Alberta should be more food self-reliant post-pandemic, expert says

An expert in sustainable food systems says Alberta — and Canada— need to refocus on self-reliant food production in the wake of COVID-19.

The earliest days of the pandemic saw panic buying leave grocery store shelves bare while outbreaks at meat-packing plants highlighted the gruelling conditions facing some workers in a global market. 

Mary Beckie, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, recently wrote an article arguing for more self-sufficiency in an issue of Alberta Views magazine. She says such vulnerabilities and inequities in the food system have been exposed over the course of the pandemic.

“It also showed that we’re very reliant on the globalized food system … at the expense of not putting enough eggs into the localized or regional food system,” she said in an interview with CBC’s Radio Active.

People started to take stock of where their food came from, Beckie said. In conversations with processors and producers, she found there’s been a dramatic increase in the demand for locally-produced food.

Radio Active9:23Canada, Alberta need to be more self-reliant for food

A University of Alberta professor in the school of Public Health says the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities and inequities in the global food system. 9:23

But growing that sector more viable will take some work.

“We are really dependent on the globalized food system because we’ve moved towards an export-oriented agriculture system,” Beckie said.

Canada is the fifth largest agri-food exporter in the world and the six largest importer, she said. It imported $26.8 billion worth of food in 2019, $15.7 billion from the United States alone. Some 80 per cent of consumed fruits and vegetables are imported into Canada.

Mary Beckie is a professor at the University of Alberta in the School of Public Health. (Submitted by Mary Beckie)

It wasn’t always that way. Beckie, who grew up on a farm, said in previous decades farms were more self-sufficient and people kept vegetable gardens and did canning.

She said in today’s agricultural scene, however, there is a wide gap — the disappearing middle — between aging small-scale farmers and industrial giants.

There are positive signs, however — Beckie said the 2016 census was the first time that showed evidence of an increase in the number of small scale producers. 

Those producers are typically young women without a farming background, she said.

Government has key role

On Friday, the province announced it had streamlined the Canadian Agricultural Partnership grant process with an aim to make it easier for producers and food manufacturers to access funding.

Beckie said the government has a key role to play in re-localizing food production and grants are part of that.

“Especially for young entrants into farming that don’t have access to credit.”

A master agricultural plan being developed for the Edmonton region, guiding the industry for the next three decades in the city and surrounding areas, will be important going forward, she said.

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