Canadian MPs dismiss findings that food policies are leading to hunger and obesity

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 18 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3550
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott
  1. 1Ottawa, Canada

Members of Canada’s cabinet have engaged in a war of words with the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food, who accused the government of widening inequalities in society and failing to tackle hunger and poor diet.

The special rapporteur, Olivier De Schutter, a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, who was in Canada from 6 to 16 May, chastised the government in a press statement for having “a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.”1

He pointed out that a growing number of people across Canada remain unable to meet their basic food needs and that poverty affects some three million Canadians, including 600 000 children. De Schutter recommended that Canada do more to alleviate poverty, hunger, obesity, and poor nutrition; increase support for indigenous communities; and develop a national right to food strategy to eradicate hunger.

In 2007-8 about 8% of households in Canada reported experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity, he explained. Around 1.92 million people in Canada aged 12 or older lived in food insecure households in 2007-8, and a “staggering” 10% of families with at least one child under the age of 6 years were food insecure.2

In his report he wrote, “The gaps between those living in poverty and the middle- and high-income segments of the population are widening.

“Whole groups of the population are being left behind . . . 55% of households in which the main source of income was social assistance are food insecure, the result of a huge discrepancy between social assistances levels and the rising costs of living.”3

De Schutter also said that he was disconcerted by the “deep and severe” food insecurity faced by Canada’s indigenous peoples living on or off reserves, in remote and in urban areas. Although he acknowledged that statistics on specific food insecurity among Aboriginal peoples are few, De Schutter pointed out that the evidence for 2007-8 indicates that 18% of adults in these groups aged 25-39 and 16% of those aged 40-54 reported being hungry but did not eat because of lack of money for food in 2007-8.2

He also noted that more than a quarter of Canadian adults are obese and suggested, “Too little is done to discourage the consumption of foods that present high levels of saturated fats, sugar, and/or sodium.”

During his 11 day visit De Schutter received personal testimony from across Canada, convened eight civil society meetings, and visited five cities, four Canadian provinces, and remote Aboriginal communities.

The envoy’s preliminary findings were met with outrage. Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, promptly dismissed them as “completely ridiculous” and “political lecturing.” The health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, rejected De Schutter’s comments as “ill informed” and “patronising.”

The UN envoy responded: “The problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all.”

Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones, professor in the department of paediatrics at the University of Toronto, said that childhood hunger is a public health crisis in Canada. “It is extremely encouraging to see that vigorous commentary has begun, with lots of evidence of great capacity in Canada to address this totally unnecessary and self defeating situation of hunger,” she told the BMJ.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3550


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