Seventy percent of what we consume domestically is produced within Canada, but over 50% of what we produce is exported. Canada is the 5th largest food exporter in the world, but also the 6th largest food importer (AAFC, 2013). Our positive balance of food trade situation is largely a product of cereal, oilseed and live animal exports. Over 50% of domestic beef production, 70% of our pork, 65% of soybeans, 75% of wheat, 90% of canola, 95% of pulses and 40% of processed food products are exported (House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agrifood, 2017). However, at the same time we have a net processed food balance of trade deficit (AAFC, 2016)
Similarly, in 2014, 52% of Canadian fruit and vegetable production was exported even though we are significant net importers of horticultural products, beverages, certain fish products, and processed goods. The Lake Superior fishery primarily exports to the US rather than supply domestic populations (Lowitt, 2021). In general the rate of growth in imports exceeds the rate of growth in exports. Ontario is a net food importer, importing annually about $10 billion more than it exports, with roughly half of that products that we grow, store and process within the province (ERL et al., 2014).
Canada has a long history of agricultural exports, first part of its colonial obligations prior to Confederation. Significant emphasis was placed on grain and livestock production, to some extent at the expense of horticultural production. Until just after World War II, Canada was self-sufficient in basic fruits (plums, peaches, apricots, strawberries, pears), but by 1980, 28-57% of these five fruits were imported (Warnock, 1984). By 1987, Canada was only 71% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables, and 45% in all fruits and berries (Statistics Canada, 1988). These national figures, however, hide regional differences. For example, Saskatchewan was estimated to be supplying only 10 -15% of its vegetable requirements (Canadian Organic Producers' Marketing Cooperative, 1984; Waterer, 1993). Some of the deficit in horticultural products is due to the seasonality of the Canadian growing season, but a significant percentage of the crops that comprise this deficit could be produced and stored here if it were a priority of domestic agricultural policy (Warnock, 1984; Kneen, 1992).
Red meat is in many ways an exemplary category regarding the incoherence of our import / export approach. Over 80% of hog exports to the US are feeder hogs. Pork product exports account for over 50% of hogs produced, primarily fresh/chilled/frozen with limited secondary and tertiary processed goods. Pork exports also round out carcass value by allowing for sale of more parts of the carcass. Pork imports are small relative to exports. For beef, exports (processed and live) account for 65% of beef slaughter and 50% of beef equivalents. Canada exports slaughter cattle to the US for their domestic market, while the US sends their cattle to export, including to Canada. Because of lost domestic market share to US imports, Canada is now almost a net beef importer with the US (based on value). Canada provides 75% of its domestic market beef but this has fallen from 87% in 2005. We import higher value cuts, some of which are likely of Canadian origin as feeder cattle. Essentially then, we are diverting value added activity to the US. The pattern is to export live animals from the Prairies and import cuts to Eastern Canada. We export a lot of trim and grinding cuts and import muscle cuts. In essence, the beef system is more supply-push than demand – pull (CAPI, 2012).
Canola represents another example of the consequences of an export-driven approach. Farmers have been shortening their rotations to take advantage of international demand and generally good prices. On most Prairie landscapes, canola should only be grown 1 year in 4 to reduce pest pressures. Extension agents have been telling this to producers for years. But now canola is often grown on a piece of land every second year, and often canola following canola is common. As a result, there is significantly higher incidence of diseases like clubroot and black leg. Volunteer Roundup Ready canola is now the 4th most significant weed problem on the prairies, because it shows up in the subsequent crop and cannot be controlled with Roundup. All this means more pesticide applications and often reduced production. With already low in-field biodiversity, such practices can only further reduce the number of important organisms in farm fields and reduce soil quality.
The economic fallacy of the food export model
Regional economic theorists have argued for years that higher economic multipliers come from an import replacement approach, with food exported once domestic requirements have been satisfied (see Bendavid - Val, 1991). This is not what Canada does. And with the recent release of the Barton report, the current government and most of the conventional agrifood sector are demonstrating that they do not understand the failures of the export model.
Reliance on Imports
Because of Canada's failure to pursue a self-reliance strategy, Canada is also critically dependent on importatihon of certain inputs and foods.
The industrial model of food production relies extensively on fertilization of crops with synthetic nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is made primarily from natural gas and Canada is a major extracter of natural gas and has many nitrogen fertilizer plants. It is also a major miner of potassium, particularly in Saskatchewan. However, for potassium, we are critically dependent on a very limited global supply of affordable mined sources in Morocco, Russia and China. It is also widely believed that we have surpassed peak P, passing the thresholds of untapped supply of phospate rock at an affordable cost. We have failed to properly recycle P (discussed in numerous locations on this site) which is contributing to the long term possibility of P shortage.
Seeds and plant propagation material
Our dependence on imported labour is discussed under Goal 8.
Fruits, vegetables and processed foods
We are very significant importers of fruits, vegetables and processed foods and beverages from the USA.