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Food self-sufficiency is not enough. We must aim for a healthy and fair food system


[Note d’autrices : Afin de faciliter la lecture du texte, nous avons employé le féminin comme genre neutre pour désigner tous les genres.]

Having brought to light the failings and fragility of a globalized food system, the Covid-19 pandemic has created a real enthusiasm for local consumptionwidely promoted by the Quebec government as a measure to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

On one side, the disruption of the arrival of foreign workers And that of the operation of slaughterhouses were among the major difficulties experienced by women farmers in Quebec. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges for the smallest ecological local producers (PÉ) (or, in other words, the farmers of sustainable farms on a human scale) has been to satisfy a tenfold demand for products fresh, local and ecological.

But the figures are not holding up: if a sudden return to normal took place in 2021 (compared to 2020), some NPPs even report a drop in demand in 2022.

However, the Quebec government is stepping up its efforts to promote local food, whether by increasing its support for Foods of Quebecadopting its National purchasing strategy for Quebec foodor by investing heavily, or even solely, in technologies such as greenhouses or food processing infrastructure.

So, how to explain this decline in enthusiasm?

As researchers on sustainable food systems, we propose to shed light on why politicians and citizens should aim to support change that is much more ambitious than fleeting support for local production and consumption.

Food self-sufficiency is insufficient

The main conclusion that we draw from the research that we have carried out with PÉs and other actors from alternative food initiatives is the following: thefood autonomy as a framework for action to (re)organize the Quebec food system is not sufficient; it is rather necessary to operate what is called a just transition.

How is food self-sufficiency insufficient? First, it does not sufficiently challenge production models. Those of the PÉ, which can be very diverse, are to be favored and reproduced.

It front of climatic changesin particular, the EPPs interviewed are of the opinion that greater (bio)diversity on smaller surfaces promotes the resilience of agricultural ecosystems. Conversely, conventional models, often “hyper-specialized” and dependent on a large quantity and variety of inputs, do not allow this resilience.

The precariousness of agricultural producers

However, regardless of the mode of production, another blind spot of food self-sufficiency is the great precariousness in which the producers live. Our research confirmed what had already been widely demonstrated : the financial and mental burden of women farmers is worrying and unsustainable.

Among the contributors to this burden is the well-known shortage of local agricultural labour, a shortage that attempts are made to compensate by the arrival of temporary foreign workers whose living and working conditions are too often deplorable.

Moreover, the PÉs, in particular, very often have to wear the hats of both producers and experts in marketing and distribution, while they receive very little support either at the level of production or that of working. The latter is particularly difficult for products from local ecological production.

While SPPs cannot meet the requirements of supply chains leading to conventional supermarkets, such as a stable supply throughout the year or even a long shelf life, direct marketing in farmers’ markets or via subscriptions Of type “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA)for example, is time-consuming and relatively inefficient.

In addition, the physical, logistical and economic accessibility of these types of marketing is compromised by socioeconomic factors that largely go beyond the strict food framework; the production of ecological proximity being most of the time incompatible with the fight against food insecurity. The meeting between consumers and PÉPs is therefore difficult and marginal.

In short, it is obvious that food self-sufficiency does not allow all of these issues to be taken into account, and this is why researchers refer to it as being the “local trap” (local trap in English) when promoted as a framework for action on its own.

Local consumption alone does not solve the vast majority of problems at the heart of our food system.

Although local consumption is fundamental to food sovereignty, it joins agroecology, and it is part of the just transition process, food autonomy alone inevitably leads to the “local trap”, because it does not allow take into account the environmental and socio-economic issues that are inseparable from food systems.
(Graphic by Bryan Dale)

Towards a just transition

The objective must therefore not simply be to achieve food self-sufficiency, but to undertake the process of a just transition towards a sovereign food system and agroecological. This is an opportunity to actively rethink the current food model, the rules of which do not allow its transformation.

It is important to specify that this process must be structured in such a way that all players in the agri-food industry unite and move towards a common goal: ecological local agriculture for healthy, accessible and inclusive food. , without compromise. In other words, the just transitionis about inviting everyone to the table, from farmers to consumers, to think beyond established models and popular practices.

To date, our research has allowed us to estimate that the development of environmental infrastructure (infrastructure of the middle in English) would provide an efficient physical and logistical structure for PEPs and consumers. Briefly, these tangible and intangible infrastructures – networks, resources, logistics – make it possible to bring together a sufficient mass of EPPs and other food producers and processors, on the one hand, and consumers, on the other, in order to overcome the difficulties of direct marketing as well as those related to conventional supply chains.

More specifically, local infrastructures adapt to local realities and can take the form of food logistics hubs, community and cooperative slaughterhousesor even cooperative food markets.

A matter of collective responsibility

Of course, it is possible to name these examples since they already exist. However, the existing forms of pooling and cooperation between farms, organizations and consumers are marginal and must be supported. Our research effectively shows that these intermediate infrastructures require an external contribution to the agricultural community.

Currently, most alternative and collaborative marketing initiatives are carried out by third parties, often community organizations fight against food insecurity, and they are of the same opinion: the development of infrastructure in the area requires substantial support from the government as well as a deep commitment from the population. In other words, the deployment of new infrastructures and new practices in general must be considered as a process of transition – just.

Finally, the just transition as a framework for action obliges us to no longer ignore the blind spots of food autonomy which include the climate crisis, human well-being and social justice. Indeed, getting involved in our food system means realizing that food is at the heart of our social fabric.

As the artisan farmer and author told us Dominic Lamontagne“Since everyone benefits from the act of eating, everyone should put their shoulder to the wheel. »

We all need this healthy and fair food system. We all need to do our part in one way or another to shape not only the food system of tomorrow, but also healthy and resilient communities in which to live.

In fact, it is our collective responsibility.

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