The science is clear. To address climate change, reverse global biodiversity collapse, and ensure people around the world have access to nutritious and culturally preferred foods, we need to entirely reimagine and redesign our food systems. But to do so, we must abandon the technological optimism and relentless pursuit of increases in productivity that got us where we are today: a world that produces much food, yes, but also produces much hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. Scholars are increasingly arguing that we need to move away from a narrow focus on production and yield, and instead focus on dismantling the deeply oppressive systems of economic and ecological enclosure and the take-and-make-waste mindset that presently comprise our approaches to food.
Disappointingly, this necessary shift in thinking is absent from the recent report released by RBC, the Arrell Food Institute, and Boston Consulting Group. The report argues that Canada must rise to meet a global mandate to intensify food production while also reducing the climate footprint of Canadian agriculture. While the report regularly invokes the concept of sustainability, it does not follow the best available science and social science for how to achieve sustainable food systems that are also equitable and just. The report lacks any apparent attempt to engage First Nations and other Indigenous peoples in Canada in a dialogue about the future. Instead, it adopts a tone that is both appropriative and imperialistic. Too, it leans heavily into technological optimism, with recommendations for speculative technologies that can promote delay and divert attention from readily available solutions.
A personal note: I am part of the Arrell Food Institute and hold the Arrell Chair of Food, Policy, and Society. I was not a part of this report. I was, however, approached by collaborators who feel harmed by its contents but for myriad reasons are reticent to speak out. It is both from my own conscience and on their behalf that I write this essay and invite my colleagues to join me in an open dialogue about the issues I raise below.
To set the stage, the report invokes misleading proclamations of urgency regarding endless global population growth and hunger to construct a moral argument for a specific, agribusiness and profit-centric vision. “The world needs a new Green Revolution,” the authors write, “and Canada can play a leading role. Indeed, we must.” With these words, the authors create a “we have no choice” framing that simultaneously acquiesces to climate change and nullifies any discussion of local agency and sovereignty. They write,
“As the poles warm, roughly 1.85 million square kilometres of land in Canada’s north may become suitable for staple crop production by 2080. With Canada losing an estimated 60,000 acres of prime farmland to urban expansion each year, there may be temptation to farm or develop it. But the consequences of allowing agriculture to push north could be catastrophic… To feed the world, Canada will need to grow more food, without adding significantly to its stock of farmland.”
I read the hallmarks of disaster capitalism in these words, as if the report is holding us and the lands of Canada hostage to its vision by creating a false dilemma. We have no choice, it seems, but to intensify Canadian agriculture in the manner they set out.
The report occludes any opportunity for Indigenous Peoples, and most settler Canadians for that matter, to self-determine the policies, practices, and technologies that comprise our food systems. Note how in the quote above they characterize the loss of farmland to urbanization as something inevitable and lacking agency. The fact of the matter is we have many choices: we can choose to protect the farmland we have, if we give voice to those options; we can choose to engage in rich conversations about how best to build a foundation of justice into our food systems, and build everything else out from there, if we give voice to those options.
Importantly, the report only mentions Indigenous Peoples once, and that one mention is extractive — identifying Indigenous knowledge as being important to the success of the report’s agenda. A second harmful example of appropriation in this report is its valorization of cattle as stewards. The authors write, “… cattle can also act as stewards of the land … by grazing on this land, cattle stimulate grass roots to grow deeper, better enabling carbon to be stored in the soil.” Attributing stewardship to the cattle, and not to people and the broader biocultural context, dehumanizes stewardship and strips it of its deep cultural significance in service of a convenient conclusion: that who is managing the process is irrelevant.
But it is relevant. Indeed, it may be the most relevant question of them all.
Indigenous Peoples have played a critical role in the long-term co-evolution of North America’s grasslands and forests, living in close relationships with grazers, fire, and forests. Together, they co-created the mosaic of biocultural landscapes that settlers encountered when they first arrived on this continent, a mosaic of working landscapes that has been all but dismantled by settler colonialism. This report erases this Indigenous legacy by characterizing these ecological relationships as merely innate features of an animal that is not even native to this continent. Too, it is written as a justification for settler agriculturalists to further capitalize on lands that their forebearers stole and niches they did not create.
The matter of livestock brings us to my second major concern with this report: it deploys recommendations that can be used to delay and divert support from existing solutions. It evokes for me a tactic of the fossil fuel industry: using narratives of transitions to reframe technologies that are part of the problem as part of the solution. For example, the report sidesteps the various ethical and environmental rationales in addition to climate change to promote a global down-scaling of industrial animal agriculture. Instead, it promotes speculative, unproven, and costly technologies such as carbon capture and storage to offset cattle emissions and new genetic modifications of crops and of the soil microbiome. The report also skips the fact that the literature on the potential of cattle grazing to sequester carbon in soils over the long term and at the scale necessary to impact climate change is decidedly mixed.
This is not to say that these solutions do not hold potential, but that they cannot be the tentpoles of a serious strategy for reinventing our food systems. By centring them in a report sponsored by an influential financial institution, however the authors are not only signaling which solutions are deserving of financial and policy support, they are also signaling which ones are not. Even if climate change were the only concern, there are numerous off-the-shelf solutions not mentioned here that could earn immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
There is also real risk to presenting this menu of technological solutions in such an apolitical manner, with no active attention to the very real negative implications they can have for people and rural communities in Canada and for our food systems as a whole. Many of these technologies have the potential to increase inequity, erode food sovereignty, introduce perverse incentives from other sectors such as energy, and favour the success of large firms over the health and well-being of society. Nothing is said in the report about these risks or about how we might go about mitigating them.
A radical approach to redesigning our food systems must start by addressing their social and political imbalances, inequities, and inadequacies. Since the middle of the 20th century, global food systems have transformed rapidly at the hands of the governments and private firms of the Global North. This transformation has been characterized primarily by corporate consolidation of land and power, rural depopulation, anticompetitive practices, and the widespread revocation of food sovereignty from local peoples under the auspices of capitalism and international development.
To rapidly remake our food systems, we need to create space for plurality, in which people are empowered to pursue a diversity of values and approaches. There are many people in Canada, Indigenous and settler alike, currently working to build food sovereignty and food justice and make progress toward Indigenous reconciliation. But the aspirations and visions that these groups are pursuing can simply not flourish in the shadow of a regime that operates by seeking dominance, control, and enclosure. And this is what many of the technologies proposed in this report are — technologies that enclose food production within the fencerows of industrial agriculture, the confines of private labs, and the protections of intellectual property.
Plurality requires that we start with questions of who, not how. Who participates? Who has a say? Who has sovereignty? Who has access to land and technology? Only by identifying and solving the inequities and injustices in these areas can we open a new path to realizing food systems that work for both people and planet. I believe that agribusiness firms can play a role in such a future, but only if they’re willing to acknowledge and replace the oppressive and exclusionary aspirations and features of their present business model with a more collaborative and fulsome commitment to using business in service of justice and sovereignty.
There are aspects of this report that strike me as incommensurable with a commitment to achieving equitable, sustainable, and just food systems. At the same time, I believe that my colleagues are themselves actively working toward and advocating for what they believe will be a better world, merely through a different set of lenses and understandings of the problem. I invite these colleagues into a dialogue on these issues, one wherein we might use our shared aspirations for the future as a starting point to identify how to better manage and resolve the deep tensions and schisms that presently infiltrate and bifurcate so much of our work.