant, Greenpeace, and Équiterre pointed out the benefits of fresh, local produce and a vibrant rural community. Marcel Groleau, President of the Union des producteurs agricoles, stressed his organization’s dedication to an ecologically sound agro-food system, but also pointed out the many challenges Quebecois producers face in a global marketplace with powerful international competition. Union Paysanne was critical of the low levels of support for organic production compared to the generous subsidies provided for other agricultural sectors.

All presenters agreed that provincial and federal priority changes were essential in moving forward with an inclusive, holistic, coordinated food policy and invited both governments to see food as an essential good instead of a simple commodity and to fulfill their responsibility in protecting Canadians’ right to food accordingly. Food Secure Canada called for a national food strategy based on the People’s Food Policy.

All documents and presentations on the consultation in Montreal will be available on REDTAC’s website shortly. Mr. de Schutter is next scheduled to visit Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg, and he will present his report on the state of the right to food in Canada to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2013.

Janina Grabs is a student in Agricultural and Food Policy Analysis and a volunteer with Food Secure Canada.