The Canadian government is working with grocers to develop a code of conduct, but will it improve the country’s food security? 

Consumers are angry about grocery prices, which have risen about 20 per cent in the past three years, and the boycott of Loblaw only reinforces that many Canadians have lost trust in the private sector. 

A code of conduct that commits grocers to accountability is important, but there is much more going on with food affordability than just transparency at the till. Related issues — such as whether food prices reflect the actual social and environmental costs of food production — also need to be addressed to ensure that food costs what it should and that all Canadians are food secure. 

What’s causing the spike in food costs is a matter of much debate and denial. Grocers are posting growing profits but deflecting blame for rising prices, instead pointing fingers at other parts of the supply chain. Some politicians are rushing to blame the carbon tax or using food-price inflation as a political weapon to attack the federal government’s climate policy. 

Reports such as the Food Price Report are largely inconclusive and point to a murky mix of possible drivers, from the war in Ukraine to COVID and other supply-chain disruptions. 

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However, research by me and colleagues at the University of Guelph and the University of Ottawa, shows that these and other influential reports lack scientific rigour and are curiously sparse in their attention to potential key drivers such as climate change or grocer consolidation and profiteering. 

This is where a code of conduct can help, by mandating steps to improve confidence that the private sector is not profiteering through the critical public service they provide. 

Unfortunately, there are several reasons not to trust that this is the case. 

In the U.S., where the Federal Trade Commission determined that profiteering is indeed playing a role in rising food prices, an independent watchdog found that as much as half of recent inflation has stemmed from corporate profiteering. 

In Canada, the bread price-fixing scandal that came to light a few years ago showed how suppliers and retailers in the supply chain can artificially raise the price that consumers pay for staples. 

When it comes to food pricing, clarity is critical. Access to food is a human right, yet we rely on profit-driven corporations to provide it. From a food security and social justice perspective, we need to be able to trust that food costs only what it needs to cost. 

There is, however, a challenging twist. 

While common sense suggests that the ideal policy outcome is for food prices to be low, there can be legitimate reasons why it might benefit us for them to increase. From a sustainability perspective, cheap food policies in Canada and the U.S. have allowed devastating harm to environments and communities to accrue unabated. 

For example, tax breaks and other subsidies for fossil-fuel use in agriculture are partly why our food systems are major contributors to climate change. 

In addition, trade policies have often sacrificed human rights to have low prices, such as how the U.S. government long overlooked abuses of Haitian sugar-cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. 

These externalities have for too long been left out of the equation. We simply can no longer sustain a regime in which our food comes at the expense of the planet’s life support systems. 

But if prices rise to reflect our food’s true social and ecological costs while incomes do not keep pace, more and more Canadians will go hungry. 

This is why many experts, including me, advocate for a basic income guarantee — an unconditional, income-tested cash transfer that ensures we all have access to a living wage. A basic income guarantee, if appropriately calibrated to the cost of living, would uphold the right to food even as food prices rise to sustainable levels. 

But there’s a catch here as well.  

Currently, we have no way of knowing if food prices are increasing to reflect the actual cost of production or if something more pernicious is happening. 

Without robust transparency and enforceable standards for every link in the supply chain, a basic income guarantee could simply become a taxpayer-funded subsidy for corporate excess. We’d be paying more, but not for the social and ecological transformation we desperately need. 

That’s why a grocer code of conduct, while important, is just one piece in what must be a systemic approach to sustainable food-system policy. To truly achieve food security, Canadians need co-ordinated policies with human rights and ecological realities at their core: 

  • First, we need a food industry code of conduct that ensures full supply-chain transparency on the cost of food. This should be accompanied by rigorous third-party analysis to keep policy-makers and the public apprised of how major environmental and geopolitical challenges are impacting food security. 
  • Second, federal policy must include accountability measures to eliminate profiteering and anti-competitive practices in the grocery sector. The Canadian market is dominated by a few large firms and the Competition Bureau has identified numerous policy options to stave off anti-competitive behaviour, from encouraging independent grocers to ending restrictive property controls that make it difficult for new stores to open. (In late May, the bureau announced an investigation into Loblaw and Sobeys regarding the latter). 
  • Third, we need to address wages and food affordability. Unlike the U.S., Canada does not attach access to health care to employment. But we do for access to food, despite it being fundamental to our survival. A basic income guarantee would correct this contradiction, greatly improving food access for Canadians while also making us more resilient to unexpected food price changes. 
  • Finally, we need to continue promoting true cost accounting for our food. This can include international trade policies that no longer allow us to benefit at the expense of far-off places and ecosystems, or domestic policies that ensure workers are paid a fair wage and farmers are compensated to not only produce food, but also to reduce farm carbon emissions and steward water and biodiversity. 

Canada needs to move past fragmented approaches to food policy. If we take an approach that is guided by the values of equity, ecology and empowerment rather than chasing single hot-button issues such as carbon taxes or pricefixing, we can embrace a diversity of complementary strategies. 

Food is more than a commodity. It’s our most intimate link to each other and the living world. The right to food is the right to participate in that web of meaning and nourishment. No single policy can guarantee that. But a values-based holistic policy approach can. 

The views expressed here are the author’s own and not those of The Nature Conservancy. 

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Philip Loring
Philip Loring is an anthropologist and ecologist whose research explores the linked social and ecological aspects of food systems and environmental conservation. He is the global director of human dimensions science at The Nature Conservancy and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Guelph. On Threads and on Authory. 

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