The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Shutter, who visited Canada last winter, released and delivered his final report to the UN council on March 4th. Mr. De Shutter was invited to Canada by community groups and government officials worried about the right to food in Canada. Embarrassingly the federal government attacked Mr. De Schutter on his initial report, suggesting his time would be better spent elsewhere, in countries experiencing famine.
The fact that Canada has become the first developed country to be investigated by the United Nations on the right to food is a dubious honour. The special rapporteur was especially critical of Canada, as it has not been harmed as much as other countries by the recession, and yet does not do enough to protect its most vulnerable. Mr. De Shutter pointed out that while Canada’s income gap has not grown since 2000, the average income of the top 10% is 10 times higher than the bottom 10%, which suggests redistributions mechanisms are not adequate to support those at the bottom of the income ladder.
The final report touches on several issues involving the right to food in Canada, including:
1) Canada’s legal framework that does not directly protect the right to food for Canadians. This is in spite of the Canadian government’s acknowledgement of the human right to food in several international charters.
2) The impact of agricultural policy on the availability of food, which favours large scale, input intensive agriculture, and encourages food exports over ensuring Canadians are adequately fed.
3) Food accessibility for the poorest Canadians. Since poverty affects roughly 3 million people in Canada, including 550,000 children, providing accessible nutritious food is important. The special rapporteur was concerned that social assistance levels fail to provide this segment of the population with enough to access healthy food.
4)Food adequacy was a concern as it relates to obesity and nutrition related health problems. The most accessible food for many Canadians is high energy nutrient poor food, which has contributed to obesity rates rising to over 25%, and the cost of non-communicable diseases to increase to over $7 billion in 2008.
5) Food aid and development was the one area the special rapporteur applauded Canada. Canada has exceeded its minimum food aid requirements. However concerns exist surrounding the government’s recent budget cuts to international development.
6) The right to food among the indigenous peoples of Canada was a major concern for the special rapporteur. Aboriginal people have faced a long history of political and economic marginalization, and some indigenous communities face food insecurity rates over 70%, which is over seven times the national average.
Key recommendations from the report include: The formulation of a rights based national food strategy; The Revision of social assistance rates to ensure an adequate standard of living, and set the minimum wage as a living wage; and the revision of agricultural policy to support small farmers, and organic agriculture.
It is interesting that many of the recommendations do not directly pertain to food, and instead target livelihoods and people’s purchasing power. The current Canadian food system is not geared towards providing us with nutritious low cost food, but is profit driven. If Canada truly wishes to recognize food as a human right it will need to overhaul the current system. Increasing the purchasing power, either through a revision of social assistance rates or a guaranteed basic income, of the poorest Canadians is also needed to ensure they are able to access nutritious food.
You can get involved in the conversation on the right to food by telling your local MP to support food as a basic human right, and encourage government to develop a national food strategy that is based on the needs of Canadians not industry. Food secure Canada has developed a food policy framework, which was developed through conversations with farmer’s and citizens from across the country.
The document is available for free on their website www.foodsecurecanada.org.