It’s no surprise that Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, concluded that current food systems are deeply dysfunctional. He said the world is paying an exorbitant price for the failure to consider health impacts in designing food systems.
In his “Report on the special rapporteur on the right to food, mission to Canada,” released in March, De Schutter calls on Ottawa to create a national food strategy to fight hunger among a growing number of vulnerable groups, including Aboriginals and people struggling to make ends meet. And De Schutter condemned the Harper government’s agenda, claiming it undermined access to food.
Conservative Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq declined to address his observations or recommendations, instead attacking De Schutter as “ill-informed” and “patronizing.”
But politicians’ insults do not feed hungry people. “First, in order to effectively combat hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, it is necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of who is hungry, food-insecure and malnourished,” De Schutter’s report said.
First Nations and the Inuit know quite well who in their communities suffer from hunger. In this, the report hits home. The report raises concerns about Canada’s Aboriginal population. Many find it surprising as appeals to the UN by First Nations for changes to national and provincial policies in the past have fallen on deaf ears. What De Schutter found is that hunger and malnutrition problems are not disappearing. On the contrary, “The Special Rapporteur was disconcerted by the deep and severe food insecurity faced by Aboriginal peoples living both on- and off-reserve in remote and urban areas.”
De Schutter is not alone in his conclusions. Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, said, “There are over two million people in this country who are severely or moderately food insecure. Hunger is rampant in many Native and northern communities and government policies have not yet adequately addressed the issue of the right to food in Canada.”
An investigation by the Food Banks Canada organization found that one in 10 of the 851,014 people who relied on food banks across Canada in 2011 were Aboriginal.
Despite that, the UN report has not met with productive reaction from those in power. Conservative MPs, including Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, said it was a waste of UN money to investigate a developed country like Canada.
The NDP responded to the Conservative dismissals by urging the government to create a national food strategy and make more of an effort to improve food security issues for First Nations, Inuit and Métis across Canada.
Research shows that a 10% tax on soft drinks, which have such negative health impacts, could lead to an 8% to 10% reduction in purchases of these beverages. Cree and other northern communities know that while basic food prices are much higher, the cost of unhealthy foods such as pop and chips are usually the same as in southern Canada. This ensures the poorest segment of the population often rely more on unhealthy food sources.
De Schutter said it best in his report: “Taxpayers pay for misguided subsidies that encourage the agrifood industry to sell heavily processed foods at the expense of making fruits and vegetables available at lower prices; they pay for the marketing efforts of the same industry to sell unhealthy foods, which are deducted from taxable profits; and they pay for health-care systems for which non-communicable diseases today represent an unsustainable burden.”
It is time for a change that ensures no one is without healthy food. Three Canadian aid groups that have worked for years to alleviate poverty and suffering overseas are launching projects in First Nations communities in Canada. And that is a sorry state of affairs for a country that – undeservedly – enjoys such a great international reputation.