2014 Ontario Elections Debate: Where does food and farming fit in?

Ethics, energy, job creation, managing deficit, transportation and education were the publics’ chosen top matters of concern for the much anticipated Ontario leaders’ live debate last week. With the first question related to government ethics and trustworthiness, setting the tone for a considerable portion of the evening. This, coupled with the high concern for job creation seemed to take centre stage during the debate. Six of the most popular questions were chosen, according to Steve Paikin, from over 1000 that were submitted by Ontarians. Over the duration of the 90 minute televised broadcast, these video recorded questions were played individually, each followed by the leaders’ responses. Given the nature of the questions, however, other than a brief mention about the Student Nutrition Program under the broader topic of education there was no real opportunity to delve further into the issues contained within the agri-food sector. In his blog, Mike Schreiner also delivered what would have been his responses to those same questions, had he been a part of the debate. It too seemed to be a bit lean on specific matters regarding agriculture.

While it may be argued that generally, many of the responses by the leaders were not exhaustive when it came to specifics; this still brings an important thought to mind. Given that these six questions were supposed to represent the most pertinent concerns of Ontarians, why weren’t agriculture and rural issues a more prominent feature in the responses? It is quite possible that Paikin could be saving those specific questions for a debate later on, yet disputably there were still topics raised that a greater investment in the agri-food industry could help to solve.

It’s agreed that what was talked about in the debate has realistic impact on the everyday lives of Ontarians. That said, at least two of these concerns– job creation and education, can be directly mitigated by implementing better food and farming policies in the province. This view is built on a number of premises, perhaps, one of the most relevant being that, food and farming is now the #1 employer in Ontario.

More specifically…

  • In Ontario, the agri-food industry contributes $33 billion to the provincial economy every year, provides 700,000 jobs and pays $7 billion in wages.
  • Ontario’s food and beverage processing sector generated over $39 billion in 2011 and providing over 125,000 direct jobs.
  • By re-allocating $10 of Ontarian’s weekly grocery bill to locally grown and produced food, Ontario food sales would increase by $2.4 billion and create 10,000 jobs.

Then there’s education…

  • Toronto’s Feeding Our Future evaluation of Student Nutrition Programs found that 61% of Grade 7 and 8 students who ate a morning meal on most days achieved or exceeded the provincial standard (levels 3 & 4) in reading as opposed to 50% of those who ate a morning meal two or less times per week

So then, why was this not brought up during the discussions involving job creation, the economy and children’s education? It appears that despite the evidence that the agriculture and food industries are notable drivers that can alleviate these problems, there’s still limited faith in the sector’s ability to do so. This restricted belief quite likely stems from not always seeing the extent to which food is inter-connected with these other pertinent areas. The challenge then is in sensitizing Ontarians even more about what voting on food and farming really means — that a vote on food is, in fact, a vote on greater job creation and an improved economy. It’s a vote on a future of healthy children who can achieve more at school and who are less likely to develop diet-related illnesses later on in life.  Once this is recognized as a legitimate means to solving some of our most fundamental problems, the benefits to the province will be long lasting.

It is commendable that the Local Food Act has been supported by all parties, which is a step in the right direction, but room still exists for even greater inclusion of food and farming related solutions. It is hoped that in future discussions during this election season, agri-food associated solutions will be recognized as a vital contributor towards reducing unemployment rates and improving the economy, health, education and lifestyles for all the people of Ontario.

 

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