The price of fruits and vegetables seems to be on everyone's mind these days, as costs rise, especially imports. Canada had food import sales of $32.3 billion in 2012, with 61 per cent coming from the US.
As exporters like California struggling to maintain production in the face of challenges like climate change, Canada must aim to improve our own self-sufficiency. The key to a successful transition is to start early, with small changes.
I was excited when I moved to Saskatchewan in 2014, to come to a place with so much farming knowledge and rich agricultural tradition. I thought the regional food supply would be handy, whatever happened with the sinking economy and Californian drought. I thought Food self-sufficiency would be easy here, but it’s turned out to be more complicated than I thought. Is food self-sufficiency a reasonable goal? Could we support more small-scale farmers, encourage more urban gardening and re-skill the youth in food production and preservation?
I spent the past 20 years on the west coast, buying local food, gardening year-round, and enjoying the stories and wisdom of the small-scale farmer and urban gardener. I was so hungry to learn about the local food system that I did my nursing PhD on community food security, thinking and writing about farmers’ markets, urban chickens, and cow-shares. We cannot feed a city on roof-top gardens, but Canada does have the capacity to produce enough for everyone to maintain healthy diets. Food self-sufficiency is not a new idea, but one that has had little traction in the last two decades. It was once a topic of discussion in Saskatchewan parliament when Premiere Romanow asked “what could be more important to the salvation and maintenance of the nation than the provision of food, efficiently priced, of top quality, and a country committed to the notion of food self-sufficiency?”
But what does it mean “to be committed to the notion”? And how do we move that commitment into action? I think we need to re-skill people in what is means to know where your food comes from, and what it takes to grow food. I’ve seen some great organizations trying to do that, like CHEP, the Food Bank and Learning Centre, and the Saskatoon Food Council, but they need financial support to maintain and expand their programs. We also need to demonstrate that food can grow almost everywhere – parks could plant more fruit and nut trees, and flowerpots could be replaced with herbs and edible greens. More importantly, we need to develop a robust local food economy in the peri-urban perimeter of major cities, filled with vegetable and small animal production, making a direct link between producer and consumer.
"Canada does have the capacity to produce enough for everyone to maintain healthy diets."
The amount of agricultural land and the high quality, nutritious food grown in the prairies make for a real potential for food self-sufficiency. The Saskatoon Regional Food System Assessment suggested Saskatchewan could be approximately 75% food self-sufficient, as its farmers currently export more than 80 per cent of production to international markets.
The problem isn't just what we grow, but what we consume and create market demand for. Pulse crops can contribute to a local food system, but in Canada and other high-income countries we consume the lowest quantities of pulses per capita. The United Nations has declared 2016 to be the International Year of Pulses because they are highly nutritious, support food security, provide health benefits, promote biodiversity, are economically accessible, and foster sustainable agriculture. All these factors help us adapt to and mitigate climate change. Researchers report that pulses have a protective effect against Type II diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular disease and also contribute to weight control and enhanced immune function, longevity, and mental health.
"It's time to rethink our local food supply and concentrate our efforts on developing the local food economy."
Fruit and vegetable production is conversely low. Saskatchewan has seen growth of large farms and a reduction in small (typically family) farms, suggesting less diversity of production. Oilseed, grain, and cattle farms dominate (80.3%), and only 47 farms produce vegetables other than corn, dry peas, beans, or mushrooms. The Ministry of Agriculture lists only 10 farms that produce both fruit and vegetables, which is significantly lower than other Canadian provinces and addresses only seven per cent of the in-season self-sufficiency needs of people in the province. Saskatchewan may be rich in agriculture, our local food system does not provide sufficient amounts of fresh local fruits and vegetables for the growing population.
Local production for local consumption has other advantages. Areas that rely heavily on the global food supply chain have reduced capacity for skills in local food production, preserving food, or gathering of wild foods. This lack of food system knowledge results in the need for an appropriate level of income to purchase food, or dependence on a charitable food system. It's time to rethink our local food supply and concentrate our efforts on developing the local food economy. With a little effort, we can support the small-scale vegetable farmers in this province, encourage more urban gardening, re-skill the youth in food production and preservation, and take pride in our ability for food self-sufficiency.
Wanda Martin is and Assistant Professor in Nursing with a passion for growing food. Her research focus is on community food security, environmental health, and health equity. Wanda teaches community health nursing and is the president of the Saskatchewan Public Health Association.