Public Health of Canada has reported that two out of three Canadians over the age of 18 are overweight or obese, and one out of three children aged five to 17 are overweight or obese.
At the same time, the number of Canadians who struggle to put good food on the table is increasing as a result of layoffs and the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, according to the non-profit Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC). Before the pandemic, an estimated 4.5 million Canadians experienced food insecurity — inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. The CFCC said that number had grown by 39 per cent, meaning food insecurity now affects one in seven people, particularly those in low-income and black, brown and indigenous communities.
Both these populations – those having either not enough or too much good food — pose a greater risk to our health than alcohol, tobacco, drugs and unsafe sex combined, according to the report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (Glopan).
Few studies have put a dollar amount on the economic burden of chronic diseases caused by food insecurity. The Canadian Encyclopedia says, “Food-insecure mothers are as likely as other women to start breastfeeding, but are less able to keep breastfeeding, which is a serious problem for families unable to afford infant formula. Among children, exposure to severe food insecurity (measured as child hunger) has been linked to poorer health status and the later development of a variety of chronic health conditions, including asthma and depression. Adults in food-insecure households are much more likely than food-secure adults to have chronic physical and mental health problems, including conditions like depression and diabetes.” It suggests that people who are food insecure cost the healthcare system twice as much as those who are food secure. Another study found that not meeting recommendations for a healthy diet was responsible for CAD$13.8 billion/year (direct health care: CAD$5.1 billion, indirect: CAD$8.7 billion).
Obesity has been only slightly better documented in Canada. It may cost an additional $10 billion due to increases in direct (i.e., physician, hospital, ER use) and indirect costs (i.e., lost productivity, absenteeism, disability).
While this dreadful situation is coming to the fore because of the pandemic, it has been around for a long time. And while food insecurity is a matter of insufficient income, obesity has much more to do with the choices we make – not just the choices we make about the food we put into our mouths, but the choices we make by acquiescing to our national food-producing policies.
Interestingly, Canada has only recently embarked on a Food Policy for Canada. Our own Marie-Claude Bibeau announced a $134 million initiative last fall to work with the provinces to create a National School Food Program, to reduce food waste (which now tops $50 billion a year) and to encourage a sustainable food system.
On this last point, you should know that over the decades, the big food system drivers have been yield and efficiency. That has been a good idea but has come at a significant cost. According to the World Economic Forum, about one-third of the world’s soil is degraded due in large part to intensive farming practices. Today’s food systems contribute up to 37 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Replenishing and protecting the world’s soil carbon stores could help offset up to 5.5bn tonnes of greenhouse gases every year.
I have no idea how Quebec’s farming practices fit into this picture. But I do know that informed consumerism can be transformative in demanding better food systems. This requires us to learn much more about the role of farming and food in our lives – starting with understanding the impact of our dietary decisions on our health, society and environment.
This is a timely endeavor: food policy experts say COVID-19 has provided a window to transform Canada’s food production system into a more sustainable model. Food Secure Canada, an alliance of organizations working to advance food security, says “Canada shouldn’t return to the industrial food production model that’s been slowed by the novel coronavirus. Instead, governments should invest in existing local infrastructures which can help Canada meet environmental and social goals — while boosting the economy, post-coronavirus.”
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Health Centre. Cohendian560@gmail.com