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UN human rights envoy highlights trade impacts on local food systems; country-of-origin labelling dispute at WTO proves his point

Olivier De Shutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (Source: Food Secure Canada)

Olivier De Shutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (Source: Food Secure Canada)

When Olivier de Shutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food, reported last week on his recent trip to Canada, pointing out unacceptable levels of poverty and food insecurity, several Harper ministers said he had no business lecturing this country. Mr. De Shutter gave as good as he got, telling media, “It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all.”

Those problems included one sad statistic: 900,000 households and 2.5 million people in Canada are too poor to afford adequate diets. Not picked up on at the time but mentioned in Embassy Magazine this week was Mr. De Shutter’s related claim that more effort in Canada has gone to boosting food exports than to building healthy communities, and that free trade agreements have had a significant role to play in that respect.

“Since the 1950s, Canada has been moving to large-scale, input-intensive modes of production, leading to increasingly unsustainable farming practices and higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, soil contamination, and erosion of biodiversity,” said the UN expert in his initial report on Canada, released May 16. “Export-led policies in agriculture have resulted in increased concentration, vertical integration and buyer consolidation in the agri-food sector, leading to a 25 percent decrease in the number of farms between 1988 and 2007.”

Agreements like the Canada-U.S. FTA and NAFTA have “been detrimental to many of Canada’s agricultural producers, whose net incomes have decreased and whose debt has increased dramatically over the past decades,” said Mr. De Shutter. “As concentration increased in the farming sector, this sector has become heavily reliant on temporary foreign farm workers: approximately 30,000 migrant farm workers come to work in Canada each year under the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs. These workers are in an extremely precarious position.”


The rapporteur also mentioned how procurement can be used in a very positive way to improve local food systems and increase access to nutritional, local foods in schools and remote communities.

“During his mission, the Special Rapporteur witnessed a number of initiatives that seek to improve food and nutrition security and foster local markets at the municipal and provincial levels in particular through local procurement schemes and ‘buy local’ labeling (such as Local Food Plus, FoodLand Ontario, Manitoba buy local),” he said. “However, the ability of all levels of government to use institutional sourcing as a way to encourage the transition towards a more sustainable food system may be restricted by legal requirements of non-discrimination imposed on public procurement. They may also be undermined by the negotiation of free trade agreements.”

It’s a caution many local farmers and food policy councils have been taking to municipalities across Canada to urge them to seek an exemption from procurement rules in the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

Paul Slomp, the youth vice-president of the National Farmers Union who raises grass-fed livestock in Manotick Station near Ottawa, told Embassy Magazine this week that Mr. De Shutter’s assessment was “bang on,” in particular about concentration of ownership.

“The whole structure is set up to promote export,” he said. “Nobody is responding to the needs that exist in communities. Even though there are entrepreneurs and farmers who would be interested in filing those niches, it is very difficult for them to go against the structure that’s set up to focus on export.”


This is not the view of the WTO Director General, Pascal Lamy, who has disagreed publicly with Mr. De Shutter about the role of trade liberalization in helping versus hurting food security. Late last year, the UN rapporteur issued a briefing note, The World Trade Organization and the Post-Global Food Crisis Agenda: Putting Food Security First in the International Food System, in which he argued for greater flexibility in WTO rules so that trade rules do not get in the way of national efforts to address access to food. The note also asked for greater clarity so developing countries would not avoid certain policies for fear of being taken to the WTO by another country complaining of trade barriers.

“Food security is the elephant in the room which the WTO must address,” said Mr. De Shutter’s November press release. “Trade did not feed the hungry when food was cheap and abundant, and is even less able to do so now that prices are sky-high. Global food imports shall be worth 1.3 trillion USD in 2011, and the food import bills of the least developed countries have soared by over a third over the last year. The G20 has acknowledged that excessive reliance on food imports has left people in developing countries increasingly vulnerable to price shocks and food shortages… The WTO must now do the same.”

Mr. Lamy replied, in part, that the WTO Agreement on Agriculture requirements were crystal clear to all participating countries. His letter to Mr. De Shutter explained:

WTO Members negotiated and committed to an AoA that specifies their rights and obligations with respect to trade distorting practices. A goal of these obligations is to limit policies that distort price signals, in order to encourage an efficient allocation of resources at the national level and to enhance purchasing power, fundamental to food security, through GDP growth. With trade as part of a coherent macroeconomic and structural economic strategy, resources will tend towards an allocation based on comparative advantage, limiting inefficiencies. In response to an enhanced transmission of unbiased price signals competitive producers adjust their production and investment decisions. This supply response helps to mitigate price pressure, contributing to improved availability of affordable food. Thus, trade can contribute to solutions to food security challenges.

Ta da! The rules work because our studies say they should. Local food politics just get in the way.


Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is in Mr. Lamy’s camp. He’s quoted in the Embassy Magazine article this week defending Canada’s export-led food strategy.

“Considering that Canada’s producers and processors export anywhere from [50 to 80 per cent] of what they produce, Canada is rightly focused on opening, re-opening and expanding international markets for farmers,” he said. “At the same time, we’re working to boost domestic demand of Canadian food by launching branding initiatives in grocery stores across Canada.”

Embassy reports that two days after Mr. De Schutter’s press conference, Mr. Ritz “announced such a program to promote Canadian food by identifying it more easily to shoppers in 65 Canadian stores.”

Sounds lovely, Mr. Ritz. More and more Canadians DO want to buy Canadian produce, meat, cheese and other food products. We want more of it on our shelves. Unfortunately, we need you to be more De Shutter and less Lamy to really make it happen. You’re own actions at the WTO prove the former’s point.

Canada and Mexico successfully argued at the WTO that U.S. Country of Origin Labelling rules for meat products (COOL) violated the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. We’re back in front of the WTO Appellate Body (Obama is appealing the decision) arguing that letting consumers know where their meat comes from “violates TBT Article 2.2 by imposing a trade-restrictive measure that does not fulfil a legitimate objective,” and that it was intentionally “designed and structured to favour domestic cattle and hog producers at the expense of imports.”

Admittedly it’s easy to side with Canada over the U.S. on this one. Our pork and beef sectors are integrated across the border and the U.S. is one of the most hypocritical countries in the world when it comes to enforcing trade rules abroad and breaking them at home. But the message that Canada’s challenge to a simple labelling scheme sends to the rest of the world is that efforts to promote local food consumption can and will be challenged. They prove De Shutter’s point that the WTO gets in the way of food sovereignty actually in practice and through a chill effect against policy options that could upset strict trade rules.

To read more about Mr. De Shutter’s recent tour of Canada, see the Food Secure Canada website.