With the pandemic posing an increasing threat to food security, policy-makers need to be thinking hard, and quickly, about how to protect the supply chain—from farm to store to table—with timely attention to building greater long-term resilience into the systems that sustain our food supply, Canadian author and climate hawk Guy Dauncey writes in a recent post.
The post appeared as farmers across the country began expressing serious concern about their ability to hire temporary foreign workers to plant their crops on time, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
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Dauncey, the Vancouver Island-based author of The Practical Utopian, asks 15 hard questions about the current state of his own province’s efforts to ensure food security through the COVID-19 pandemic. While food purchasing limits, food bank support, and the designation of farm and garden supply stores as essential services are all in place, he writes, many other measures are needed to ensure keep province’s regional supply chains intact should “worst-case scenarios” come to pass.
Those scenarios could take many forms in the current pandemic crisis, he explains. The spread of COVID-19 could worsen both in Canada and in key food-producing regions such as Mexico, California, and Florida, leading to a point where “so many farmers get sick that farm exports collapse, and people begin to distrust what little food does arrive.” If the virus decimated the trucking industry, companies could no longer transport what food was produced, leaving it rotting in warehouses. Closer to Dauncey’s home, similar disruptions to British Columbia’s ferry services caused by sick or isolated workers could leave Vancouver Island grocery stores with empty shelves.
B.C. is somewhat prepared for such continencies, notes Dauncey, at least in the immediate context of the pandemic. The province’s Emergency Program Act has provisions for food quantity purchase limits on consumers, and the government has already declared farm and garden supply stores as essential services. It also recently provided C$3 million in direct funding to 100 food banks, which together currently feed about 80,000 adults and children.
But there is still a long list of critical measures the province has not yet implemented. Have policy-makers decided what to do about profiteers, or developed contingency plans for wartime levels of food rationing? Are there zero-interest loans for farm equipment, or subsidies for training in sustainable farm practices? Has a B.C. Seed Agency been established to ensure farmers have access to seeds for planting? “Not yet,” says Dauncey.
Moreover, prioritizing COVID-19 tests for farmworkers and amendments to Agricultural Land Reserve policies so that more farmers can live onsite would both strengthen self-isolation efforts among farmers and conserve resources. Another measure that could significantly boost long-term food security in Canada is “legislation that will motivate more farmland owners to grow food, such as paying farmers $5,000 an acre for all new farmland brought into production, and raising the farmland tax relief threshold from $2,500 to $10,000 of farm income.” Dauncey notes that B.C. alone has “tens of thousands of acres of farmland that are lying fallow, or growing hay for horses that serve no agricultural purpose.” On the supply end, he recommends the province plan ahead “for future supply management for all critical food crops, with guaranteed wholesale prices, enabling farmers to grow the food we need without fearing financial loss.”
Better labour practices, too, would play a role in increasing food security, by building economic resiliency into the lives of all who work on B.C. farms. To that end, Dauncey urges a $15 guaranteed minimum wage for all farmworkers.
Finally, he calls on policy-makers to address conflicts within North American free trade agreements—agreements that “accord no importance to the resilience of local and regional food systems, and food supply chains”—sooner rather than later. “We cannot sacrifice human lives and the stability of…Canadian society on the altar of shareholder-value-maximizing free trade,” Dauncey writes.
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