"We all want healthy food for our neighbours, we all want to promote as many farms as possible growing that food, and we want to inspire as many young people as possible. How can we do this together?"
-- David Neufeld, farmer
This question was prompted by the controversial and well-publicized raid by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (MAFRD) in August 2013. In a surprising turn of events, MAFRD confiscated $8,000 of cured meats from Harborside Farms in Pilot Mound, some of which had recently won a top award from the province's own Great Manitoba Food Fight.
Inspectors were not required to show evidence of wrongdoing, yet charges were laid against owners Pam and Clint Cavers for purportedly selling the cured meats. The Cavers attempted to negotiate with MAFRD to test the confiscated meat, at their own cost, to prove it was safe. MAFRD refused, destroyed the product and later dropped all charges. Harborside's dry-cured nitrate-free meat processes are new to Manitoba and the province is conservative in their risk tolerance -- these processes have been used for centuries by artisans in Europe where they are not only considered safe, but in many ways superior.
Agriculture policy in Manitoba has historically focused on large-scale export commodity production. The growing popular interest in local food is prompting the province to take a second look at supporting local food systems to improve economy, health and food security. The message coming from the grassroots is clear: farmers, fishers, processors and citizens are demanding a say in policy-making, having raised concerns about how current policy unfairly inhibits local food and favours large-scale production. They have formed a coalition under the banner of FEAST (Farmers and Eaters Sharing the Table).
The Manitoba government is consulting with food producers on changes to the regulations and has stated it is moving toward "outcome-based regulations" that would allow different food-safety processes, so long as an operator can prove a safe outcome.
In principle, this would work for small-scale producers whose artisanal processes can result in safe outcomes without investing in the more expensive equipment and processes that larger plants require. Picture the difference between quality controls for making goat cheese by the tonne in a large facility versus by the pound in a commercially certified kitchen.
The onus to prove safety is put onto the farmers/processors, yet decisions around whether the processes are safe are subjective and open to interpretation. To develop vibrant local food systems in the province, we need to create a regulatory environment that provides safe food and is flexible enough to support these emerging business models. This type of regulatory framework has existed in European countries for years.
Finally, members of FEAST have observed that in response to their requests for a more holistic approach to food safety that incorporates issues of economy, scale, environment and health, that MAFRD has strategically used "food safety as a hammer" to silence opposition. The rhetorical strategy has been to publicly imply that challenges to the dominant food safety approach are reckless and dangerous.
Food producers are also impacted by Manitoba Health regulations. The current consultation processes are too narrowly focused on MAFRD regulations, where they should be considered simultaneously with changes to Manitoba Health and federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations.
The agriculture minister, Ron Kostyshyn, recently announced MAFRD is forming a working group to "work with small-scale food processors, direct-farm marketers, farmers and others to support getting more local food to market." This is promising. In the past, a similar working group assembled by MAFRD to develop the current Buy Manitoba program unfortunately lacked grassroots representation. As a result, Buy Manitoba serves the interests of larger retailers and processors rather than supporting those who sell local food directly to consumers through buying clubs or farmer's markets.
There is great, yet unmet, potential for local food to provide economic, cultural and social benefits in Manitoba.
Many innovative foods being offered in Manitoba are not available through any other source. Care must be taken not to regulate this emerging food culture out of the province; rather, government should take a co-operative approach to supporting these small businesses and local economies.
Fortunately, FEAST has this in mind and is pushing for a democratic and inclusive approach to shaping Manitoba's food system. The province will best serve the interests of Manitobans by fully engaging with FEAST.
Colin Anderson is a post-doctoral research fellow specializing in agriculture, food and community development and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives research affiliate.