Hint: It’s mostly not Canada.
For years, food activists like Michael Pollan have urged the federal government to appoint a food czar to develop a new national policy framework that would knit together the many arenas of civic life connected by the stuff on our plates: health, agriculture, the environment, fair prices for farmers, justice for farmworkers, and affordable fruits and vegetables for low-income earners.
Policymakers have traditionally placed each of these facets in distant silos. This has resulted in a food system in which the United States Department of Agriculture incentivizes farmers and food manufacturers to produce food in ways that pollute rivers and encourage obesity, while other federal agencies spend billions to deal with the ensuing environmental and human health consequences. The idea is that by integrating these disparate policies and government functions under one single umbrella, they can be more readily shepherded toward the goal of a healthy, just and sustainable food system.
While the current U.S. administration shows not even a faint glimmer of interest in doing so, Canada appears well on its way to realizing its own version of this long-held vision. Not that the Canadian version is perfect, but food activists say the government is taking a big step in the right direction.
In the spring of 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agriculture minister, Lawrence MacAulay, began soliciting public input for a national food policy, including a nationwide listening tour and an online survey that garnered 45,000 responses. The resulting report, released in September, paints a picture of what the future of food in Canada might look like.
“The idea is to do away with the siloed systems that we have now and institute a comprehensive policy that puts more healthy, Canadian-grown food on the plates of all Canadians,” says Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, a coalition of grassroots organizations that has been pushing the federal government to create a national food policy for the past decade. “Michael Pollan himself told me how much the American advocates for a national food policy have been inspired by what we’re doing in Canada,” she says.
But a report is one thing; action is another.
“The report says that they’re going to recognize food as a key determinant of human health,” says Bronson. “It’s like, great, what are you going do about that? Are you going to stop serving mush in hospitals? It’s actually quite significant to see that the government is listening and that we are, in fact, being heard, but now we need to see what the details are.”
In any discussion about food security in Canada, the frigid climate — and the restrictions it places on food production — is an elephant in the room. “Buying local” is a popular concept north of the border but a limited reality: Up to 80 percent of Canada’s fruits and vegetables are imported, mostly from the U.S. Changing that ratio should be a top focus of the nation’s revised food policies, says Bronson.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Trudeau paid a visit to Lufa Farms, a rooftop greenhouse operation in Montreal, just as the government kicked off its food policy listening tour last spring. Lufa’s three greenhouses provide fresh produce to more than 10,000 families year-round.
Canada has a thriving indoor vegetable industry, based on ground-level greenhouses located primarily in southern Ontario and the coastal areas of British Columbia. However, it produces copious amounts of greenhouse gases due to the energy required for heating — which offsets any emissions saved by producing food closer to where it is consumed.
Lufa’s rooftop structure skirts this glaring contradiction by making use of the heat that rises from the building below. By getting double duty out of a building’s energy footprint, the company estimates that it uses half the fossil fuels than if it constructed its greenhouses on the ground. “Food miles,” and their associated carbon footprint, are further reduced by locating greenhouses within walking or cycling distance of customers.
But given the expense and complexity of building massive greenhouses on rooftops, is this a realistic solution for supplying fresh produce to Canadians on a mass scale? “Our vision is exactly that,” says Lauren Rathmell, who cofounded Lufa in 2010. Eight years later, having grown to nearly four acres of production, she says that Lufa has reached a scale where the numbers are starting to work. “Montreal is our test bed to prove that this model is sustainable, both economically and environmentally. It’s not going to happen in a five- to 10-year time frame, but our goal is to replicate this in other cities and create an entirely new food system. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface.”