09/21/2013 10:15 EDT | Updated 11/21/2013 05:12 EST

The Truth About Food Security in Canada

Critics of supply management are putting a sharp focus on one aspect of the supply management issue, but are at risk of missing the bigger picture.

It's almost a matter of not seeing the cows for the herd.

The latest round of criticism from the National Post columnist John Ivison and Jesse Kline and Canadian Council of Chief Executives President and CEO John Manley appears to take up the mantle for Canadian consumers. But their claims that a system supporting farmers and encouraging investments into local communities is anti-consumer misses the broader, more complex picture of the Canadian consumer and the Canadian food system.

Canadian consumers are savvy

Consumers recognize that quality products do not come without a cost, and they recognize that they benefit from a system that puts quality, local food first. A recent independent poll this year -- published in Canadian Business -- confirms what what farmers have always known. Consumers want local products, from local producers who meet tough Canadian standards.

Our consumers are sophisticated enough to understand that while this comes with a cost; it also supports our local communities and our local economies.

The greatest risk for food security is income

As the Conference Board of Canada found in its report, the strongest socio-economic predictor of food insecurity in Canada -- and developed countries in general -- is household income, not food prices.

The most vulnerable Canadians, in the lowest income quintile, spend proportionally almost twice what those in the highest income quintile do. As incomes rise, their food security improves.

Canadians have relatively good deal

Canadians have a good deal on food. On average, households only spend 9 to 12 per cent of their income on food and alcohol, one of the lowest in the world.

Not only that, despite the claims of critics, Canadian consumers are spending less on dairy products -- the percentage of their income spent on dairy has fallen from 1.2 per cent in 1990 to 1.05 per cent in 2010.

Imports are not the cure all

Imports are not a quick fix to Canada's food security. Ivison purports that scrapping supply management will benefit Canadian consumers, but a deeper look indicates that isn't the reality. For those imports that are subject to duty, the tariffs applied to imported dairy products are only pennies of the price consumers are paying at checkout.

Need an example? Imported Parmesan cheese is retailing for roughly $18 -$35 per kilogram in Canadian grocery stores. The tariff on that cheese accounts for three cents per kilogram. Clearly, supply management is not what is driving up the cost of that cheese. Retailers have the liberty to set the final price and I guess this is why a four-litre of milk may be advertised for $3.97 at my nearby Shopper's Drug Mart and it can be over $6 elsewhere.

The bigger picture

The fact is, Canadian consumers benefit from a growing economy where they receive fair, liveable wages that keep pace with the cost of goods, services and other expenses. Our farmers are paid what it costs to produce a high-quality product, and unlike large corporations they do not pay their profits out to international shareholders. They reinvest profits locally. They support local charities, agencies and businesses. They are local employers and investors who fuel rural economies and provide livelihood for hundreds of thousands of Canadian consumers.

Journalists frequently try to make complex issues more simplistic. Complex issues do not fit well into one column (or one blog!). We understand the importance of access to quality, nutritious food. Farmers also know the real costs of producing it, as they do it seven days a week, 365 days a year. But it is also a complex issue and one that is not solved by one particular government policy or trade agreement.