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The Centre for Studies on Food Security Statement on COVID-19

crop field with lettuce

Ryerson University, June 2020

At the Ryerson Centre for Studies in Food Security, we view food security as a structural and systemic problem. We take an interdisciplinary and systemic approach to social justice, environmental sustainability, health and socio-cultural aspects of food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the food system status quo. It has exacerbated the inadequacies of global, national, provincial and local responses to food insecurity. These disruptions have created challenges and caused suffering for people across the world and in Canada. They also present an opportunity to act.

From our perspective in Canada, we propose action in the following areas to fix the food system post-pandemic:

  • Dismantle colonial structures

We cannot talk about food security without addressing the social injustices that produce inequitable relationships. Canada is a settler-colonial state where oppression and exploitation, in particular towards Indigenous peoples and Black Canadians, are embedded in the national story. Systemic racism has an ongoing impact on Indigenous and racialized peoples across our country. Race-based injustice is at the core of the Canadian and other food systems around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed more of the serious problems with the ways food is grown, produced, prepared and sold, and has raised pertinent questions about land use and environmental stewardship that privilege some at the expense of others. Female workers, racialized minorities and migrant workers—who come from the Global South to work on Canadian farms—continue to do risky and difficult work in agriculture, food processing, and food service. They often work long hours, with little protection against exposure to health hazards, including COVID-19. The pandemic has brought these stark injustices to the fore with outbreaks among workers in slaughterhouses and on farms as well as in the evident vulnerability of front-line food workers, including supermarket employees and those who make deliveries. Further, the pandemic has made it clear that food insecurity is racialized in Canada, with Black Canadians, Indigenous peoples, and newcomers to Canada more likely to have insufficient access to affordable, culturally appropriate, and nutritious food.

It is the onus of Canadians to fulfill their responsibilities in treaty relationships and learn how to relate with First Peoples, and the land, in a respectful manner as a first step in achieving equity for all. Moving forward, the starting point of the Centre’s work is to address racism and other injustices within our institutions and the cities in which we live and work, but also in the food system as a whole.

  • Build resilience in the food system

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in the global food system of which Canada is a part. Canadian farms and businesses export food products such as, grains, oilseeds and meat to other countries, and we import many of the fresh fruits, vegetables, and processed foods that Canadians depend on. Just-in-time purchasing has meant some basic products like flour have been missing from many supermarket shelves during the pandemic. Many migrant farmworkers have not been able to travel to their jobs on Canadian farms due to border closures and policy to stop the spread of the virus. COVID-19 has drawn attention to the need to protect the health and safety of migrant workers and grant them residency rights. The impacts of COVID-19 come in addition to the environmental degradation that the food system has caused for decades. The way most food is grown and processed damages ecosystems including water and soil systems, and contributes substantially to climate change. Not only does the global, industrial food system exploit human beings, but it also exploits the biosphere and the natural world on which human health and wellbeing depends.

It does not need to be this way. While it is critical to keep global trade open, promoting food security involves reducing overreliance on exports and dependence on imports to reduce vulnerabilities to international trade disruptions like the ones we are experiencing now. Further, Canadian farms can become more resilient and help to mitigate the impacts of climate change by adopting the principles of agroecology, a farming method and ethos promoted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. A more resilient food system will be better able to withstand shocks, such as the next global pandemic or extreme weather events that scientists tell us are certainties in the future.

To dismantle colonial structures, reduce injustices, build resilience, and promote agency in the food system, the Centre for Studies in Food Security calls for action by government, civil society, and all in the food sector to:

  • Continue working towards advancing a Canadian food policy and establishing a national food policy council
  • Launch a universal healthy school food program in all jurisdictions as part of implementing the Food Policy for Canada, committed by  the federal government in 2019
  • Introduce a basic guaranteed income and a universal livable income floor to ensure everyone has the money to pay for food
  • Improve working conditions and pay rates of workers in the agri-food sector
  • Reduce Canada’s overreliance on food imports and support regional food systems across the country, including increased provincial protection for farmland near cities
  • Support farmers in building agroecological farming systems on farms of all sizes, including ones involved in export agriculture
  • Address the farm labour shortage and ensure justice for migrant workers, including greater access to health services and the right to apply for Permanent Residency
  • Learn from different forms of knowing, including Indigenous food systems, and support food sovereignty initiatives
  • Encourage regional food systems by supporting alternative supply chains like farmers’ markets and food hubs as they adapt to the post-pandemic new reality
  • Fulfill our commitment to international development targets, and support UN programs.