A country or a region has food security when its population has reliable access to enough nutritious, affordable food. And it has food sovereignty when it can control its own agriculture and food production. In other words, the more food we can produce ourselves, the less vulnerable we are to risks to our food supply.
Because of our climate, there are already times of the year when we simply can’t grow our most of own produce, so we have to rely on imports from other countries. Similarly, there’s unlikely ever to be pineapple, mango or banana production in Canada, so again, we rely on farmers in other countries to grow those crops for us.
There’s an inherent risk, though, in an over-reliance on other countries to feed us. The last several years have shown first-hand what can happen when we have to rely on other regions of the world to produce and deliver critical supplies, whether it was masks and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, or fertilizer following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Our food sovereignty is critically important, but we won’t realize that until we no longer have it. And when it’s gone and our international markets can’t or won’t supply us with what we need, it will take a long time to get that domestic food production capacity back, if at all.
Fruit and vegetable production, by and large, is not something that can be ramped up quickly. It takes time and money to plant trees or vines and wait for them to be mature enough to produce fruit. It also takes time and money to build packing and storage infrastructure, develop processing capacity, or secure government approvals to use new technologies on the farm or in the greenhouse.
Domestic food production capacity is part of our critical infrastructure – like heat, hydro or telecommunications – and we won’t know how truly important it is until we no longer have it.
Climate change and the environment
Being able to grow as many of our own fruits and vegetables as possible has many positive impacts on our environment, as well as helping us meet the demands of our changing climate.
Imported produce often has to travel a long way to get to a grocery store shelf in Ontario. This involves lengthy travel, whether by land, sea or air, that generates greenhouse gas emissions, and means produce must be stored in climate controlled environments while it is making its journey from field to plate, which also generates a carbon footprint.
The further produce must travel, the greater the chances of fruits and vegetables becoming bruised, damaged or otherwise unsellable. Although some of this produce can find alternate homes or be used for processing for example, the majority is considered waste and ends up in landfill or is otherwise discarded - again contributing to the carbon footprint of food production.
The changing climate is also making food production around the world more challenging. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events are bring flooding, drought, damaging frosts and cold temperatures and searing heat to many of the world's leading fruit and vegetable growing areas, impacting the quantity and quality of the crops they're able to grow. At the same time, warmer temperatures in Canadian growing areas are making it easier for farmers to grow a greater variety of produce.
Growing closer to home also means a shorter supply chain. This increases the resilience of the food system and leaves growers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers less vulnerable to national and international shortages and disruptions.
And finally, Agriculture is one of the only sectors in the world with a built-in capacity to sequester carbon, offsetting not only its own footprint, but that of other sectors as well. Healthy farming practices – often called regenerative agriculture – and smart agri-tech innovations are used by fruit and vegetable farms of all sizes across Ontario.
The connection between food and health is undeniable. A nutritious, balanced diet can have significant positive influences on human health, from fighting inflammation and metabolic syndrom to reducing the risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
Fruits and vegetables are leading sources of important nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals and are healthy options regardless of whether they are fresh, frozen or canned.
Reducing the risk of illness or preventing people from getting sick at all is a key way to reduce medical wait times, manage ballooning health care costs or even keep seniors active and independent longer.
Jobs and the economy
Agriculture as a whole is the second biggest sector of the Ontario economy, employing 10 per cent of the provincial workforce. Fruit and vegetable production makes up a signficant part of that economic powerhouse:
- We generate more than $4.2 billion in economic activity annually. This includes more than $3.16 billion of farmgate sales, which is over one third of Canada’s total fruit and vegetable production.
- Ontario fruit and vegetable farmers export $1.5 billion annually; almost half of this is from the greenhouse vegetable sector.
- We employ more than 30,000 people directly on farms and every on-farm job generates approximately 2.2 jobs downstream - which means we also support an additional 66,000 indirect jobs.
- We generate approximately $600 million in tax revenues for all three levels of government.