Should Canada Be More Food Self Reliant?

By Mary Beckie Herb Emery

Mary Beckie, the U of A professor and director of community engagement studies at the School of Public Health,  says yes.

This pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities and inequities in the global food system Canada is so dependent on. Images from 2020 of empty grocery shelves, farmers forced to dump milk and cull livestock, and migrant workers crowded together in production lines at Cargill’s meat processing facility in High River point to the folly of placing so many of our eggs in this global food system basket. It’s a system characterized by just-in-time supply chains, worldwide movement of labour and products, and concentration of power and profits in the hands of a few transnational mega corporations.

Not only do we rely heavily on global supply chains for much of our food, but our farmers also depend on them to sell their agricultural commodities. Meanwhile, consumer demand for local food is rapidly growing across the country, and shortened, local supply chains have proven nimble in responding to the pandemic’s disruptions. As the climate crisis adds to uncertainty and vulnerability, it’s clear that strengthening diverse and localized agri-food systems will be key to increasing our food self-sufficiency and overall resilience.

Our agri-food industry has undergone huge changes over the past 75 years, but Canada remains largely export-oriented and is the fifth-largest exporter in the world. Volatile commodity markets and rising production costs are, however, lowering net farm incomes (which decreased by 45.1 per cent in 2018) and raising farm debt to unprecedented heights ($114.8-billion in 2019). To survive the squeeze, many farmers have adopted an economies of scale approach by increasing the intensity, scale and efficiency of production through specialization and the use of agrochemicals and high-tech equipment. Still, our farm population is shrinking, farmers are aging (55 on average) and environmental impacts—greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane), biodiversity loss and overall ecosystem degradation—continue to worsen.

Many farmers and consumers are responding by turning to local food. The benefits of relocalizing food include income and employment, support for small- to medium-scale operations, more access to high-quality food and reduced food miles and waste. Alberta’s local food demand is among the highest in the country, with 2016 spending reaching $1.6-billion at farmers markets, local-food restaurants and farm retail. We can do even better. Infrastructure and regulation must be redesigned to encourage more than the current 12.7 per cent of farms in Canada and 5.1 per cent of farms in Alberta (the second-lowest in Canada) to sell directly to customers. The potential for this sector to expand and evolve is huge.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to improve our self-sufficiency, from food to vaccine production. Supporting local supply-chain development will contribute to creating a more regenerative, secure and equitable agri-food system for all Canadians.


Herb Emery, the Vaughan Chair in Economics at the University of New Brunswick, says no.

Canada already has high food self-reliance. Some 70 per cent of the food we consume in Canada is produced within Canada, but over 50 per cent of what we produce is exported. We are self-sufficient in dairy under supply management and we have more livestock than we can process and absorb in our domestic market. We are, however, reliant on imports of many fresh fruits and vegetables.

In the spring of 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic generated concerns about trade dependence for food supply, and fears over food supply disruptions created interest in developing what many believed would a more secure supply, with production closer to the consumer. But food supplies did not fail, nor were they interrupted to any important extent nationally. Food self-reliance remains a strategy to address a perceived risk rather than a realized problem. It’s also not obvious that local food production is more secure than imports secured through our large and sophisticated food retailers. Canadians don’t import food; food retailers who sell to Canadians do.

As with any insurance strategy, we need to ask what we’re willing to pay for a feeling of more security. I would have no objection to greater national reliance on domestic supply of food if our producers were competitive with imports. But the policies and regulations required to get production in food sectors more oriented to domestic production over export, and to displace imports, would likely raise prices to consumers and reduce quality and variety of fresh foods for what would amount to little, if any, gain in food security.

Some argue that pushing for food self-reliance through what amounts to more protection of the local market would have a higher economic multiplier for the economy than the unprocessed live animals and crops we export. But this gain in GDP would come at the expense of consumers, who would face higher prices for food, which could diminish spending on other GDP-creating goods and services.

Greater national food self-reliance is an odd goal if we expect more resilience as food is produced closer to the consumer. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we promote greater self-reliance for provinces and territories? New Brunswick, for example, produces less than 10 per cent of the food its residents consume. Canadian industries such as meat processing are highly concentrated, which creates vulnerability to pandemic-related shutdowns or even transportation blockades. University of Waterloo researcher Jodi Koberinski says Canada has “allowed a kind of consolidation and concentration… (so) folks can have steak three or four times a week as a middle-class person… That access to cheap meat has come at a price, and that price is resiliency within your local food system.” Before we push greater national self-reliance, should we not first recommend that import-dependent regions pursue greater self-reliance over importing food from Alberta, Ontario or Quebec?


Mary Beckie responds to Herb Emery

Herb Emery may look back on last year’s pandemic panic-buying with a sense of calm reassurance now that the toilet paper and pasta shelves are full again. Grocery availability did stabilize fairly quickly with changes to restocking policies, but longer-term problems in Canada’s agri-food system persist and should no longer be ignored. These systemic issues, from production through to consumption, require more holistic and integrated approaches if we are to achieve a more secure, ecologically sustainable, healthy and equitable food system. Strengthening local/regional supply chains is key.

Emery argues Canada is already food self-reliant, but the reality is diversity of food production has declined as policies favour large-scale, specialized farms that produce a limited number of commodities for the global marketplace. Yes, we’re a major food exporter, but we’re also the sixth-largest food importer in the world. Some commodities we export, only to see them processed and sold back to us at higher cost. In 2019 we imported food worth $26.8-billion—$15.7-billion from the US alone. We were self-sufficient in basic fruits and vegetables until the 1950s, but we currently import 80 per cent of these foods, which are fundamental to a healthy diet. Fostering social and technical innovations to support diversified indoor and outdoor horticulture could allow us to replace a significant amount of these imports.

Yes, we produce more beef than we can consume, but approximately 90 per cent of it is processed at two foreign-owned companies—Cargill and JBS—based in Alberta and Ontario. Excessive ownership concentration and centralization of meat-processing in Canada leaves huge gaps in small- to medium-scale processing, which creates a barrier for livestock producers with smaller volumes and who want to sell to local and regional markets. Decentralizing and building domestic processing capacity in this and other food sectors is critical. Canada also has a highly concentrated food retail market. Five companies have captured more than 60 per cent of sales, which soared during the pandemic. Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro are Canadian-owned giants, whereas Costco and Walmart are US-owned multinationals.

Emery warns that relying more on local food will raise food costs. But studies show that food produced and processed locally generates a net benefit by putting money back into the hands of local producers, businesses and communities while creating a more diverse food culture and agricultural landscape. While the dollar amount Canadians spend on food is increasing, food’s percentage of total household expenditures is declining. In 1961 Canadians spent 28 per cent of our personal expenditures on food; in 2019 we spent 14.9 per cent. Perhaps more significantly, the price we pay doesn’t include uncounted costs associated with industrially produced and processed food, such as impacts on the environment, animal welfare, public health and labour. Full-cost accounting would reveal the true cost of our food.

Farmland preservation is another fundamental issue in Canada. Although we have a large landmass, only 7 per cent is suitable for agriculture and 70 per cent of this is in the Prairie provinces, where no legislated protection exists and prime farmland is being fragmented and lost to urban and industrial development. Land speculation is driving higher prices, making land unaffordable for people who want to start farming while enticing others to sell to investment companies and developers. With a shrinking and aging farm population across Canada, 92 per cent of which has no succession plan in place, we are headed to a generational crisis in farming.

Yet in 2016 there was a small increase in the number of young farmers (35 and under), the first increase in this age group since the 1991 census. Many new entrants do not come from a farming background, are women, and are oriented towards ecological farming practices, smaller-scale, diversified operations and local/regional marketing. This is an important and hopeful trend, bringing young people into the farming community and contributing to regenerative farming and diversifying regional food systems. These young farmers need access to land, supportive financing and relevant education and training. Farmer-to-farmer networks, such as Young Agrarians in western Canada, are filling the gap left by mainstream agricultural institutions, which tend to focus on conventional and large-scale agriculture. More public support and changes to policies and regulations are needed to grow this new generation of farmers.

For too long Canada has taken agriculture, the environment and farmers for granted. In the quest to be part of the global marketplace, policymakers have undervalued these crucial assets and disassembled regional food systems. Reinvesting in localized supply chains through collaboration across all sectors will generate social, environmental and economic benefits that will strengthen our food self-reliance and our resilience in the face of future shocks. COVID-19 was a wake-up call; we now have an opportunity to rethink the way we produce, process and distribute food.


Herb Emery responds to Mary Beckie

Professor Beckie argues that the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities and inequities stemming from our reliance on the global food system. She recalls the fears that arose early in the pandemic over empty grocery shelves, and observes that Canadian farmers dumped milk and culled livestock. Beckie reminds us of the issues with migrant workers crowded in production lines at Alberta meat-processing plants. She sees these problems as endemic to global food systems characterized by “just-in-time supply chains, worldwide movement of labour and products, and concentration of power and profits in the hands of a few transnational mega corporations.” Even if all of this were true, greater national food self-sufficiency would do little to address these problems.

If the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in Canada’s food system, then these are as much a product of our existing national food system and demonstrate that greater national self-sufficiency won’t address the perceived problems of relying on the global system. The waste of milk that Professor Beckie notes and the challenges of finding labour for meat processing in Alberta both occurred in nationally food sufficient industries. Food self-sufficiency in dairy is created region-ally through supply management, and created nationally with meat through industrially concentrated processing. With beef we produce far more cattle than we can process for the domestic market, so the industry generates exportable surpluses. And these—along with energy and manufacturing exports—pay for our imports of foods we can’t produce as cheaply as other places can, at least not year-round.

If we want to shorten supply chains so that Canadians consume more locally produced food, we’d need policies to reduce national supply chains for products such as processed meats. We’d push for greater provincial food self-reliance, as New Brunswick is doing as a result of the pandemic. Its goals are to restore meat-processing capacity that competitive pressures, including a lack of labour supply, drove to Quebec and Alberta, and to grow more of its own fruit and vegetables in greenhouses.

With greater food self-sufficiency in Canada, storing fresh food would be a technological challenge (since we can’t grow many foods year-round). We’d be moving away from imported fresh produce and relying more on frozen and preserved fruits and vegetables—as we did before global trade provided fresh(er) produce at lower prices. In other words, greater food self-sufficiency would mean reducing the availability and affordability of fresh produce in winter. It would also mean shrinking the meat-processing industry in places such as Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, and expanding it in New Brunswick.

It’s not clear that local food production reduces corporate power and profits. Most food retailing in Canada is done by regionally dominant corporations which, from time to time, expand into other corporations’ turf (as Sobey’s and Superstore have done). Costco and Walmart brought price competition with their powers of procurement and supply-chain management. Local food producers currently market through these retail giants.

Even if you enable more direct food purchases from farmers and producers, it’s not clear how much market share this would take from corporate retailers. Food safety is important, and as you scale-up food production from farmers markets to bigger direct-retail sales, producers become subject to regulations that raise costs, which they then pass on to consumers. The costs of food-safety regulations favour producing at larger scale. Professor Beckie identifies these sorts of cost pressures as driving producers to increase scale and specialize in exportable products over local garden production.

Canadians’ concerns about the availability of food during the pandemic have been less about the businesses they buy from and more about price inflation. To secure public support, any moves toward local food production and greater national food self-sufficiency will need to be sensitive to the impact on household food costs.

My biggest problem with a turn to national food self-sufficiency is that the policies and approaches needed to support producers would likely prove highly inequitable to consumers. Our best example in Canada is dairy supply management, where quota systems support a nationally self-sufficient supply of milk. They also generate considerable wealth for quota holders and high milk prices for consumers. Negative health consequences then arise from the substitution of sugary beverages for milk, with the problem worse in lower income households with children. Many agricultural economists see quota-system-inflated dairy prices as a milk tax, and argue it’s a regressive tax, meaning the burden is heavier at lower-income levels.

There are many reasons to support local food production. But greater national food self-sufficiency is unlikely to support the re-emergence of local family farms and reduce the power of “Big Food.” Instead, our current regional and national models suggest we’d unlikely change much other than the quality of food over the winter and food prices over the year.


Should Canada Be More Food Self Reliant?

Mary Beckie, the U of A professor and director of community engagement studies at the School of Public Health,  says yes. This pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities and inequities in the global food system Canada is so dependent on. Images from 2020 of empty grocery shelves, farmers forced to dump milk and cull ...

Rural Resentment

The rise of the right-wing, authoritarian populist movements across the Western world owes much to the support of rural citizens who are increasingly feeling left behind economically and culturally and are eager to overturn the status quo. I’ve been thinking about the plight of rural Alberta in this context, partly ...

More Irrigation, Fewer Farms

The only sound for miles is tires crunching gravel. Eric Musekamp drives north, home to an address he rarely gives out. He has to be careful: You don’t win many friends in these parts by advocating for farm workers. “I’m looking at abandoned homesteads in every direction,” he says over the ...