Fixing the food policy

[D]r. Wayne Roberts says that only a mere three per cent of North Americans are buying food locally or from farmer’s markets.

This “minority” purchasing food that is fair trade and from cruelty-free farms add up to a very, very small portion of total food sales.

During an event for Ryerson International Issues Discussion series guest speaker Dr. Wayne Roberts attempted to explain “what’s happening to our food.”

Roberts is a Canadian food policy analyst, manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council and writer of the book The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

Guests watched the documentary Food Inc., which covered two different areas of the food system: the all-powerful food industries and the poor, struggling farmers. There is no talk whatsoever of what lies in between. Roberts called this middle-ground “the agriculture of the middle.”

“[Low volume farmers] have to work so hard to produce such a small amount of food, and then they’re driving approximately two and a half hours to get to Toronto. Inevitably they have to pass on a huge amount of [travel] costs onto you, and I don’t mind paying $2 for carrots once in a while but really I can’t do it.”

Roberts urges the public to use “the power of purchasing” to demand high scale, high volumes of food that will help keep these farmers of the middle in business and keep it at a reasonable price point for them and for the consumer.

“I believe that there are viable alternatives and sources of power for an alternative… There are larger congregations of people that can do something.”

There should be a cultural revolution in terms of food, according to Roberts. People should recommit to cooking and to try cooking from scratch whenever they can.

Meat consumption has reached an all time high according to the latest UN report. “We need to go back to meat that is produced in the way that meat was produced in history before 1950 which was from animals that ate grass. That’s going to make meat a little bit scarcer. In North America we eat twice as much meat as we should for our own health.”

Roberts also discussed the issue of subsidies in the food industry and how controversial the topic is. He explained how America has a subsidized food industry and even though they are the biggest food exporter in the world. Canadian farmers, who are not subsidized in the same way, have to meet the same price as American farmers.

“So the United States spends $20 billion a year producing. That’s the free subsidies that go to the largest grain farmers and there’s not a dime of subsidy, at least not in the most recent farm bill, for fruits and vegetables.” said Roberts. “Basically you have the government telling farmers if you want to be subsidized, grow corn or wheat. If you don’t then grow fruits and vegetables. And fruits and vegetables are everywhere in the world. They’re known as the foundations of a healthy food system. So you would just say, ‘Why don’t you switch the $20 billion a year from one to the other and we’ll solve the whole problem literally overnight?”

Roberts explains that this is the reason food policy today can become frustrating. The solutions may seem so blatantly obvious but without government backup, which is the fundamental requirement of policy, there is no solution. The city, along with Roberts, is forced into trying to figure out a different way to fix the policy.

In terms of what university students can do become more food-conscious people, Roberts encourages students to convince their schools to identify nutrition as a fundamental student need.

“I think universities should subsidize their meal programs and that would pay for itself in my opinion through health system savings.”

Illustration by Meg Chang.