A green recovery means addressing food insecurity

Across the country, the conversation about post-pandemic recovery has begun. Most agree we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape Canada’s economy and reposition ourselves for a greener, more sustainable future.

But a green recovery isn’t just about retrofitting buildings and producing electric vehicles. It will also require us to turn our attention to sustainable food systems, a challenge that requires equal parts innovation and talent.

Food security remains the single most important human imperative globally, and it’s profoundly applicable in Canada’s urban centres and rural regions. That’s why federal investments in a green recovery must include Canada’s food supply.

Before the pandemic, 4.5 million Canadians experienced food insecurity, an inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. Fifty-seven per cent of those experiencing food insecurity said it hindered their ability to find and maintain work, their attention preoccupied with the source of their next meal.

The pandemic has ratcheted up the stakes, exposing vulnerabilities in our social systems and global supply chains. In April, one in seven Canadians lived in a household experiencing food insecurity. Job losses among women and lower-income families stand to worsen the impact among the most vulnerable.

The awarding of the 2020 Nobel Peace prize to the UN World Food Programme is a significant recognition of the intersection of agriculture, food security, sustainability and basic human rights.

In a recent survey by the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), respondents in the lower economic strata reported greater food scarcity during the pandemic. Approximately 80 per cent said governments should do more to promote local-regional food systems as a source of resilience and self-reliance.

Consider that 80 per cent of Canada’s fresh fruits and vegetables come from California. Climate change has made the state’s weather warmer, its land drier and water increasingly scarce. The result: the cost of produce is on the rise. Most of us will feel the pinch in food prices, with vulnerable Canadians disproportionately affected.

Additional issues to be confronted and resolved include extensive use of fresh water and chemical pesticides, impacts on biodiversity, ethical questions about animal treatment, and the economic marginalization of farmers. Despite efforts in many of these areas, we urgently need to re-focus and re-imagine our approach to food production.

In the recent Speech from the Throne, the federal government committed to working with its partners — including Indigenous communities — to address food insecurity in Canada. This is a promising signal, making way for solutions that are ambitious, inclusive and pragmatic.

KPU’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems is deeply involved in research into alternatives and solutions. We believe, with the expertise to back it up, that Metro Vancouver and the surrounding bioregion could substantially increase food self-reliance, simultaneously creating local jobs.

With this ambitious goal in mind, we are working with businesses to conduct research and development, helping them adopt new and emerging technologies and refine existing supply chains.

Applied research is extremely reliant on federal grants. If governments want a green recovery with significant social impact, this is one area sorely in need of targeted funding. A recent article in the journal Nature emphasizes the need for the kind of applied research found at polytechnics to support small-holder farming.

We must also consider the agricultural talent pool, with experiential programs focused on preparing the next generation of farmers, supply chain specialists and agricultural technicians. These programs are challenging to offer remotely, meaning the pandemic has not only heightened concerns about food security, but is also affecting the talent pipeline to address it.

A collaboration between Tsawwassen First Nation and KPU is a case in point. The first of its kind, the school fuses sustainable agriculture and traditional Indigenous food systems to address issues like land stewardship. The program operates from our 20-acre certified organic working farm on traditional Tsawwassen First Nation lands, boasting a traditional medicine garden, a mixed fruit orchard, a market garden, and livestock and incubator plots where graduates can launch their farm businesses.

Building a sustainable food system requires leaders, planners and educators. As Canada maps out a green recovery, the government shouldn’t forget that prosperity begins where food insecurity ends.

About the Author

Dr. Alan Davis, President and Vice Chancellor, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Dr. Alan Davis was appointed President of Kwantlen Polytechnic University on September 1, 2012. A native of Reading, England, Dr. Davis has held leadership positions at renowned institutions in the United States and Canada, including roles at the British Columbia Open University, Athabasca University, Niagara College and Vancouver Community College. Dr. Davis is a member of the board of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and has served on various committees and commissions with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the American Council for Education. He is past President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education and is on the Board of the Collaboration for Online Higher Education Research.