The Non-existence of Food Sovereignty in BC
The idea of ‘food sovereignty’ is an attempt to address the complex issues that directly impact the ability of individuals, families and communities to respond to their own needs for access to healthy, culturally adapted foods. The concept was developed by a global farmers’ movement La Via Campesina and was launched to the general public at the World Food Summit in 1996. While there is no universal definition of food sovereignty, the most common one referred to in the international community is as follows:
Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies, which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.
The concept of ‘food sovereignty’ is certainly on the media agenda here in British Columbia, Canada: position papers, new civil servant positions, news items, best-selling books. But what of the ‘ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate [legislation and/or policies]’ fitting a people’s ‘unique circumstances’? How is our government doing? Take the recent changes to the Meat Inspection Regulation (MIR) for example. It has put more processors and producers out of business than has created new processors; consequently it has reduced the community capacity to produce meat, and reduced the quality of our meat (thanks to the smaller custom operators going out of business). It has created more dependence upon an already unsustainable and ecologically questionable food production and distribution system.
The overall result of recent legislation, then, is Food Insecurity, with food sovereignty obviously not even being considered: communities are more dependent upon a centralized food production and distribution system (and all its ethically and environmentally questionable and unsustainable practices) instead of a decentralized, locally controlled, economically diverse (and thus more stable and sustainable) system. Not only that, communities are socially unraveling due to the inter-dependency that is being lost as producers ‘throw in the towel’. The only recourse for consumers is to buy from an anonymous supply chain.
‘Culturally appropriate’ foods are foods which are grown in your area, or gathered from the wild in your area. These, too, are becoming scarce: for example, wild stocks of salmon have been depleted due to the commercial fishing industry, while custom facilities that formerly handled the butchering, wrapping and packing of hunted game may no longer afford this time because of their financial responsibilities due to legislated upgrades.
Here is an overview of the Meat inspection regulation:
If the meat is intended only for your personal use, you have two options for the slaughter of your livestock:
1. You can take your animals to an abattoir for slaughter. This can be either a fixed or mobile abattoir. By September 2006, all B.C. abattoirs that produce meat for human consumption must be licensed.
2. You can slaughter your own animals. It is okay if friends or neighbours help you with this task, as long as nobody is paid or otherwise compensated. If you slaughter your own animals, you cannot sell any of the meat, nor can you use it in any transaction that is commercial in nature, such as regular trading or bartering for other goods or services. Nor can you sell products, such as sausages, or meals made from this meat.
What sort of schizophrenic logic is this? Meat that you slaughter yourself is fit for you and your family to eat, but not for the neighbours who helped you? (The same ill-logic applies to poultry slaughtering and milk products in B.C.) If you, the farmer, are able to decide whether or not the food you have just processed is safe, why shouldn’t your neighbour, who helped you, also be able to discern this? Or a customer who wishes to buy directly from you? After all, isn’t your customer going to scrutinize your farming and butchering practices just as diligently as, if not more diligently than, the government inspector?
This legislation has effectively shut down ‘farm gate’ sales. Not only does it mean a loss to farmers’ incomes (and diversification of economy and skills), but also a loss to communities’ food security and food sovereignty.
Oh, and if you thought you might get around the legislation by doing it for free, they have that one tied up with the following note:
Note: if the slaughtering of animals is part of the ordinary course of somebody’s business, even if it is done for free, it would be considered operating an abattoir. So, a farmer who sold live animals to his/her customers and offered to slaughter them for the customers for free would need to be licensed as an abattoir.
While our government’s minions produce tantalizing feasts of rhetoric about such things as rural economic development, food security, and food sovereignty, their ‘one size fits all’ approach to so-called food safety legislation is the equivalent of a Hostess Twinkie in terms of nutritional value. It undercuts the contemporary interests of British Columbia’s citizens, creates greater dependency on the corporate food production system, and increases a community’s food insecurity.
Food (In)-Security in B.C.
How does this change affect people in B.C.? Some producers and processors are happy about the change. I have spoken to a beef producer near Quesnel who is quite happy with the change, because she can now supply people in Vancouver with her pasture fed beef. That’s because she lives within an hour’s drive of a licensed abbatoir.
Other producers are not so lucky. Many producers in more populated areas are used to having access to custom slaughtering, but now find themselves without a processor who is willing to do custom orders. Because of the Meat Inspection Regulation changes, many smaller slaughterhouses, who did the majority of the custom and specialized work, are now closing down (or already have closed). They simply cannot afford to make the requisite changes required to meet the new standards. (Two of these inordinately costly abut rerquired changes are: provide a separate office and bathroom facility for the Meat Inspector; provide an automatic, hands-free hand-washing system for the slaughterer/staff. See Plant construction and equipment guidelines for more information.)
I have to ask: If surgeons who cut you open can move washing taps with their elbows, why can’t someone who is butchering an animal? After all, the surgeon expects the body she is working on to live, whereas the butcher doesn’t. Further, I don’t have a separate office in my house for my own business, but I need to supply one for a government inspector. Is he/she planning on moving in? What does this separate office and separate bathroom have to do with meat safety?
There is still a third kind of producer and community that is affected entirely differently than the above two examples. Many rural/remote communities never did have a processor near them, and instead relied on doing it themselves and/or with the help of the local butcher or otherwise experienced and knowledgeable people. These communities are now without any facility to legally process their meat, and have no hope of ever having one because of the cost and lack of legislated economic viability.
Because of British Columbia’s geographically diverse topography and vastly dispersed populations, there are many communities which will no longer have the opportunity to be self-sufficient in their meat producing and processing capacity. Take Bella Coola where I live, for example: the closest provincially inspected slaughter facility for red meat is over 500 kilometers away (in Beaver Valley) and the closest poultry slaughtering facility is around 900 kilometers away (Chilliwack or Salmon Arm). In economic terms, for the local farmer and his customers these facilities might as well be on Mars. This is without considering the environmental and animal rights concerns.
Not to worry, the new Meat Inspection Regulation has addressed us rural/remote folks:
Producers in remote and isolated communities face special challenges because they may not have access to a licensed slaughter establishment. Some of these communities may need time to carry out feasibility studies before developing construction plans for new or updated facilities. In these limited circumstances, a Class C transitional licence applicant can apply for an exemption from the requirement to have a construction plan. This will allow the applicant to continue operating and selling direct to the consumer until feasibility studies are done and construction plans can be completed. As with all Class C licences, the meat produced must be labelled as uninspected and not for resale.
Transitional licenses are valid for six months, and renewal is subject to continued progress towards a fully approved and licensed operation.
In exceptional circumstances, in remote and isolated areas, the Minister of Health has the authority under the Meat Inspection Regulation to exempt transitional Class C license applicants from the necessity of getting an approved construction plan, if in the Minister’s opinion it is necessary to maintain slaughter capacity.
Well, thank goodness for small mercies. We don’t have to take any responsibility for our community and make the decision for ourselves; the Minister will decide for us whether or not it is ‘necessary to maintain slaughter capacity’! Five generations of my family have been waiting for the Minister to tell me if what we’ve been doing for 120 years is worthwhile.
What have we gained by this change in legislation? It has shut down local producers, put a stop to farm-gate sales, and put many small specialized custom operators out of business. Several producers have been driven underground–the only available option left to them. Larger producers now have huge debt for the upgrades and consequently can no longer ‘afford’ to do custom orders; as a result, small-scale, often specialized, producers have nowhere to get their meat slaughtered unless they contravene environmental and animal rights standards by shipping their animals huge distances. Further, these custom operators may now be overloaded.
How does this new regulation support food safety, or eating locally, or rural economic development, or food security, or food sovereignty? The answer is: it doesn’t.