Wheat being harvested in Saskatchewan on a cloudy day
Long-form article

Sustainable Food Systems in Canada

IISD undertook a scoping exercise to hear from our staff, civil society, and policy partners about what they see as some of the biggest challenges in charting a path to sustainable food systems in Canada.

IISD recently undertook an exercise to hear from our staff, civil society, and policy partners about what they see as some of the biggest challenges in charting a path to sustainable food systems in Canada. We wanted to know:

  • What do experts, civil society organizations, and social movement actors see as some of the major sustainability challenges to food systems in Canada?
  • Are there themes and topics that are currently under researched and require more policy attention? Are there ways of doing research or bringing partners together that are missing in current approaches?
  • Could IISD better contribute to sustainable food systems policy dialogues in Canada now or in the future? 

To try and answer these questions, we conducted surveys and workshops with IISD staff who have worked on food and agriculture issues, in addition to conducting interviews with 17 academic, government, private sector, and civil society experts. 

What We Heard 

Our findings revealed that many urgent questions exist regarding the sustainability of Canada’s food systems. In particular, we heard concerns about the sustainability and resilience of Canada’s food supply chains, the critical need for rapid decarbonization in the country’s food and agriculture sectors, and the need to better address equity and justice concerns across Canada’s food systems.

Some examples of questions we heard:

  • What are strategies to build complementarities between export and domestic food markets? 
  • How can we balance self-reliance and exports, as well as increased yields, with sustainability and equity?
  • How can we deal with succession in Canada’s farming population?
  • How can we support and plan for adaptation to the impacts of climate change on agriculture and the impacts of agriculture on our climate?
  • How can we adopt a “systems approach” to address different dimensions of sustainability and ensure a more comprehensive multisectoral approach to food systems policy? 
  • How can we transition to a more equitable and sustainable food system as part of recovering from the pandemic and improving the country’s wealth?
  • How can we mainstream equity and justice considerations in food policy, including by ensuring decent work for all and supporting Indigenous food sovereignty as a key step to further reconciliation?

We heard that there are various existing challenges to effective, sustainable food systems policy in Canada: these include, for example, a lack of incentives for sufficient climate action in agriculture, and challenges navigating municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdiction. We heard that there is a need for multistakeholder dialogues to build a shared vision and consensus on sustainable food systems in Canada, as well as for more inclusive policy discussions that highlight sustainability, equity, and justice issues across the food system. The announcement of a Food Policy for Canada and the accompanying Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council represent landmark progress by the federal government, but there is still much work to be done to achieve sustainable food systems transformation. 

Examples of Sustainability Issues Facing Canadian Food Systems

Despite the valiant efforts of many policy advocates, organizations, and researchers, some sustainable food systems issues and themes appear to lack the attention they require to tackle the scale of the challenge. Below are five examples. One recurring and overarching piece of feedback we heard is a need for an equitable and holistic approach to food systems research and policy development, encompassing healthy people, animals, and ecosystems.

  1. Trade and sustainability tensions: How can Canada balance self-reliance, increased yields, and exports, including the export goals outlined by the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth, with sustainability and equity commitments such as the Paris Agreement, Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and the Sustainable Development Goals? See our infographic on international trade
  2. Labour and market issues: This includes issues such as barriers to farming for historically marginalized groups, trends in producer income, labour shortages and foreign worker issues, market concentration in Canadian and global food systems, and more. 
  3. Access, agency, and food security: Organizations such as Food Secure Canada, as well as community-based groups across the country, are at the forefront of advocacy in this area. There is much work to do in government policy to improve holistic thinking about food production systems and equity and to make the connection to overall ecosystem health and people’s well-being (for example, sustainable diets).
  4. Climate risks and impacts in food production: Climate change will affect the entire food system, from crop production, contaminants, and food safety to the disruption of food supply chains, impacting exports and trade and more. See our infographic on agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. Agricultural land use, water use, and biodiversity: Many organizations already work on these issues—given the scale of the climate and biodiversity crises, we need all hands on deck. It’s crucial to connect social, economic, and environmental issues related to land and water use: for example, determining how sustainable or regenerative agriculture can put money in farmers’ pockets. See our infographic on water use in Canadian agriculture.

Sustainable Food Systems Must Be Central to COVID-19 Recovery 

COVID-19 has brought to light systemic issues and gaps in the Canadian food system that need to be addressed. We heard from many that the pandemic exposed major gaps in our food systems, including shocking levels of food insecurity and income precarity, labour force challenges for Canadian farms, the plight of migrant workers and racialized communities working in the food sector, and more. Yet the pandemic has also put a spotlight on opportunities for sustainable food solutions, such as the increased desire Canadians have demonstrated for local food and self-reliance, such as through community gardening and farmers’ markets.  

A key challenge for Canada is how to transition to a more equitable and sustainable food system as part of recovering from the pandemic. See our infographic on the impact of COVID-19.

IISD has been actively pushing for governments to adopt green recovery policies in response to the pandemic. In Canada, our president took part in the Task Force for Resilient Recovery, aimed at fostering a recovery that gets Canadians back to work while ensuring the country is competitive, prosperous, and climate-resilient. We also took part in a farmer-focused task force led by Farmers for Climate Solutions, which made robust federal budget recommendations to spur climate action on Canadian farms while supporting farmer livelihoods. 

Momentum Is Building for Sustainable Food Systems Work in Canada

Internationally, IISD has a strong track record of working on issues related to food security, food policy, farmer incomes, and sustainable production. Food and agriculture issues have cropped up across all of IISD’s programs of work. A great example is the Ceres2030 partnership, which brought together IISD, Cornell University, and the International Food Policy Research Institute to provide the donor community with policy options to best direct their investment to move toward a world without hunger while supporting sustainable food systems. 

IISD has significant expertise (e.g., on measures and indicators, community tools, financial instruments, etc.) that could be useful to apply to specific food system areas (e.g., risk management strategies, labour displacement, non-market food distribution systems) to address key sustainability and equity food system issues (e.g., reduce environmental footprints, redistribute wealth along the value chain, rethink markets). There is ample opportunity for more collaboration and synergies among IISD programs in Canada to link science to policy-making and increase work on projects that enhance social equity.

We are inspired by the work of many who are tackling Canada’s food system challenges with dedication and tenacity. Here are just a few examples of recent work from leaders in the field that have caught our eye:

  • The Green Budget Coalition, on which IISD sits, charts key federal policy actions to help Canada transition to environmentally sustainable agriculture.
  • Farmers for Climate Solutions is bringing together farmer organizations and supporters across the country to help improve agricultural policy and find practical solutions to ensure the sector is part of climate action. 
  • Food Secure Canada’s ongoing work bringing people and organizations together for food security and food sovereignty. For example, check out their recommendations for a Canadian food policy action plan in response to COVID-19. 
  • Grassroots organizations are working to advance the rights of migrant workers, including in Canada’s food systems, such as the Migrant Rights Network and Migrant Workers Alliance
  • Greenbelt Foundation and Équiterre’s The Power of Soil study charts how addressing soil health is key to a sustainable transition and how Canadian policy-makers can support it.