EDWARDS -- The concept of "food sovereignty" has lately found fertile ground in Quebec, and advocates hope this 10-year-old international movement and catchphrase takes root among Ontario farmers, too.
The seeds may have been planted at an "evening of food sovereignty" put on by ten Eastern Ontario dairy producer committees at Stanley's Olde Maple Lane Farm Nov. 29.
Despite squalling weather outside, at least 150 movers and shakers from the realms of agriculture, agri-business and politics turned out to learn more about the strategy opposed to food-trade liberalization and the WTO.
Billed as "an evening for building solidarity, fairness and sustainability in agriculture," organizers also touted the idea as a common rallying point for both supply-managed and free-market commodity sectors in Ontario.
Keynote addresses were delivered by two officials with the Federation of Quebec Milk Producers, who outlined how all of Quebec agriculture, under L'Union Producteurs Agricole, had adopted the food sovereignty message in response to a provincial government commission on the future of agriculture last year.
Because of the baggage associated with the word "sovereignty" in Quebec, they created the slogan "feed our people first" to convey the concept in la belle province, Marcel Groleau, chair of the Federation, explained.
Groleau described the idea -- whose origins go back to the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome -- as a "unifying project that will guarantee our future as producers."
That unity extends beyond the different agricultural sectors in Canada, he said, pointing to recent trips to Belgium and France, where he heard from farmers worried about their future prospects.
With their own version of supply management slated for termination in 2015, the Belgians were "very excited" to hear about food sovereignty, according to Groleau, who said the principle also resonates among U.S. farmers as well.
Around the globe, farmers are realizing that "we will not survive in a world open market... We will become workers for companies... That's the next step if we don't stop these [WTO] negotiations," he said, referring to talks under the World Trade Organization's Doha Round.
The Quebers claimed that Europe and the U.S. will find a way around whatever deal comes out of the WTO anyway. Those bigger players might lower their tariffs, but it won't translate into any increase in real market access for producers located outside their borders.
As an alternative, Groleau asserted, "We need to readjust our policy in order to feed first our people." This entails a commitment from farmers to produce "what our consumers want, not what the agri-business wants, and a commitment from consumers that they will eat what we produce, and commitment from governments that food will be accessible."
Policies that guarantee market primacy for domestic producers would serve society's interest in food quality and affordability, greenhouse gas reductions, regional development, and environmental and cultural protection, explained Guylaine Gosselin, the Federation's general manager.
Gosselin defined food sovereignty as the right of people to:
Define their agricultural and food policy;
Protect and regulate production and trade with an objective of sustainable development;
Determine their degree of food self-sufficiency;
The concept is not against trade, she said, "if it is fair and subordinated to the right to healthy and ecological production."
Regulated trade, rather than free trade, is the model. Canadian food exporters would retain opportunities under such a regime, according to Gosselin, by meeting the needs of countries unable to supply their domestic marketplaces with certain products -- such as pork in Japan.
If WTO countries were allowed to set foreign food imports to a minimum five per cent of their markets, Canadian export opportunities for pork and beef would be double what they are today, she said. Poultry export opportunities would rise 94 per cent, wheat 44 per cent and cheese 53 per cent.
During a question and answer session, Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Geri Kamenz alleged that food sovereignty causes Canadian politicians' eyes "glaze over when you say it."
With several federal MPs in the audience, Kamenz added, "But the people we're trading with make no bones about it. The U.S. is the superpower of the world... and it's their obligation to ensure that the U.S. consumer has a safe, plentiful supply of domestic food."
In impassioned remarks to the gathering, the OFA president called upon Ontario producers to work with their Quebec brethren to drive the agricultural agenda at the federal level.
Together, the two provinces have 180 seats in the House of Commons, he observed.
"I look to the neighbours to the east of us. Ontario and Quebec agriculture are very, very similar as much as language makes us different. But what we do, and how we do it is very much the same. We have the responsibility to drive the agricultural agenda in this country... If Ontario and Quebec can develop that solidarity, we will enact change...
"We need to get our act together, we need to speak with one voice, we need to flex our muscles."
Emphasizing the need to protect domestic food production, he asserted, "If we continue to talk about food sovereignty as an idea and as a concept, we've missed the boat."
Raising the spectre of lead-contaminated toys and other quality-control concerns in Chinese-made goods, he noted that a nation's lost farming capacity isn't easily replaced once it goes offshore. "We risk giving up the most fundamental ability a country has, and that is to feed itself."
Kamenz and Groleau also panned Canada's current food labelling regime. Neither Product of Canada nor Canada No. 1 indicates the item was really produced in Canada anymore, they said. Kamenz called those designations "the grossest of lies."
Groleau called them "a joke" and said Canadian-labelled hamburger in grocery stores may contain a mixture of beef from as many as 16 different countries.
The event included a sumptuous dinner featuring locally grown produce and wines. Stormont Dairy Committee member Jim Wert served as emcee.
It was Wert and local Dairy Farmers of Ontario rep Norma Winters who were inspired to organize the meeting after hearing Groleau and Gosselin at DFO's fall policy conference last month.
"Our idea was to get everybody in the same room to hear about the success story unfolding in Quebec," Wert explained afterward, adding he hoped Ontario farmers would take the same unified approach on protecting their industry.