This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, Oct. 21.

hands holding cowpea seeds
Hands filled with cowpea seeds (Photo via The Norweigian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday was World Food Day, when the United Nations asks us to reflect on the remarkable system of farms, processing facilities, grain elevators and transportation companies that bring us our daily bread.

For most Canadians, this system is a marvel. It brings us a diverse and nutritious diet so efficiently that the average Canadian family spends less than 10 per cent of annual income on food.

Prof. Evan Fraser standing outside, summer, trees behind - headshot
Prof. Evan Fraser, Director, Arrell Food Institute (Photo: University of Guelph)

But the world’s food system is also rife with contradictions.

On one hand, there is more food on the planet than at any point in human history. Indeed, today there are about 2,850 calories available each day for every woman, man, and child. Further, 2017 was a bumper year for cereal producers when we had a world record harvest of 2,700 million tonnes.

On the other hand, hunger is also on the rise. According to the United Nations, the number of hungry people declined for decades and hit an all-time low in 2014. But it has now risen for three years straight and today there 821 million people are under-nourished. South America and most of Africa have been hit the worst by food insecurity. Political volatility in those regions is making people vulnerable to climate change, which affects crops.

In terms of nutrition, while there has been progress in reducing rates of childhood stunting, we fare badly in terms of women’s health. One in three reproductive age women suffer from anemia.

At the same time, close to 2 billion people are either overweight or obese. Counter-intuitively, food insecurity contributes to obesity. Nutritious foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are expensive and when times are tough, people often opt for cheaper diets that may be high in calories but lacking nutrients.

This issue also affects Canada. More than 860,000 Canadians use a food bank every month and research from the University of Toronto suggest that one in eight Canadian households are food insecure.

Luckily, there are many things that can be done. Poverty reduction strategies can focus on marginalized populations, the health of women, and promoting healthy nutrition in that 1,000 day window between conception and a child’s second birthday. Indeed, helping pregnant mothers, and infants, access healthy nutrition — including breast-feeding in the first six months — is proven to launch children on a long-term trajectory of health and well-being.

In the last federal election, the Liberal Party committed to tabling a food policy that would ensure all Canadians have access to safe nutrition, that our food and agricultural sector would be an engine of economic growth and that we would become better stewards of our soil, water and air.

It may be hoped that the food policy, when it comes out in the next few months, helps ensure that Canada and the Canadian agri-food sector help address the paradoxes of rising hunger in a world of over-abundance, and ensures that we play a global leadership role in helping to sustainably feed the future.