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Canada participates in a web of global food supply chains that is one of humanity’s greatest trade success stories. We remarkably enjoy products from across the globe due to the expertise of farmers, processors, logistics companies, retailers and many others that comprise this complex system.

Its critics focus on “food miles,” which calculate the distance food travels to measure the energy expended. This approach was intended to address carbon intensity and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as they relate to climate change. In the early 2000s, several British food retailers placed stickers on products that travelled significant distances to alert customers to this issue.

Subsequent studies of the total GHG food footprint have shown 83 per cent of lifecycle GHGs occur in the food production phase. The food supply chain generates a significantly smaller amount than consumers perhaps realize.

Last spring, empty grocery store shelves led Canadians to look beyond the food miles discussion to the broader issue of food security. Related to the issue are several terms critical to understanding food security.

Food security: “Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” A product of the 1996 World Food Summit, this definition incorporates several elements that must be part of a secure food system: availability, accessibility, quality, acceptability, utilization and stability.

Food availability: This concept is central to discussions about world hunger. We sometimes assume the production of more food will decrease hunger across the globe. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates world agricultural production is now adequate to provide every person on earth 2,700 calories per day. Food insecurity occurs when the distribution of these calories is unequal.

Food access: Though food may be available within a jurisdiction, it can be difficult to access for certain groups or localities. This is a problem in the developing world as well as major Canadian cities. Analysis by University of Alberta undergraduates of “food deserts” in Edmonton, for example, found residents of many inner-city communities walked long distances to purchase fresh vegetables and fruit. Subsequently, it is much easier to purchase junk food at convenience stores.

Food quality: This term encompasses the innovative work done by the industry to ensure food is safe and nutritious and produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. The 2017 Barton Report put forward this goal: “Canada will become the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious and sustainable food.” The Canadian Centre for Food Security 2020 public trust survey found that despite the challenges faced by the food system last year, it earned an increase in public trust.

Food acceptability: Food is embedded in culture and identity. Culturally acceptable food is produced in a way that preserves the dignity and self-respect of consumers. In 2003, I worked on an international agriculture initiative in Liberia immediately following its civil war. A certain country, not Canada, had donated a large shipment of wheat, which Liberians had never seen and had no idea how to use. An associated concept is “food sovereignty,” which describes the right of people to healthy and ecologically sound and sustainable food production methods. Food sovereignty is also focused on the right of citizens to define, or provide input into, the food systems they rely upon.

Utilization: Food use is also dependent upon support structures such as clean water, public sanitation systems and health care. Adequate food supplies must have this infrastructure support to ensure populations remain healthy.

Stability: Food security requires access to adequate food at all times. Individuals, households, communities or regions should not be at risk of losing access to food as a consequence of sudden shocks such as droughts, floods, economic crises or pandemics.

What stance should our industry take on food security? We need to be aware of the complex issues the concept embodies. Food security is not someone else’s responsibility, but a reality that we need to think about on the Prairies, across Canada and around the world. 

Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.


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