Despite being a major exporter of agricultural goods, New Brunswick is one of the most import-dependent provinces in Canada when it comes to food. Over 97% of what is eaten in New Brunswick is produced outside our province. Why? Because the province’s farmers have largely been cast aside by policy makers who prefer the agribusiness models of the McCain, Oxford Frozen Foods and Cavendish Farms of this world.
Now, the pandemic has revealed our vulnerability and dependence on a few corporate suppliers, wholesalers and chains of distribution. This is as true for safe respiratory masks as it is for food.
Now is the time for a real strategy to help small farmers and cooperatives rather than export-driven agribusiness giants. Small and medium farms are our “insurance policy” against food shortages and logistical chain failures, and they need our help.
COVID-19 will likely increase the overall demand for food in the healthcare sector. Meanwhile, closures and restrictions of local markets and shops are decimating small farms in the province. With little collateral and meager savings, many farmers could be forced to sell to the big players or go bankrupt. The monopolization of retail, production and distribution through aggressive acquisitions was already a problem in our province.
COVID-19 is about to make matters much worse, with its “war economy” narratives already favouring major producers and retail businesses.
Before we discuss the inevitable discussion of antitrust legislation after the crisis, our government must take some preventative measures. We must transform the existing challenge into an opportunity.
New Brunswick is ready for an ambitious public sector driven by a buy-local strategy. This is where our public institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities can play a key role in helping diversify and expand local food production. The provincial government has a chance to leverage the collective purchasing power of public sector kitchens to support New Brunswick family farmers.
Over the years, groups like the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the National Farmers Union have often repeated how this approach would improve food quality for patients, residents and inmates, and help our local economy.
Building New Brunswick’s food security and food sovereignty protects our communities and makes them more resilient. From a small business point of view, doing so would protect small producers in difficult times, stimulate new niche markets and prevent monopolization. For consumers, it would also be a protection against predatory prices and practices.
The people of New Brunswick can use its collective strength to push the government to diversify food production in our provinces. This means helping small and medium farms, cooperatives and maybe even creating publicly-run farms. Farming is, after all, an essential service!
Simon Ouellette works for Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in New Brunswick.