Canadian Consumers Unduly Duped Into Their Food Choices

Sometimes I wonder how it ever got to this. This week I’m traveling to Ottawa. I was just there in February. But I’m going back again. Your loyal scribe will find himself in front of 6000 farmers Wednesday of this week in Ottawa. It is being billed the “Solidarity Rally”.

I will leave the farm issues for another day. You will be able to listen to my comments on Thursday of this week. That’s because publisher John Gardiner has now added my agricultural podcast to the lineup. That’s right coming soon. Now every week you can hear the agricultural gospel according to me. Right here on John, is there any more ground we can break?

The rally in Ottawa on Wednesday is about Canadian agricultural policy. Now I know, some of you would rather watch paint dry than listen to me write or talk about agricultural policy. Believe me, some farmers feel the same way. So lets talk about food instead. I think everybody likes to eat. In Canada it’s turned into a growth industry.

Mixing agricultural policy and food policy is done all the time in farming circles. However, the road from farm gate to the dinner table is a long and winding road. On our dinner tables we are increasingly eating food prepared by somebody else with no clue of what is going into it. The question is should that make us feel better.

Most of us wouldn’t have a clue. Food to Canadians is almost like breathing another breath. In many ways outside of Quebec we are just like our American counterparts. Food is cheap and plentiful and that’s the way we like it. How could it be any different?

That’s what food is like in our society. However, in other societies it is quite different. I like to tell the story about my East West sidekick Dr. A.K. Enamul Haque. I’ve eaten at his place several times. If you like South Asian food that’s the place to go.

Enamul hires people to buy his food. He does this because his wife and himself don’t have time to buy it themselves. So he hires people to buy it for them. One person buys the fish while another person might buy some beef, while another person might buy some dairy products or some chicken. It seemed a very complicated system to me. At first glance I didn’t really get it.

However, it’s not that difficult to figure out. In Bangladesh food is either fresh or it will likely kill you or make you very sick. There is no food safety system like we have in Canada. So Enamul trusts certain people to buy the food products, which are good. The system works because it’s in the best interest for those people to keep working so my buddy gets good food.

You might say, what’s the big deal with that. Well, in places like Bangladesh lots of food is not packaged, refrigerated or preserved. So there is a lot more to “food preparation” than just “picking a few things up.” It’s a chore, just like it was in this country many years ago.

In Canada almost half of our food is consumed in restaurants or prepared over a grocery shelf. It is also genetically modified. Consumers never had the choice in this country. Unlike Europe, Canadian consumers didn’t get a chance to care about any genetically modified organisms in their soup. It was foisted upon them without them ever knowing.

So on one end of the spectrum you’ll have me in Ottawa with many other food producers this week protesting an agricultural policy, which cannot economically sustain farmers on the ground. At the other end of the spectrum consumers are eating well and cheaply. Is there something wrong with this picture?

Yes there is. However, you don’t hear much about the consumer side of the ledger. The sound from the farm side drowns it out. Consumers in many ways are captive to the food choices the big corporate distributors make for them. If you go to the big corporate food stores, you get what they want you to have. With Wal-Mart aggressively entering the fray, it’ll be more so. Consumers looking for another choice will go wanting.

In my mind there can be a better way. Consumers could be given more choices at cheaper prices. Farmers in turn could earn a better living and react quicker to market realities. However to make this work our big corporate food distributors would have to share their big pie. If history serves as a lesson, they will be reticent to give that up.

The answer of course has to do with politics. That’s why the status quo remains so frustrating for farmers. Politicians have the power to forge a food system, which includes everybody. The way it is now farmers feel frustrated, consumers are being unduly duped and corporations are making obscene profits. There simply has to be a more equitable way.