The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: trade

Why Can’t Canada Feed Itself?

the war against hunger is truly

NOT EVERY PERSON IS HUNGRY, BUT MOST hungry people are poor. There’s no way around it; a person with too little nutrients finds life an ever-greater challenge. “We have to eat to live,” said Marty Rubin, “and that’s our timeless tale of tragedy.” In the modern West, this is becoming increasingly so.

Speaking to Global News a short while ago, Priscilla from Saskatoon put out the stark choices that consistently drive some to hunger: “If I attempt to eat healthy, bills wouldn’t get paid. And most of the time I’m balancing what’s more important – a roof over our heads or the ability to eat healthy – or even eat three meals a day.”

How can it be that one of the richest nations on earth, and that exports vast quantities of food overseas, ends up in a place where an increasing amount of families can either afford a place to live or healthy food, but not both?

Food bank use across the country never relented, even a number of years after the Great Recession supposedly ended. But there is one subtle though critical development: a larger number of food bank clients are working, many are highly educated. Yet at the end of the day, this still can’t afford to effectively feed their families without cutting other important aspects of living.

According to recent studies, four millions Canadians are living in some form of food insecurity. That’s a lot, and it continues to climb even though job numbers have increased marginally. Historically, Canada has rounded off the rough edges of poverty and hunger through a national form of social safety net, but that net now has huge holes in it, leaving entire families to drop out of security and into poverty.

A compelling recent study by a McMaster University professor, Atif Kubursi, concluded that Ontario’s local food supply would create thousands of more jobs in the province, including some seven thousand in Hamilton, Ontario alone. At the same time it would be better for the environment and allow citizens healthier choices.

One troubling finding of the report, titled Dollars and Sense: Opportunity to Strengthen Ontario’s Food System, is that Ontario actually doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself, though it would easily have the potential to do so.

In a strange twist of globalization fate, Ontario residents prefer the look of imported fresh produce from the Florida area over home grown foodstuffs. And yet Florida residents prefer Ontario’s produce. Go figure. Understandably, consumers have become highly selective in what they want to eat, but that doesn’t mean they are highly educated as to the choices. Ontario fresh produce is every bit as nutritious as Florida’s, but most don’t know that.

Another finding in the study is that, although Ontario imports $20 billion worth of food products each year, over half of that amount could be grown in the province directly if there was just the will to put it together. At the moment, Ontario imports twice what it exports.

Kobursi’s conclusion of all this was revealing: “Ontario is missing regional economic development opportunities to enhance and support the production and distribution of local food.” We all sense this to be true. The Canadian healthy living guidelines on food have been well researched, and if we were to eat according to those recommendations, consumer demand would drive change throughout the province’s entire food industry, creating more employment opportunities in the process. That says something in an industry that already employs over 767,000 people in the province. That’s 11% of our jobs.

What is true in Ontario is frequently mirrored across the country. Somehow we have permitted a vital industry to largely bypass the hungriest of Canadians. And maybe that’s the problem. As singer and celebrity Bono put it: “If you want to eliminate hunger, everybody has to be involved.” At present we have the knowledge and the research to teach us how to reform and revitalize our food systems so that can Canada could feed its own as well as the world, creating prosperity in the process. We need to find that formula and it will have to be consumers that drive it forward because governments, at least at present, show little inclination to tackle poverty in any serious fashion.

Social justice in any nation is vital to its future credibility, but if low-income Canadians only have enough food to last them for a few days, all those aspects of social justice, from housing to health, from employment to equality, have to take a back seat while hunger itself devours their hope and opportunities in just a few days. No nation can survive intact that permits a growing number of citizens to remain in poverty even as the economy supposedly improves.

Labour Pains (7) – The Great Reversal

We’ve all heard the scenario, right? North American companies say wages and benefits are too high in Canada and that they have to move to places like China to stay competitive. They offer only two scenarios for their Canadian workers: accept drastic pay cuts or get ready for us to pull out of your country as we search for the bottom line. We actually don’t know quite how to handle such a decision; it all appears so inevitable.  We might not agree with draconian cuts, but on the other hand we don’t wish to lose businesses from Canada either. The race to the bottom is on.

Unmentioned in all of this have been developments within China itself revealing that threaten to turn such short-term corporate thinking on its head.

Call it the “Great Reversal.” The almost manic desire of Western manufacturers to move their production to Asia meant cheaper goods for Canadian citizens on the one hand, but labour decline and market unrest on the other. While wages were spiralling down in Canada, they were increasing steadily in China. That has meant that the appealing bottom line of moving operations half a world away isn’t as lucrative as it was.

It was inevitable that with its open market reforms China’s middle-class would rise. That it has done so this quickly has caused Western manufacturers to rethink whether it was such a smart move to abandon their historic operations in Europe and North America. With rising wage demands in China and other parts of Asia, plus transportation costs, the rise of Chinese currency, and problems related to quality control, firms are now considering moving back home. While it’s true that such movement is happening with smaller to medium-sized firms like fashion design, larger corporations are themselves taking a second look. Despite their best lobbying efforts (difficult in the Chinese context), the government nevertheless engineered a rise of the minimum wage by 22% on average due to citizen demand. The corporations weren’t pleased.

General Electric, unhappy with minimum wage increases happening in the developing world, has moved production of its water heaters and fridges back home and hired new workers to satisfy demand. The big difference? Where it paid its workers $25 an hour on average before it packed up and left, and has now hired new workers willing to take $15 an hour.

So let’s be clear what’s happening. Companies fed up with labour wage constraints in the West moved operations to the East, where they are now fed up with labour wage constraints and moving back home. The irony would be delicious if it weren’t for the devastating times faced by the labour force. Such companies are now treating Chinese workers as they manipulated Western labourers.

Where does this all end? In industries like heavy machinery and the automobile sector there is a movement afoot among Western companies to “bring them home” – all in the name of competition. Certainly they will demand the lowest wages possible for their new workers but their freedom to move around the world in search for cheap labour is painting them into a capitalist corner. Just as corporations seek the bottom line, citizen-workers desire higher standards of living. It is a war that is about to consume our century and it should be moot. Our world has never seen such wealth. Corporations have never been so loaded, nor have they ever enjoyed the predominant influence over politics that they do at present. Why then the persistent penchant for attacking civil servants, cutting pensions, fighting for doing away with severance pay and wage freezes? Aren’t these their very customers? Is it not their ability to spend their wages on products and investments that trigger corporate growth? Is capitalism not at its best when it creates its own customers by wealth creation in a sustainable fashion? The Chinese are now able to afford such products because of a higher standard of living and North American and European companies handle all that by leaving – an ever-devolving cycle.

All that can come from this is a growing resentment and the enforcing of class warfare. Is this the way we seriously want to go? Researchers remind us annually that there is enough food grown on this planet to feed all of the world’s population, despite the desperate hunger we see in places like Africa. It doesn’t happen because the delivery mechanism is flawed. In some countries like America, only five mega-food companies handle an alarming 90% of all food production and delivery. The resources are there; the willingness to make the system work are not, most often because of corporate greed and citizen penchant for cheap products.

At some point we will comprehend the futility of all this and understand that capitalism is yet an economic mechanism that can still create its own future while provided needed goods and services at affordable prices. We’ll learn that all workers, whether in China, the U.S., or here, have the same inherent desire for a decent standard of living and that they have every right to expect one. Governments will come to acknowledge that favouring a corporate bottom line merely pitted Canadians against one another and countries against each other in ways that are unhealthy. And in the end, both citizenship and capitalism will have to correct themselves. It’s just a shame that workers in places like Caterpillar in London have to be the fodder for that awakening.

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