//photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty


Policy options to support food sovereignty in a post-pandemic world

The tumultuous and uncertain state of the world in recent months poses an opportunity to analyze, with care, the systems we live in. We are in a public health crisis, an anti-racism revolution, and an economic recession¹. At the intersection of these three realities is the food system. The need for long-term policy change is clear. The principles of food sovereignty (a food system in which communities control the production and consumption of food) address the important issues of health, racism, and workers’ rights in the current corporate food regime. Governments and institutions must support food sovereignty in a post-pandemic world. Here are some policy options.

The first pillar of food sovereignty is that food is for people, not profit. Under a food sovereign system, food goes to those who are hungry in a culturally-appropriate manner. Along with other marginalized populations in Canada, Indigenous peoples are highly likely to experience food insecurity. Food sovereignty implies Indigenous food sovereignty; Indigenous peoples have been stewards of the land for a very long time.

The Native Council of PEI administers a Community Mapping survey which is used to identify the needs of the off-reserve Indigenous population on PEI. Recently, a food security question was added to the survey. According to Matthew MacDonald, Policy Analyst with the Native Council, only 29% of survey respondents felt that they could afford healthy food at all times. Community members responded with requests for access to food resource information and the facilitation of hunting, trapping, preparing, and storing traditional proteins such as eel. “Food security and food sovereignty is a huge priority of community members,” MacDonald said.

Matthew MacDonald, Policy Analyst with the Native Council //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

The Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1752 implies the right of the Mi’kmaq people to traditional occupation and use of the land for harvesting across the Maritimes. In the context of COVID-19, it is important for policymakers on PEI to be aware of Indigenous food sovereignty rights when introducing new public health measures. For example,  inter-provincial travel restrictions could prevent access to significant Mi’kmaq protein sources during the hunting season. “Canadian borders are not Mi’kmaq borders,” MacDonald said. Moose, caribou, and deer are typically hunted in other Maritime provinces and brought back to Epekwitk (Prince Edward Island), where the meat is distributed among community members.

MacDonald believes that now is a good time to develop a PEI Food Security Strategy in consultation with the Indigenous representative bodies in Epekwitk. “Part of the strategy should be to explicitly protect culturally relevant food sources. These should include aquaculture, fauna, such as rabbit, and flora including traditional medicines. [There is a] need to preserve the species crucial to Indigenous people […],” MacDonald said. This requires the preservation of habitats. The third pillar of food sovereignty is to work with nature. A food sovereign system would improve ecosystem resilience, recognizing that food production is a reciprocal relationship between the environment and humankind.

The fourth pillar of food sovereignty is to value food providers. Reg Phelan, of Seaspray Organics Cooperative, believes that policy is needed to ensure farmers make a living in agriculture. “Agriculture is the basis of the economy,” Phelan said. He supports a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), which would encourage new farmers to take up the hard work of farming. New farms may not make a profit in the first few years because essential equipment and land are huge up-front expenses. BIG, along with livable wages, would also ensure that essential farm and food processing workers are fairly compensated for their work.

Another crucial farming investment is the time spent on learning and refining skills. The second pillar of food sovereignty is to build knowledge and skills around biodiverse food production. BIG would give farmers the financial assurance needed to take the necessary risks in agricultural skill-building, such as learning about agro-ecological methods of growing food that is healthy for the environment and healthy to eat. For these reasons, BIG is supported by farming organizations such as the National Farmers Union² and La Via Campesina³.

Stella and Reg Phelan, Seaspray Organics Cooperative //submitted photo

Phelan is also concerned about the issue of responsible land use and ownership. “If you really want to look after the land, you have to take that control out of the large multinational companies that are now buying up large tracts of land on the island,” he said. “If we didn’t have the Lands Protection Act, not much land on PEI would be owned by Islanders.” Through a land banking system built into the Lands Protection Act Phelan suggested land could be transferred to young farmers who want to make agriculture part of the solution to climate change and biodiversity loss.

The fifth pillar of food sovereignty is to localize food systems, including public institutions like hospitals and schools. Heart Beet Organics farmer Amy Smith, quoted in Growing a Food Sovereign Island in March, said that there are very real barriers for farmers hoping to supply local institutions. Procurement policies may not allow institutions to buy directly from Island farmers, and small farmers struggle to compete with the low prices of food supply companies such as Sysco.

To surpass these barriers, institutional procurement policies must reserve a portion of their food purchases to be obtained from local producers. For example, the City of Toronto’s Local Food Procurement Policy states: “All City divisions engaged in the purchase of food for operational needs will include in their procurement documents appropriate specifications to increase local content in food purchases, measured in volume and categories of food.” On the Island, it would suffice to define all food produced within provincial borders as local. Local food is fresh or, at least in PEI, significantly less processed than food procured from large food supply companies. Sandy MacKay, of Alexander Fresh Vegetables, also supports local food procurement policies. “[There is] no reason why if I am home I get fresh vegetables yet if I get into an institution it’s likely from Sysco,” MacKay said.

Ann Wheatley, Trade Justice PEI //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

The sixth pillar of food sovereignty is to make decisions locally. Food systems inevitably involve trade, and it is vital that communities are provided the opportunity to take part in these agreements. Ann Wheatley, representing Trade Justice PEI, said that conversations around food sovereignty are really about how we produce and share food internationally as well as domestically.

“Free trade supports the corporatization of our food system, which exploits land, water, people, and contributes to climate change. It relies on massive scale production of cheap food, and on cheap labour,” Wheatley said. For example, international free trade agreements, such as the USMCA, can interfere with governments’ ability to favour local food producers. Trade agreements can also interfere with supply management policies, which assure Island dairy farmers their costs of production. Food sovereignty requires trade justice. The international trade agenda must be designed so that local farmers and consumers are not pushed aside to the benefit of corporations.

As we adapt and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and economic recession, our food system must be redesigned to include principles of food sovereignty and justice for all.

¹ https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-recession-economy-1.5552135
² https://www.nfu.ca/policy/nfu-brief-on-a-food-policy-for-canada/
³ https://viacampesina.org/en/till-sow-and-harvest-transformative-ideas-for-the-future/

About Shelby Downe

Shelby Kendra Downe is a social justice organizer at Cooper Institute in
Epekwitk (known as Prince Edward Island). She is interested in the ways
in which systems of oppression shape our interactions with the land, and
how cultural resistance can actively subvert those vertical relationships.

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