BY Keith Roulston
Canada in September is definitely a land of plenty. Farm-gate fruit and vegetable stands, farmers’ market stalls and family gardens overflow with a summer’s bounty of tomatoes, apples and other deliciously fresh food basics and treats.
Looking at all this plenty, it’s hard to realize that hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the world are starving – and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse. The World Food Program estimated last year that as a result of the pandemic, some 270 million people might have become acutely food insecure by the end of 2020 – double the already high 135 million estimated to have been food insecure in 2019 – a record year for hunger.
That’s the terrible irony of food – some parts of the world have more than they need while elsewhere people die of hunger. In the First World, obesity is a major threat to life expectancy. Even while we eat more calories than we should, food waste is a major problem. According to the National Zero Waste Council’s research on household food waste in Canada, almost 2.2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted each year, costing Canadians in excess of $17 billion. In addition to the economic costs, food waste has substantial environmental impacts.
I know several families where people refuse to eat leftovers, so anything not eaten at one meal, goes to the garbage or organic recycling bin. What’s thrown out could save the lives of children in villages hard hit by drought, but how do you get it there?
Even on a larger scale, how to get food surpluses from here to there is always the problem. There are problems with assembly, transportation and distribution at the destination. It all costs money and someone has to pay. The producers of that food can’t be expected to donate the products of their hard, expensive labour for nothing, either. In fact market forces often punish farmers with lower prices when they produce surpluses, sometimes to the point of losing money.
The market system has a long history of balancing supply and demand, yet it never fails more than when it comes to getting foods from countries with surpluses to countries in dire need. Starving children don’t have money to buy imported food.
And then there’s the sad reality that global climate change is causing drought that is depriving more people of the solution to grow their own food. We in the First World are living a luxurious lifestyle because of burning fossil fuel, and the climate changes the extra carbon dioxide in the air causes, hurts people most in areas where living is already precarious.
Canadian farmers are, by nature, generous people. When restaurants were closed by pandemic restrictions, reducing demand for their products, egg and dairy farmers made huge donations to food banks. But that was easy by comparison to international food drives – the food banks were just down the street.
The problems of international food aid are demonstrated by farmers’ efforts through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. When it started in 1975, Mennonite farmers in western Canada (and later here in Ontario), grew grain that was designated for donation to countries in need. Over the years that proved impractical, and now crops are grown and sold and the proceeds donated to the Bank.
And even in a charity supported by churches, there are still jobs that require paid labour. According to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank website, it employs 46 people full-time and five part-time, at a cost of almost $4 million a year.
So the distance between our bounty and the terrible need in other parts of the world can still only be bridged by dollars. As we approach Thanksgiving next month we all, farmers and urbanites alike, need to help shrink that gap with donations.◊