National | Opinion

Bottling Canada’s Food Policies – What the debate over ketchup says about the future of farming

I’ve been watching with interest the recent social media splash made over French’s ketchup. It highlights what the National Farmers Union (NFU) has been talking about for years – food sovereignty matters. Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about where their food comes from. As farmers, we’d be stupid not to sit up and notice this trend.

In case you somehow missed the hubbub, retail giant Loblaws threatened to drop French’s ketchup, while keeping Heinz. The tomato paste for French’s is being produced in Leamington, Ontario at the factory and with the tomatoes that Heinz dropped in 2014 when it moved its ketchup production out of Canada. Canadian consumers used social media to voice their displeasure loud and clear, and Loblaws reversed their decision.

Everyone loves a good David and Goliath story, and let’s face it – Canadian farmers are the little guys. As a Canadian farmer, this makes me wonder why we don’t have policy to support us. There are Canadian content laws for television. Could we have Canadian content laws for retailers and restaurants? Canadian eaters shouldn’t have to rally to Facebook to get access to Canadian food.

The NFU, both here in Ontario and nationally, have been calling for food policies that support farmers’ financial sustainability and insure eaters’ access to Canadian food for years. In our submission to the federal pre-budget consultation, we noted that food prices are increasing “because grocers must buy imported products using expensive US dollars. Canadian farmers, farm workers, food processing companies and consumers would all benefit from reinvestment in Canadian fruit, vegetable and livestock/meat production and processing capacity that is distributed across the country. The NFU would like the upcoming budget to include measures to safeguard the space for domestic food production for the long-term.”

The importance of Canadian made food extends beyond which ketchup is on the shelf at the grocery store. As Food Secure Canada notes in its 2015 publication Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada, small Canadian farms are often where young and new farmers get started. In this day of million-dollar farm prices, without support for small and medium sized farms, we will lose our next generation of farmers. The NFU report Losing Our Grip: 2015 Update highlights the loss of financially accessible farmland due to corporations and investors buying up land as part of an investment strategy. This trend that has also been identified by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC).

The Loblaws versus French’s ketchup battle shows that Canadian consumers want to purchase Canadian-grown food, that local food needs local farm families with fair access to farmland, and that consumers need clear transparent ways to identify where their food comes from. With this clear message from both eaters and farmers, government must listen and focus Canada’s agriculture policies on domestic support – the future of food production in this country depends on it.