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Trevor Hancock: Agriculture Ministry should focus on health

Last week, I suggested that in a government that was focused on ecologically sustainable human and social development, rather than mainly on economic development, the ministries would be named according to their function.

Last week, I suggested that in a government that was focused on ecologically sustainable human and social development, rather than mainly on economic development, the ministries would be named according to their function.

I am using the list of prerequisites for health identified in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, so next on the list is food.

Hunger should be just as unthinkable in a society this rich as is homelessness. The first task of a Ministry of Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture should be to make food banks redundant by recognizing and implementing the right to food — just as the federal government proposes to do for housing. And, of course, the ministry must ensure the food we eat is healthy.

You would think that the healthfulness of the food supply would be an important concern for ministries of agriculture. But that is not the case today in B.C. The mandate letter for the new minister of agriculture does not include any reference to health.

Perhaps the NDP government needs to take a leaf from the federal Liberals, whose 2015 mandate letter has as its second priority: “Develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food.”

This would mean working with — and if need be, regulating — the food industry to reduce the availability and consumption of processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat, while increasing our consumption of vegetables, whole grains and fruit, and reducing portion size.

In addition, this ministry would have to work to shift agriculture toward the production of healthy foods in a healthy and ecologically sustainable manner, using ecological and organic farming methods. An important part of this would be a shift to a low-meat diet, which would result in less damage to the environment — in particular a significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions — and a healthy diet for us. What’s not to like in securing these health and environmental and benefits?

Next comes income, so why not a Ministry of Income Security? It would have to enshrine at least a decent minimum wage, and preferably a “living wage” for all workers. The latter is a wage high enough to ensure a normal standard of living. Both these have to be adjusted for local conditions; clearly the minimum wage needs to be higher in Vancouver than elsewhere in B.C.

In addition, this ministry would need to ensure a level of social assistance that would also ensure people can live a decent life. This probably means developing some form of universal basic income, as is being experimented with in Ontario. Moreover, as our economy is increasingly automated, we will need to find a way to redistribute the income these robots earn, using economic production to support social production.

This is not a new idea — I first heard of it decades ago — but it was given added impetus recently by Bill Gates in an interview with Quartz. Referring to the automation of factory work, he said: “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” using the money to fund the displaced workers in roles that benefit the community.

Finally, one of the key tasks of this form of government is to ensure that our human and social development are ecologically sustainable, which means reducing our ecological footprint by about 80 per cent. This calls for a Ministry — or perhaps a “super-ministry” — of Sustainable Resource Use and Conservation.

Among its key responsibilities would be ensuring energy conservation, recognizing that it is still the case that one of the largest sources of energy available to us is conservation. We would be much better off spending money on this than on new energy sources such as Site C or fracked oil and gas. And, of course, it would work to get us off fossil fuels and on to clean, renewable energy.

This ministry would also work to reduce our consumption of scarce natural resources, promote repair, re-use and recycling, and protect and conserve the natural environment and the other species with whom we share the Earth, and the natural systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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