By Sylvain Charlebois
Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
and Howard Ramos
One of the main issues shaping the current federal election campaign is affordability. It has repeatedly been a leading concern for Canadians in opinion polls and should help determine who wins.
So it’s no surprise that every political party promises to focus on housing affordability, which affects every generation.
But none of the parties have focused much on the issue of food security and the widespread anxieties Canadians have around being able to afford to eat.
A recent Angus Reid Global survey, done with the support of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, found that 60 per cent of Canadians polled believe food security and food prices deserve more attention during election campaigning. The concern is consistent across all demographic groups.
Sixty-nine per cent, however, said they didn’t believe food or agricultural issues would be a prime electoral issue – although 46 per cent of Quebec respondents believed food issues would receive the attention they deserve.
Let’s be honest: food and agriculture rarely drive elections, certainly not in recent decades.
But there’s something explosive about an era in which interest in food policies is growing while faith in politics declines.
That’s likely why agri-food policies are hardly debated during elections.
Health, environment, economy and immigration are all very important issues, but not thoroughly discussing food and agriculture during an election is a missed opportunity for all.
Canada’s Food Price Report 2019, released last December, showed that vegetable costs were likely to rise from four to six per cent and overall food costs could rise as much as 3.5 per cent this year. It also said on average that Canadian households are likely to spend $400-plus more on groceries this year.
Food costs are rising faster than inflation and healthy food may be getting out of the reach for many Canadians. What’s not helping are unsustainable debt levels and skyrocketing housing costs across much of the country.
When people were asked which party was best positioned to address food security issues, the most common answer, by 42 per cent, was “not sure.” The highest proportion of people who said “not sure” were in the Prairie provinces and women. The differences in age, educational and income groups was marginal.
The general uncertainty is no surprise since none of the major parties have made this a significant focus of their campaigning or platforms.
Instead, food security is hidden in policy discussions about farming and agricultural development, food waste, local food systems or a national food policy that mixes these and other issues. When it is raised, it’s often only in relation to Canada’s North – and that shows a failure to recognize that food insecurity is experienced across all regions of the country.
Of the parties that have released platform documents, only the Greens and NDP explicitly mention food security. Both do so only once. For the NDP, it’s only in reference to families in the North, although party leader Jagmeet Singh has talked about access to local food while stumping.
Neither the Liberals or Conservatives have released such documents and Internet searches produce little direct information on how or if they plan to deal with food security.
So it’s no surprise so many Canadians don’t know where the parties stand on food affordability.
The Dalhousie poll does suggest that Canadians believe the NDP to be best positioned to address food security.
And food waste seems to be the one issue the Greens own, based on the survey’s results.
We still have a few weeks remaining before Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 21. It’s not too late for parties to address the issue.
Given how close the election is, failing to do so will be at their peril. That’s because 55 per cent of Canadians polled, when forced to choose a single food-related issue, say that food security and affordability for all Canadians should be our next government’s agri-food priority over the next four years.
It’s time our leaders recognized that when we talk about affordability, we can’t forget the need to eat.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Dr. Howard Ramos is a professor of sociology at Dalhousie University.