Food Helps Bridge the Urban-Rural Political Divide?

I wrote this blog the week after the elections.  It’s been a month, but sometimes it’s worth taking a second look at things after the campaign excitement has died down.

Food Helps Bridge the Urban-Rural Political Divide?

by Carolyn Young, Sustain Ontario

The elections results are in and Ontario’s riding map looks like a sea of rural blue dotted with red-orange islands of urban voters. Apart from several NDP-elected ridings in Northern Ontario where resource extraction unions have an influence, the Ontario election appears to have drawn a line in the sand between urban eaters and rural farmers.

The story told on the map might be even worse for farmers  – several prominent Liberal MPPs who were farmers were voted out of office.  As Dave Mackay, President of the Renfrew County National Farmers Union reports “The lack of representatives in rural Ontario within the new Liberal governing party appears to be a real concern for family farms across Ontario. Cabinet ministers and MPPs with solid rural and farm background were defeated in yesterday’s election.”  He believes it may be difficult to have the farm voice heard within the new Liberal governing party.

Will the new Ontario government be bad news for farmers?  Looking closely, it seems that the answer is probably not.. Although the greenbelt and renewable energy legislation passed by the Ontario Liberals remain controversial, the Liberals have implemented several other programs that clearly support local farmers. Perhaps even more importantly, there are many areas where the “major minority” Liberals have the necessary support from the other parties to make positive changes for farming and farmers.

First, all three elected parties support increasing sales of local food. They all support local procurement targets within government institutions, Universities, schools and hospitals and making business easier for farmers. In the last eight years the Liberal government dedicated funds to support these goals, through regional food marketing initiatives, Farmers’ Markets, and public procurement. They are not likely to encounter any resistance to continuing or expanding these programs from the NDP or PCs, who all supported this in their platforms.

The Liberals have also proven their interest in supporting farm businesses as well as their willingness to adopt other parties’ ideas by diversifying the Risk Management Program, an idea originally forwarded by PCs.  The program, which insures farmers against serious losses, previously only applied to a limited number of cash crops.  Hopefully, this willingness to appropriate good ideas bodes well for the minority government’s ability to work with the other parties in the future.

Throughout the elections, Hudak appealed to farmers by promising to cut red tape and streamline communication with government through a “one window” approach.  In the case of many farmers and small-scale food processors, the amount of associated paperwork and regulations can become unwieldy and costly.

The PCs are not the only party interested in reducing red tape.  The Liberals claim that they have already reduced the regulatory burden for farmers by 28% through their “Open for Business” initiative, including for meat processors while offering funding support through the Rural Economic Development program for facility upgrades. This is an area that hasn’t been solved yet, though.  As the NDP party highlighted in their platform “We need regulations for all sizes of farms, instead of rules about whether there’s paneling in the office or two bathrooms in a small plant where there are few employees.” All three parties acknowledge the problem; the question is whether or not they can work together to solve it.

And those aren’t the only areas where the parties agree to support food and farming. They are all in support of ensuring better farm succession and supply management.

Perhaps the real political divide stems from urban issues of food access and poverty. The Liberals have a track record that emphasizes healthy food in schools as part of their poverty reduction strategy, an issue the Progressive Conservatives were silent on.  However, while both the Liberals and the NDP offer strategies such as a housing benefit and increased minimum wage, neither party indicated that they would take healthy food into account when setting social assistance rates.

Still, if they are ready to listen, the Ontario Liberals might be ready to work with the opposition parties on other food issues that cross the urban-rural divide such as strengthening food education, improving environmental stewardship on farms, and even creating a food and nutrition strategy that supports farmers and eaters alike.

While it looks on the surface like the urban-elected parties are good news for food and farming initiatives that support Ontario farmers, this provincial election has raised some big questions for farmers. If the global trend is for urban populations to exceed those of rural, how will we ensure a voice for the unique circumstances of farmers?

The next few years will be telling.  Can an urban-elected government really understand the challenges and solutions most needed by a shrinking population of farmers?  Now is the time for food advocates to help push for collaboration among the parties.  In other words, it’s time for food to really connect us all.

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