Food system sustainability in Canada and other jurisdictions

Sarah Rotz & Rod MacRae

Regulatory Background in Canada

Canadian agro-food regulation has primarily been developed and framed from a food safety and anti-fraud perspective, focusing on ‘maximum allowable levels’ of inputs and contaminants, rather than linking food system methods and function to goals of health promotion, social justice and environmental sustainability (Food Secure Canada, 2015).[i] While surely a reasonable regulation, this approach has created a regulatory culture focused on controlling substances, rather than governing the health of the system, including soil and biodiversity.

Currently no comprehensive soil health legislation or policy exists in Canada. And so, while the Federal government has soil organic matter and erosion indicators, there are only limited regulatory structures and policies in place that identify (or work toward) soil health goals.

In turn, many scholars, activists and academics are calling for a coordinated National Food Policy that links food system function and behaviour to comprehensive and specific environmental, social and health goals, while uniting activities across all pertinent domains, scales, actors and jurisdictions.[ii]

1) What have other jurisdictions done to better support perennial agriculture, agroecology and soil health?

 The European Union

 The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is addressing environmental gaps in agricultural legislation through ‘Greening’: a mechanism that supports action to adopt and maintain farming practices that help meet environment and climate goals.

Farmers who use farmland more sustainably and care for natural resources as part of their everyday work benefit financially.[iii] Practices include:

  • diversifying crops
  • maintaining permanent grassland
  • dedicating 5% of arable land to 'ecologically beneficial elements' ('ecological focus areas').

In conjunction with cross-compliance standards (a baseline standard of environmental health that all farmers must comply with), the CAP established agri-environment measures (multifunctionality).[iv]

 India & Nepal

India’s National Agroforestry Policy[v] is set to mainstream the growing of trees on farms to meet development and environment related goals. The policy is linked to the goal of achieving 33 per cent tree cover while increasing food and nutrition, supplying fodder, fuelwood and timber. National goals:

1) promote resilient farming systems in order to minimize risk during extreme weather and incidences of pests and diseases;

2) expand tree plantations to integrate and complement crop and livestock production and support efforts to maintain and increase forest and tree cover to ensure ecological stability;

3) ensure availability of products—such as fuel wood, fodder, timber, fruit, nuts, medicines—to reduce pressure on natural forests;

4) build links between agroforestry farmers and markets, industries, banks and insurance providers; and

5) facilitate investment and funding for agroforestry through the Government, international agencies and the local and regional private sector.

United States

Multifunctionality[vi] has been proposed through landscape changes, such as strategic perennialization on and across individual farms. These efforts are mainly done privately in the U.S. For instance, the Land Institute is leading work to shift agriculture toward sustainable perennial polycultures. The Institute conducts ecological intensification research to put perennials into diverse polyculture systems that mimic the benefits found in native and natural ecosystems.

They are using two approaches to breeding perennial grain, pulse, and oilseed crops:

  • Domestication of wild perennial plants (Kernza, Silphium)
  • Perennialization of existing annual crops (perennial wheat and sorghum)


French Agroecology Action Plan (launched in 2012): Through the plan, public policies promote agroecological production systems that combine economic, social, environmental and sanitary performances and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The law creates farmers economic and environmental interest groups and establishes collectives of farmers. The plan provides:

  • Training for farmers: training programmes and educational frameworks are being adapted to include agroecology related knowledge more effectively.
  • Mobilisation of research and research & development: use the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) to strengthen innovation and the diffusion of agroecological knowledge and practices.
  • Mobilisation of Chambers of Agriculture, technical institutes, agricultural and rural associations, to assist farmers in their transition towards to agroecology.
  • Setting up of an agroecological assessment tool: after extensive tests (more than 500 farms), this tool has been made freely available in October 2015. It allows farmers to measure their practices and performances and compare them with those of other farmers.
  • Renewal of public support: investment subsidies are geared towards agroecological oriented projects, support for setting up of young farmers is increased for agroecological projects, coupled support for the production of protein crops, etc.


  •  Government established a National Soil Protection and Improvement Strategy[vii] which introduced biofertilizers and organic pest control across the country.
  • Created a state ‘Soil Institute’ that prioritizes soil health and organic matter research and introduces pilot soil conservation projects.
  • Centros de Reproducción de Entomófagos y Entomopatógenos (CREE) (Entomophagus and Entomopathogen Reproduction Centres) is an example of the effort to develop biological pest control.

2) What have other jurisdictions done to shift notions of ownership and create practices of permanence in the absence of traditional ownership?

United States & Canada[viii]

  •  Interwoven multifunctionality: collaboration between property owners with deliberate efforts to produce public goods across property boundaries (landscape-scale).
  • Community pastures[ix]
  • National Parks that integrate farming: e.g. Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio.
  • Land Trusts (OLT): Community Land Trusts (e.g. ‘New Communities’ farm collective in the U.S.)
  • Easements requiring an agreed-upon set of farming practices/systems
  • Caps on land ownership and partial severance (PEI)


  •  Organoponicos: Workers are owners of the organic gardens (urban farms). The goal is that organic systems of production become a qualified, effective agro-industry, able to meet its initial expectations.
  • Cooperative land ownership policy: Basic cooperative production units (BCPU).


  •  Nation-wide land reform. Restricting to 500 hectares of ownership-land over that turned over to landless families
  • Promotion of collective forms of management, but not ownership per se. Policy goal of 75% of production via farm cooperatives, 17% from state farms, 10% from privately held farms.


[i] For instance, the Fertilizers Act regulates fertilizer and supplement products according to levels that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency considers ‘safe’ and non-fraudulent and thus ‘allowable’ for humans, plants, animals, and the environment.

[ii] A joined-up food policy (MacRae, 2011) would deploy a diverse set of tools and governance structures to deliver these goals, including sub-policies, legislation, regulations, regulatory protocols and directives, programs, educational mechanisms, taxes or tax incentives, and changes to how and where decisions are made.

[iii] Market prices do not reflect the effort involved in providing these public goods. Hence, 'Greening' is a mechanism that aims to make the direct payments system more environment-friendly through a goal-based approach. Green direct payments account for 30% of EU countries' direct payment budgets. Farmers receiving payment must use various straightforward, non-contractual practices that benefit the environment and the climate (unclear how these practices will be determined). These require action each year.

[iv] They provide payments to farmers who commit to (a minimum of 5 years) extensive farming practices and diverse landscapes that favour the build-up of soil organic matter, enhance soil biodiversity, and reduce soil erosion, contamination and compaction.

[v] Note: This policy is still very new, and there is a great deal of concern that this policy will merely promote corporate tree plantations.

[vi] The concept of interwoven versus patchwork multifunctionality is pertinent: Harden, N. M., Ashwood, L. L., Bland, W. L., & Bell, M. M. (2013). For the public good: Weaving a multifunctional landscape in the Corn Belt. Agriculture and Human Values, 30, 525–537.

[vii] Adopted “technological pluralism”: Coexistence of traditional and conventional high-technology paradigms and the most rudimentary systems of so-called scientific and popular knowledge are pursued as an example of the social and structural heterogeneity in agriculture, and not only as a product of limitations imposed by economic situations. Through this approach, they prioritize “scale appropriate technologies” and basic organic (agroecological) principals.

Concurrently, they developed aggressive direct marketing programming and a wide-spread urban farming program: these agricultural activities are carried out in or near cities, from very rural to suburban areas. Practically all the production is agroecological or organic, avoiding the use of petrochemical intermediate and plant health products.

[viii] *Note: When thinking about land tenure and management alternatives, we must be thoughtful of who may continue to be excluded from the land under these frameworks

[ix] Community pastures were discontinued by the Federal government in Canada. Pasture managers enable sustainable grazing on endangered ecosystems, while tending the conflicting habitat requirements of many species at risk.