by Graham Riches
Food security is attracting increasing local, national and global attention as a pivotal ecological, economic and social justice issue for the 21st century. In Canada, evidence of this can be seen in the development of food security networks and policy councils across the country and in the federal government's publication of Canada's Action Plan for Food Security in 1998. According to that document - the result of the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome - "food security exists, when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."
Yet food security has been a neglected issue in social policy analysis, debate and advocacy in Canada. In light of the telling human and social consequences of the prairie farm crisis, the depletion of fish stocks on the East and West coasts, and the fact that 790,000 Canadians - many of them children - use charitable food banks, this is a critical oversight. Food security provides a way of re-framing debates about poverty, inequality and social exclusion. It opens up new opportunities to advance the legitimacy of these issues in public and political discussions. It also suggests new alliances and strategies for action, and in so doing, identifies a key role for national social policy organizations such as the CCSD.
Why food matters
Food matters for a variety of reasons. It is basic to diet and nutrition, and we ignore it at our peril, particularly if diet is significantly related to human disease. It is essential to physical health and to life itself.
Food is clearly an economic commodity but more profoundly, it is a social and cultural good that is vital to our sense of individual, family, community and societal well-being. Food has symbolic meanings in different cultures and religions, and it is central to family and community life. Food can be about pleasure, good company, or romance. As such, it reaches into every corner of human existence.
Food is also a political commodity, fought over within families and communities, by global corporate interests, and the state. Who controls the food system and who has access to it are matters that should be of concern to society as a whole. This is particularly true when the food system is increasingly controlled by global food traders whose sole concern is turning a profit. When we deny food to people in our community - such as those on welfare whose benefits have run out - we are not only infringing on their rights of citizenship and denying them access to our community, we are also excluding them from life itself. Food, health, welfare, the environment and justice are inseparable.
Food connects us all. As such, it has the potential of bringing together different sectors of our communities to talk about achieving food security and how to address a range of community issues, and to link the personal and the political. If, figuratively speaking, you put food on the table for discussion, many people will enter the debate. It allows us to talk about the related issues of poverty and environmental degradation, agricultural reform, fisheries policies, health and social justice, food safety, and genetically modified foods. It links welfare and environmental issues between and within countries of the North and South. Food issues have a strategic capacity to build progressive movements to advance ecological, health and social justice.
How are we going to feed the world?
Food also matters because it is undoubtedly the most significant challenge facing us in the 21st century: How are we going to feed the world? At the World Food Summit in Rome, a commitment was made by international NGOs and participating states, including Canada, to cut the number of hungry people in the world by half by the year 2015. (It currently stands at 790 million.) Yet according to Jacques Diouf, the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this commitment is already behind schedule. Indeed, there are eight million people suffering from food poverty in the most industrially advanced nations of the world - including Canada. According to the National Council of Welfare's 1999 publication, Poverty Profile, 5.1 million Canadians, or 17.2% of the population, lived in poverty in 1997.
This indicates that there is a global crisis with deep roots in both the developing and industrialized worlds. It also suggests that any approach to understand and act upon local or provincial food security issues must take into account the global food system and its ability to feed us all.
Canada and the human right to food
It is ironic that Canada recognizes the right to food in a number of international conventions, such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which Canada ratified in 1976. Yet there is no mechanism within Canada to ensure that we comply with our international legal commitments, because social and economic rights are deemed to be matters of political - not legal - recourse. Indeed, since the Canada Assistance Plan was scrapped in 1996, it could be argued that Ottawa and the provinces have reneged on these commitments.
That is regrettable, given the fact that food poverty continues to grow in Canada. And there is little prospect that market-driven welfare reforms - such as changes to Employment Insurance, social assistance and workfare, or targeted benefits such as the National Child Benefit, minimum wage increases, and tax reductions - will solve this problem or lead to a reduction in food bank usage. Welfare reform may be useful for some working families and the working-poor, but not for the significant underclass of dispossessed people.
Rethinking current approaches to poverty reduction and social policy
A new perspective on food security invites us to rethink our current approaches to social policy analysis, development and advocacy. It does this in a number of ways.
First, it shows us that the global nature of food poverty and the corporatization of the food industry is driving peasants and farmers off the land in both the North and South and undermining societies' capacities to feed themselves and to develop sustainable food production systems. Clearly, social policy cannot develop in an environmental vacuum. Links between food security and social policy is the way of the future. Increasingly, issues of hunger, food access and environmental sustainability are being debated domestically and internationally by a variety of sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, environment, health and nutrition, education, community planning, trade and aid, sustainable agriculture and biotechnology.
Second, the human right to food is essential to any concept of citizenship and it demands that we rethink eligibility for income support, which has increasingly been determined by punitive and restrictive work requirements. There are compelling reasons to de-commodify social rights so that people without employment - including the unemployed, the mentally ill, mothers raising children at home, people with disabilities, street people and the homeless - may claim their entitlements and be able to feed themselves and their families. Internationally recognizing the human right to food is empty rhetoric in Canada if we do not provide welfare benefits that are adequate enough to address nutritional food needs.
Third, in light of the failure of charitable food banks and emergency food programs to solve the problem of hunger in Canada, we need to question the increasing reliance on surplus food redistribution as an effective policy response. We need to explore the relationships among the institutionalization of surplus food redistribution programs and failed employment, income redistribution and structural adjustment policies. That is not to suggest that school food programs, collective kitchens, or good-food programs should not be supported - far from it. However, the balance between income support and food programs needs to be reconsidered.
Fourth, national social policy organizations such as the CCSD should play a leading role in monitoring Canada's Action Plan for Food, the Canadian response to the 1996 World Food Summit. This report sets out a national agenda, with proposed actions in both the domestic and international arenas. While the plan was not endorsed by leading anti-hunger and food policy organisations in Canada, it nevertheless provides an opportunity to hold federal and provincial governments accountable.
Should we not be planning for the demise of food banks in Canada by 2010? True, we failed to eliminate child poverty in the 1990s, but now we need to redouble those efforts. Such policy advocacy should include an analysis of food security for the annual federal budget consultations, and national and local recognition of World Food Day in October, based on support for the human right to food and Canada's international food security commitments and obligations.
Lastly, there needs to be strong support for coalition-building among NGOs in different sectors for public education and policy advocacy concerning food security. Coalitions could include such groups as the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the North-South Institute, OxFam-Canada, Inter-Pares, food policy councils and networks in provinces and communities across the country, the Canadian Association of Food Banks, the National Anti-Poverty Organization, the National Institute of Nutrition, the National Farmers' Union, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Dietetic Association, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Centre for Food Security Studies at Ryerson Polytechnic University, as well as others working in the environmental, health, agricultural and fisheries movements.
Food security in the 21st century is too important to be neglected by the social policy community. It is an issue whose time has come.
- The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 1999. Report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
- The Land of Milk and Money, The National Report of the People's Food Commission. Kitchener: Between the Lines, 1980.
- F.M. Lappe, J. Collins, and P. Rosset. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. New York: Grove Press, 2nd Edition, 1998.
- M. Koc and K. Dahlberg, eds. "The Restructuring of Food Systems: Trends, Research and Policy Issues," special issue of Agriculture and Human Values, Journal of the Agriculture and Human Values Society, Vol. 16, No. 2, June 1999, Kluwer Academic Publishers.
- M. Koc, R. MacRae, L. Mougeot, and J. Welsh, eds. For Hunger-Proof Cities: Sustainable Food Systems. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1999.
- L. Kalina. Building Food Security in Canada: A Community Guide for Action on Hunger. Kamloops: Kamloops FoodShare, 1993.
- G. Riches, ed. First World Hunger: Food Security and Welfare Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
- C. Hawkes and J. Webster. "Too Much and Too Little: Debates on Surplus Food Redistribution," SUSTAIN: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, London, 2000. www.sustainweb.org
Graham Riches has written extensively on food security issues. He is the director of the School of Social Work & Family Studies at the University of British Columbia, and he is a member of the board of directors of the CCSD.
Canadian Council on Social Development,
190 O'Connor Street, Suite 100,
Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 2R3