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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Weekly Column

October 7, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner



Political parties have strikingly different visions for Canadian agriculture and food.


Jon Steinman


None of the opposition parties took any shots at Gerry Ritz during the September 29th federal election agriculture debate in Ottawa. Ritz has received quite the backlash following his self-admittedly poor choice of humour when commenting on the listeriosis outbreak. Perhaps the other candidates decided that he's taken enough flack already.


The debate was broadcast live on CPAC and hosted by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.


On the debating floor was Liberal MP, Wayne Easter; Green Party candidate, Kate Storey; NDP MP, Tony Martin; and Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Gerry Ritz. The Bloc Quebecois did not field a representative.


"Downloading and downsizing," were the words used by Liberal MP Wayne Easter to describe the approach the Harper government has taken with respect to the safety of Canadian food. "He hasn't told us where he wants to go," continued Easter, "but we do have the secret document which shows that the federal government is lessening its responsibility over food safety in this country."


Also on the debating agenda was the future of Canadian farms.


Candidates were posed a number of questions on farm succession. "What will your party do to allow young farmers to take over farms without an unreasonable debt load," posed debate moderator Hugh Maynard.


            Green Party candidate Kate Storey was the first to respond. "Family farms are the source of young farm workers who understand the relationship between soil, weather and livestock," said Storey. "These are intuitive skills, which take years to develop and cannot be taught in a classroom." Storey suggested that a "government which truly wanted to help young farmers would set up a third-party non-profit agency to guide the gradual transfer of farm ownership without indenturing the next generation to the banks."


The NDP's Tony Martin echoed those comments. "The family farm isn't viable any more and this has happened over a period of ten to fifteen years with our Conservative and Liberal parties here. We need to get serious about protecting the family farm," stressed Martin.


Ritz and Easter both failed to acknowledge the declining viability of the Canadian farm under their watch. Instead, they both repeated the standard lines that Canadians have heard for decades. "Of course the greatest farm succession plan is a positive bottom line," stated Gerry Ritz. Such a statement is far from revolutionary! What followed was even more shocking. "We have changed the GST from seven to five percent, which makes a tremendous difference when you're selling land and assets," said Ritz.


It appears Minister Ritz's farm succession plan includes selling the family farm. The comment reaffirms the clear Conservative interest to see farms grow big or get out.


Easter echoed Ritz's stance.


Agriculture debates have never received much attention by Canada's urban populations, and while the content of the debate may have appeared confusing to non-farmers, there were some new topics of discussion that reflected the new urban interest in food and farming.


Wayne Easter commented briefly on the Liberal party's commitment to invest in farmers markets across the country. Tony Martin and Kate Storey were on the other hand the only candidates who sought to steer the debate in a completely new direction. They outlined a number of ideas on how to repair or replace a food system that is clearly failing Canadians.


"We have a number of commitments in our platform," said Martin. "For example, requiring labelling of genetically engineered foods and farmed fish." Martin continued on the topic of supporting locally produced foods. "Farmers are very interested in a closer relationship with the consumers of the products they're producing," he stressed. "There are a number of exciting and new initiatives happening across the country."


The NDP's critic on Agriculture and Agri-Food, Alex Atamanenko, recently completed a cross-Canada tour where he heard from Canadians on the topic of food security. "He's met with grassroots movements who are taking food matters into their own hands," said Martin of Atamanenko's tour. "Hundred-mile diets, community supported agriculture, local branding, co-op's, restaurant-farmer agreements, and city food charters," were a number of the examples shared by Martin.


Kate Storey also weighed in on the topic of genetic engineering. "Farmers are also slowly realizing that they should reconsider their dependence on genetic engineering," said Storey. "The biggest issue to me is the loss of the farmers' right to save their own seed. Perhaps the Liberal and Conservative candidates would like to tell us why they are pushing us towards a day when all food production is owned by a foreign seed company, and hiding that fact behind misleading labelling," she added.


Martin concluded with some strong comments for his opponents. "I urge you to judge every single word spoken by the Conservative and Liberal parties and to measure that against their actions and their failing to help farmers and farming in this country."


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. Audio segments of the debate can be found at (




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