The Sunday Magazine

The pandemic has laid bare structural inequalities in our food systems, advocate says

A lot of things are hard to take for granted after two months of pandemic — and one of them is food: what we eat, where it comes from, and how we get it. It's also laid bare how intricate, interwoven and vulnerable to disruption and sudden change our food systems are. Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada — a national alliance of organizations and individuals working to improve food security — discusses how the pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of our food systems, on both global and national levels.

'What this crisis has done is magnify and shine a light on these cracks within our food system'

Food security has become a great concern during the pandemic revealing the weaknesses of our food systems. In British Columbia, community groups are encouraging people to grow their own food amid COVID-19 and food security concerns. Horticultural therapist Jennifer Rashleigh, pictured here, expanded her garden so she could grow more of her own food. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

In ways both big and small, the vulnerability of our food system is now becoming apparent.

Gisèle Yasmeen is the Executive Director of Food Secure Canada — a national alliance of organizations and individuals working to improve food security. (Charles Mackay)

Almost overnight, routine trips to the grocery store became anxiety-filled and often epic journeys. Three months ago, few of us would have been aware that a handful of processing plants are responsible for most of our meat supply, or that much of the country's fruit and vegetable farming depends on the labour of migrant farm workers.

The question of access to food is now on the frontburner too. Within just a few weeks of the lockdown, demand at food banks across Canada shot up by 20 per cent — or as high as 40 per cent in some cities — as millions of Canadians lost their jobs.

The global food chain, meanwhile, is a complex matrix of interlocking demands and needs — a system so delicately balanced that the shocks of COVID-19 have threatened to throw off its equilibrium at almost every turn.

"What this crisis has done is magnify and shine a light on these cracks within our food system, which are primarily about poverty — whether we're talking about Canada or whether we're talking about global poverty," said Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada, a national alliance of organizations and individuals working to improve food security.

"In a wealthy country like Canada, 4.4 million of us were food insecure before COVID-19 … including one in six children," she told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. "Experts are predicting a doubling of people in Canada living with food insecurity by the end of this year due to widespread unemployment from the pandemic."

Income support, not charity

For Yasmeen, addressing food insecurity necessitates looking at how poverty is structured in Canada — and which communities are more likely to be marginalized within the food system.

"Black Canadian households are 3.5 times more likely than white Canadian households to be food insecure … Half of all First Nations families are food insecure ... And we know that two-thirds of food insecure people are working," she said.

And any solutions for tackling food insecurity must take a systemic and integrated approach too, she added.

Since the pandemic began, the federal government has provided $100 million in funds to help improve household access to food banks and other local food organizations. But Yasmeen believes that this type of response is short-sighted.

"Food banks and community food centres are doing fantastic work. There are a lot of community organizations that are really working around the clock. But the frank reality is that short-term charitable responses will never solve food insecurity," she said.

"Food insecurity has to be handled primarily through income support measures," Yasmeen added. "We need to get to the root of the problem, which is poverty. And in a country like Canada, which is highly urbanized, that's about income — having adequate income relative to the cost of living."

"The evidence shows that cash transfers and income support programs — like, for example, the Canada Child Benefit, or Old Age Security — you can see very clearly in the food insecurity statistics that those programs made a difference. They are a type of basic income, essentially."

Yasmeen sees COVID-19 as a chance to take these income support programs further.

"We need a universal, livable income floor through which nobody can fall. This is long overdue," she said. "And you know what? Everyone is talking about it now … We have seen what is possible. And so this is the time now, particularly in a wealthy country like Canada, to make sure that we really use this opportunity to do it right."

Building resilient local food systems

The pandemic has also provided an opening to rethink how our entire food system is structured, Yasmeen added.

"Farmers are really hurting right now. They were already facing huge challenges … Farmer debt has doubled to $106 billion since the year 2000, according to the National Farmers Union," she said, adding that the challenges of making a living have meant high levels of depression and anxiety among farmers.

There is a need for more infrastructure and support at the local and regional levels, and a move away from our excessive orientation towards exports, Yasmeen suggested.

Canada currently imports about 30 per cent of its food and exports about 50 per cent of what it grows — but increasing local food production would strengthen the economy and help create more jobs too, she said.

According to a study on Ontario, for example, replacing just 10 per cent of the province's top fruit and vegetable imports would result in a $250-million increase in provincial GDP and the creation of 3,400 new jobs, Yasmeen added.

In a wealthy country like Canada, 4.4 million of us were food insecure before COVID-19.- Gisèle Yasmeen

"This moment is showing our incredible interdependence internationally, but also how the current Canadian food system is oriented. And that is a system which is extremely oriented towards the export of commodities … and where we're seeing all sorts of logistical bottlenecks," she said.

Rather than the current over-concentration of power, where just a handful of large multinationals control our food system and create various kinds of dependencies, Yasmeen believes we need to build more resilience.

"There is such a thing as diseconomies of scale," she said, pointing out that our meat supply is at the mercy of just a few plants.

What this pandemic has shown is that the biggest threat to food security is not the lack of food availability or supply — it's the nature of the supply chain itself, Yasmeen added.

"There was a recent study that showed that close to 60 per cent of food in Canada before COVID-19 was lost or wasted… worldwide those figures are at least 30 per cent, if not higher," she said.

"The mainstream discourse is so much about 'we have too many people, not enough food,'" Yasmeen said. "The ghost of Thomas Malthus from the 18th century is still alive."

"In fact, we live in a world of plenty … So the global response has to be conditioned by the evidence, which shows that this is about poverty reduction and this is also about resilience and supporting small farmers.

"Most of the food in the world is actually grown by very small farmers, by peasants. And they need to be supported and they need the right infrastructure so that they can stabilize and thrive."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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