Is there hope for the future of food?
University of Waterloo doctoral research student Phoebe Stephens is certainly hopeful for a brighter future when it comes to harnessing social finance to develop sustainable food systems for our ever growing cities and communities.
The Canadian government has made export its primary focus in the food system for the better part of the nation’s history, and while they continue to focus on export, they are also in the early stages of a national food policy concentrated on four pillars: food security, health and safety, economic growth, and environment. While there may be room for improvement in revolutionizing the current food system, this policy shows that federal government is beginning to see food as more than just a way to make a profit.
“Food is one of those topics that is so interconnected with the economy, human health, energy and water use, our cities, and planetary wellbeing that I find it endlessly fascinating,” said Stephens. “If we can get food right, I think we can make some great progress on a number of fronts.”
Stephens argues that, unlike the differing opinions surrounding climate change, countries differ little on whether or not we can do better in terms of our food systems. "Luckily in Canada, companies acknowledge it, politicians acknowledge it, and academics acknowledge it; where the debate lies is in how to go about making it better.”
How can we make it better?
Similar to the sustainable energy debate, there is currently a strong focus on the individual to make the right decisions when it comes to the food they purchase. This often means going out of one's way to do so, at a higher cost, or travelling farther for sustainable goods in most cases.
“I think that’s where government has a big role to play, and so does industry, in terms of shaping the environment so it’s not so difficult for individuals to make the right decisions,” explained Stephens. “Bigger entities can shape the structure, working together to create a more suitable shopping environment.”
With a more accessible and sustainable shopping environment, “voting with one’s pocketbook” could be effortless - but change is warranted. Canada would need to change what we grow, the size of the food companies we rely on, and create a higher diversity when it comes to beneficiaries. These beneficiaries can range from accredited, wealthy investors to the average citizen.
During her research, Stephens studied a fund in Halifax, FarmWorks Investment Co-op, focused on the Canadian food system, wherein any citizen could buy a share starting at 100 dollars. She believes that increasing the availability of financing options, from first loss and patient capital to private equity, is necessary to making more positive, inclusive, and rapid changes within our food systems.
Ontario is currently working on a similar sustainable food investment model to that of Nova Scotia's. The Fair Finance Fund, is a democratized lending platform that allows average individuals to invest in their local food systems. Sustainable food production is an area where other countries such as China have been heavily investing in and are making inroads at rapid speeds (see infographic included with this article).
Food is a global issue, that can be addressed at a local level – bringing together cross sector partners to build and invest in a better food system, improving health, having a positive impact on our economies and protecting our land and water.
Brian Cowen, BES ’80
“I recently toured Scotland and had the opportunity to stay with a farming couple who farm over 2,500 hectares of broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts in a very labour intensive operation where most of the cutting occurs by hand. Over the years, this operation has grown to supply both fresh and flash frozen produce to some of the largest grocery operations in Scotland. As this operation grew, the couple recognized that more opportunity existed so they created a flash frozen operation to use the excess produce. In doing so they created a lot of waste in the form of cut off stalks and such. Using this waste as a seed to their anaerobic digestion system demonstrated they could create a new revenue stream to the business while being environmentally conscious. Realizing they had the capacity in their new anaerobic process, they entered the chicken business where they today turnover 3,000 chickens every few months to local grocery stores and other restaurant chain businesses. The benefit here was the manure that was left behind that could be used to augment the anaerobic operation as well as provide organic fertilizer to their farm. With so much methane gas being generated, the farm was able to further expand on their enterprise. They built a small combined heat and power plant that provided sufficient electricity to power their farm, heat their barns and the homes on their property, operate absorption chillers to support their freezing business and power several small villages close by while still providing gas to the national gas grid.
This sustainable business is an excellent example of how rural operations can work effectively to support not only their business and feed our ever growing cities and communities, but also support the communities they reside in sustainably.”