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(James Steidl/istockphoto)
(James Steidl/istockphoto)

MICHAEL McCAIN

Canada can, and should, tackle domestic and global food insecurity Add to ...

Michael McCain is president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Foods.

The challenge of food insecurity is one of the great issues of our time.

The World Health Organization defines it as lack of access to sufficient quantities of safe, nutritious food that meets people’s dietary needs and food preferences. The World Bank says that “malnutrition contributes to infant, child and maternal illness, decreased learning capacity, lower productivity and higher mortality.”

How many people does this affect? Almost 800 million people globally.

Canadian research indicates that 12 per cent of Canadians are food insecure, forced into hunger, poor-quality food or both. That’s four million Canadians and one of every six children.

In addition to the human tragedy of this, there are enormous societal costs. A study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that food insecurity increased the cost of health-care services by 23 per cent among those only marginally food insecure, and by 121 per cent among the most food insecure in Canada.

The pernicious effects of hunger are indeed tragic, and would be even more so if there was nothing we could do about it. But there is more than enough food produced to feed everybody, if only it was distributed and consumed efficiently. Globally, at least one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That’s more than a billion tonnes of food a year. Canada wastes an estimates $30-billion worth of food a year.

In the non-industrialized world, this is a matter of basic distribution infrastructure failure. There simply aren’t the roads, storage facilities, refrigerated vehicles or political stability to move food to those who need it. In Canada, food wastage occurs for an even less defensible reason – we don’t respect it. We throw it out. Almost half of the food wasted in Canada occurs in the home. The other half goes to waste because of aesthetics – imperfect-looking but perfectly edible produce, for instance, often gets rejected by consumers and wholesale buyers. It’s axiomatic that every action we take on preventing waste reduces the pressure for greater production.

Central to this problem is the fact that not enough people can afford sufficient quantities of good food, yet public attitudes toward the poor have hardened in the past couple of decades. There is little public support in Canada for more global aid and not much more support for greater assistance for our own most vulnerable, such as First Nations. Slowing economic growth rates have dulled our spirit of generosity.

Domestically, if we care about growing income inequality, if we care about creating true equality of opportunity, we can’t let millions of kids go hungry. Globally, if we worry about rising political instability and security threats, the best antidote is full stomachs. Well-nourished people will be more interested in education and less interested in violent political change.

As a top priority, the new federal government should support the development of a Canadian food strategy, with alleviating hunger as a central goal. That strategy should also reflect the tremendous opportunity this represents for Canada to invent, commercialize and export food production and distribution technology. The whole world will need in an area in which we have strong expertise.

A Canadian food strategy should be founded on our values. Canada hasn’t exactly been an economic juggernaut recently, but we are still vastly richer than much of the world. We have an interest in those countries succeeding. When they fail, they bring costs to us in other ways.

We can afford to be more generous. We should increase our contribution to foreign aid. And we should take a more determined approach to poverty reduction here at home. It’s not in our interest to have a bifurcated society with a permanent underclass. It is in our interest to have a society of opportunity. The absolute foundation of that is nourishment.

We can do all of this if we choose. But we also should do it. It’s who we are as Canadians. Innovative. Practical. Generous. Creators of peace and of opportunity. Let’s take an approach to food policy that reflects our interests and our values.

This opinion piece is adapted from a speech given at the C.D. Howe Institute.

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