Creating a New Food Paradigm: A Review of Food Sovereignty in Canada

Reviewed in this essay: Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems, edited by Hannah Wittman, Annette Aurélie Desmarais, and Nettie Wiebe. Fernwood Publishing, 2011.

Food issues abound these days, from northern communities that lack access to affordable food, to foodborne illnesses initiated by poor industrial hygiene practices, to community-driven initiatives connecting rural food to urban centres.

Instead of being seen through a community-defined lens, food is too often considered only in terms of buyers and sellers, importers and exporters, or as calories to be added or subtracted. Seeing food as a commodity, or reducing it to empty numbers, rather than valuing its inherent worth and questioning the society that creates it, has led to challenges such as the destruction of the livelihood of small-scale farmers, the increase in food bank use, and the loss of connection between urban and rural residents.

So what needs to change?

Some of the needed changes are explored in the book Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems, edited by Wittman et al, with food sovereignty representing an alternative paradigm through which to frame food issues. The book was launched on November 24th, 2011, at Foodshare, the Toronto example of the approach to food that the book advocates.

This book seeks to move the food discussion beyond food security – which is basically being able to access affordable food that meets nutritional needs – to one based on food sovereignty, “broadly defined as the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures, and environments.” In other words, state the editors, “Food sovereignty, by definition, must be ‘home-grown.’” The authors use the analogy of a web to emphasize the interconnectedness of various components of the food system. This change in discourse means shifting from accepting power imbalances inherent in a neoliberal profit-driven food system, to having a system grounded in justice and community-based control.

Authors from across the country illustrate their points with qualitative and quantitative research, case studies, and anecdotes. The initial chapters focus on the state of agriculture and farms in Canada, emphasizing the harm caused by Canada’s growing dependence on an export-oriented corporate farming model. Other chapters give overviews of indigenous food sovereignty, the National Farmers Union, the role of women farmers, the Canadian Wheat Board, community nutrition and community gardens, and food systems in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe region and BC.

If you were wondering exactly what the whole Canadian Wheat Board discussion is about – Why is it so important to farmers? Why is its destruction based on ideology rather than creating a sustainable food system? – you can learn about both the CWB’s history as well as its current relevance. If you want to learn more about how the community garden in your neighbourhood is a form of political resistance, read the chapter on “growing community.”

If you’re new to food issues, you may find this book too dense to be an introduction. Instead, you could start with something like In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, or Wayne Roberts’ No-Nonsense Guide to World Food. For Canada-specific information, you could look up the People’s Food Policy Project, a series of policy documents available online through Food Secure Canada. Then pick up this book for a nuanced discussion of specific issues vital to food sovereignty in Canada.