People eat first out of necessity; the acts of seasoning, of experimenting with new flavours and of coming to the table are all just icing on the cake. This is what Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in his well-known The Physiology of Taste (Physiologie du Gout), was getting at when he said “[a]nimals fill themselves; man eats.” Only we humans, with our capacity to reason – to crave, consider and prepare our food intentionally and conscientiously – desire and savour meals. But those details that seem so important – what to eat and when to eat it, how to prepare a dish and how to consume it – only factor into the equation once we have a steady and secure source of food. For the 2.5 million Canadians and over 900 million people worldwide who are chronically hungry, questions of daily sustenance trump the finer details.

Were you surprised by the figure cited above – that about 2.5 million Canadians are food insecure? I was. That’s 2.5 million people who cannot be sure of having access, now or in the future, to adequate sources of healthful, safe foods and whose ability to live a healthy, active life (and provide one for their children) is thereby compromised.

What went wrong?

Somewhere along the line, food stopped being food – it ceased to be simply nourishment and became something entirely unrelated to sustenance and well-being. It became a commodity, to be traded and bet on the way stocks are. So, just as you want to follow the principle “buy low, sell high” when trading stocks, people and companies invest in foods not necessarily because the product is inherently good, but because they expect that it will turn a profit in the future.

…the simple truth is that some people made a huge amount of money from other people’s suffering.

In 2007 and 2008, when droughts and rising oil prices incited a worldwide food crisis, sparking riots over rice (which rose in price by 217%!), much of the media focus was on the suffering this caused and on the precipitating factors, much less on the fact that several major agricultural conglomerates benefited from unusually high profit margins. Certainly there are underlying economic and political factors, but once all those are pared down, the simple truth is that some people made a huge amount of money from other people’s suffering.

Now, I’m not naive; I know that we are living in a capitalist society. But there are certain things that shouldn’t be subject to the rule of the markets and those are the things that we have collectively decided are inalienable human rights.

So…what can we do?

Many countries, including the United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales have developed National Food Plans, and Australia is in the process of developing one. So far, Canada doesn’t have one, although Food Secure Canada has created a well-researched comprehensive proposal that you can view or download here.

A National Food Policy is pretty much what it sounds like – a federally coordinated plan ensuring that all Canadians have safe and adequate access to nutritious food. Which sounds pretty straight-forward, right? But while Canada does have several programs aimed at reducing hunger and increasing access to food in isolated regions, the number of food insecure Canadians has remained fairly consistent for several years.

What’s standing in our way?

One of the reasons for the lack of improvement is that the programs directed at reducing hunger and increasing food security are counteracted or undermined by competing or discordant programs in other areas of governance.

…programs directed at reducing hunger and increasing food security are…undermined by competing or discordant programs in other areas of governance.

Because the government is broken up into departments, and communication between departments is not always fluid and efficient, programs in one department may conflict with those of another. Last May, Olivier De Schutter (the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the right to food) visited Canada, noting in his report that while we do have several programs concerning food issues, “none provide an overarching interdepartmental view of food, hunger and food systems.”

Another key issue is the development of the agrofuel industry. The use of grains for fuel creates additional demand, which in turn drives up prices. For individuals, locally and internationally, whose meagre income means that they spend 60 – 80% of their earnings on food, this may mean the difference between affording and not affording food. The move to agrofuels is unquestionably a boon for certain farmers and businesses, but it can undermine local food security. In competition for limited resources, including arable land, small-scale farmers rarely win out.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t develop agrofuels and programs to bolster the economy – just that we need to keep our priorities straight. Food is a human right, and we should be supporting and fighting for policies that aim to maximize quality of life, not profits.