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Improving competitiveness and food sovereignty go hand-in-hand

By Bloc Québécois MP André Bellavance      

Food sovereignty is a nation's right to choose its own agricultural orientations, the policies that define them and the means it considers most appropriate for implementing them.

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“Competitiveness” is often assumed to be about market liberalization and deregulation. In Quebec, the agricultural sector, in particular, but also the public, at large, is increasingly aware that liberalization and deregulation can backfire. That is why food sovereignty has become an unavoidable issue when improving competitiveness is on the agenda.

Food sovereignty is a nation’s right to choose its own agricultural orientations, the policies that define them and the means it considers most appropriate for implementing them. The concept is supported by the United Nations. In March 2009 Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, submitted a favourable report on it to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In his report, Mr. De Schutter made four recommendations, one of which calls for states to have the ability to protect their local markets from market volatility and sharp rises in imports though supply management and collective marketing, which have an important role to play when this approach is taken.

The developed countries should not be obliged to choose between sound management of their agricultural resources; respect for their products, land and living things; and freer markets. Some governments oppose the principle of food sovereignty in the name of respect for the trade treaties they have signed. Is the principle absolutely incompatible with the treaties? Must we necessarily withdraw from the WTO or become 100 per cent protectionist just because we want everyone to have enough to eat, and countries (sovereign by definition) to freely choose their own agricultural policies? We think not.

The Bloc Québécois favours the opening of borders to international trade. Quebec, as a trading nation, needs this access to the world, without which our leading-edge industries could not prosper. But for trade to be mutually profitable, it must first and foremost be fair. A trade system that leads to exploitation in poor countries and dumping in rich ones is not viable. We cannot accept free trade that would result in levelling down.

It is important not to conflate food sovereignty and hard-line protectionism. The Bloc Québécois is not defending this interpretation of food sovereignty. To decide how best to promote food sovereignty, it is important to grasp the nature of the problems that this vision of agriculture is attempting to solve. By understanding more fully why various groups want to promote it, we can more easily find effective and realistic measures for incorporating it into the development of our agricultural policies. When we tackle problems at their source in this way, we not only avoid long and costly legal wrangles at the World Trade Organization, but also protect our economy by not imposing pointless regulations that would complicate trade without solving the fundamental problems that concern us.

On the federal scene, the concept of food sovereignty can take the form of defending and promoting supply management to international trade bodies; supporting organizations that work to develop local and collective marketing; supporting the approach of the Government of Quebec, which is implementing a system for managing local products; accelerating regulations on organic products; and encouraging federal institutions to implement a policy of buying locally. Moreover, given the intransigence of the federal government, which is stubbornly moving forward with the unrealistic 98 per cent threshold for use of the “Product of Canada” label, the Bloc Québécois is urging Quebec agri-food producers to use the “Grown in Quebec” label to promote their products. With the federal approach, a number of Quebec products—jams, for example—lose a powerful marketing tool because some ingredients, such as foreign sugar, exceed the two per cent content limit. This is an unreasonable standard that has disastrous consequences for most Quebec agri-food producers. The federal government says that it consulted the agri-food industry; however, it did not listen to them. In past months the agri-food industry has voiced concerns about this excessively rigid standard and the ensuing irreversible repercussions, particularly loss of market share. The minority Conservative government should have listened to the opposition, which proposed a more reasonable 85 per cent content rule. These are easy changes to make. Competitiveness is about these things too.

Bloc Québécois MP André Bellavance, his party’s critic for agriculture and agri-food, is also vice chair of the Bloc’s Caucus and represents Richmond-Arthabaska.


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