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Food security: Canada gets a warning

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Jeudi, 17 Mai 2012
in CHNET-Works!

Olivier De Schutter, the second United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, is one of the most thoughtful thematic mandate holders, as they are called in UN-speak. (There are currently 36 such mandates.) His reports and commentaries provide articulate critiques not only of the policies of specific national governments, but also of an international agri-food system that is conspicuously failing to protect and fulfil the right of all to an adequate diet – one of the most basic social determinants of health.

The preliminary report of Prof. De Schutter's mission to Canada, which wound up on May 16, is sobering reading for a country that is often prone to self-congratulation on its human rights record. He points out that according to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, 7.7 percent of Canadian households reported moderate or severe food insecurity – this before the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession – and "was disconcerted by the deep and severe food insecurity" faced by aboriginal people, the legacy in part of a "long history of political and economic marginalization."

de-schutter-pic-1UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre.
Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence 2.0.
His report directly links food insecurity and increasing reliance on food banks to low incomes and the high cost of housing – a link that has been referred to in earlier postings. "In the view of the Special Rapporteur, social assistance levels need to be increased immediately to correspond to the costs of basic necessities," and minimum wages should be set at a living wage level as required by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Canada is a state party.

Population health researchers have effectively documented the extent of food insecurity in Canada; the work of the University of Toronto's Valerie Tarasuk is especially powerful in this respect, as are the reports of the Toronto Department of Public Health. We have perhaps not taken advantage of opportunities to frame food security as a human rights issue, a matter of priorities. Maybe food security for all is just more important than freeway widenings or fighter aircraft ... or maybe we don't even need to make those choices. Prof. DeSchutter pointed out that: "The tax-to-GDP ratio of Canada ... is now in the lowest third of OECD countries. Consequently, Canada has the fiscal space to address the basic human needs of its most marginalized and disempowered." I've made a similar observation in a previous posting.

Predictably, the official response was less than cordial. Cabinet minister Jason Kenney, at roughly zero risk of food insecurity, referred to "lectures to wealthy and developed countries" as "a discredit to the United Nations." He might want to have a talk with Department of Justice lawyers about the nature of obligations under human rights treaties, but that's a topic for another day. Clearly, Prof. De Schutter's intervention gives a boost to those who would address the politics and priorities that deprive people in such a "wealthy and developed country" of food security.

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