On March 31, McGill University celebrated its milestone 200-year anniversary, marking the day with an inaugural Conference entitled A Road Map for Greater Food Security and Autonomy. The bilingual virtual event – a first instalment in the Bicentennial Conference Series, Providing solutions to global challenges – brought together experts to discuss issues facing global food security.
Conference host Alex Johnston (LLB/BCL’99) – uniquely tied to McGill as an alumna, Co-Chair of the Board of Trustees for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, and the daughter of former McGill Principal David Lloyd Johnston – interviewed keynote speaker André Lamontagne, Quebec Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and moderated a set of expert panels as they discussed the impacts of public policy and higher education on the agri-food sector.
Celebrating the past while forging ahead
In her opening remarks, McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier acknowledged that although the Bicentennial is an important opportunity to reflect on and celebrate McGill’s past, it’s also crucial to consider the future and take the appropriate steps to address some of the biggest challenges facing food safety and autonomy, including rapid population growth, poverty and climate change.
“It’s a topic that requires a commitment from our University to be a model of research and leadership in the field and to train the professionals of tomorrow to invent the solutions of the future,” Principal Fortier told Anja Geitmann, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, who joined her in the welcoming address. “We are very fortunate to have a lot of strengths in this area, particularly within the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Margaret A. Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security, and the strong, partnerships McGill has developed with other universities and partners in Quebec will be crucial in tackling these challenges.”
For her part, Geitmann highlighted the importance of maintaining objectivity as the University continues to establish and grow these key partnerships. “Universities are neutral players. As such, we have the unique opportunity to unite people who might usually be in competition with the goal of collectively solving problems that are shared within the industry.”
The role of public policy
Following the introduction from the Principal and Dean Geitmann, Johnston sat down with alumna Chantal Line Carpentier (BScAgr’90, MSc’94) Chief of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), and McGill Associate Professor, Political Science Krzysztof Pelc, to open the first panel discussion on the impact of trade agreements on food safety and autonomy, and to talk about Canada’s role in helping move these causes forward.
“It’s important to understand that it’s not question of quantity – in fact, there is enough food produced globally to feed the world. Instead, we’re mainly talking about access issues, distribution problems, political issues and economic issues, and this is where international trade agreements come into play,” Pelc began.
“These agreements help protect small countries financially who can’t otherwise protect themselves,” added Carpentier, explaining that agricultural subsidies put in place by some European countries and the United States, for example, allow them to produce more at a reduced cost. “The result is that developing countries are discouraged from establishing their own agriculture and miss out on progress that developed countries have experienced through this type of growth.”
The panelists also agreed that good international agreements don’t have to come at the cost of maintaining strong food security systems nationally – quite the opposite. “Modern trade agreements have gotten good at balancing competing objectives, like efficiency on one hand and labour rights on the other,” said Pelc. “The objective would be to preserve social and cultural priorities linked to food and ensure that provisions around food are not exploited for protectionist ends because that’s what decreases overall production and limits food access in the world’s most vulnerable nations.”
And whether it be through agreements like the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), or through progressive approaches to agricultural education, Canada is taking a leading role in establishing this kind of balance.
“After graduating from McGill, I went on to do my PhD at Virginia Tech,” Carpentier recalled. “I quickly realized that I was the only one of my colleagues that had a deep understanding of soil science, plant science and animal science because most of my peers had gone straight from math to economics to agecon.”
It’s this kind of multi-disciplinary approach to agricultural education that is needed to adequately prepare graduates to tackle the industry’s evolving challenges, argued Carpentier, and is the perfect example of a Canadian-made academic model that should be more widely adopted. “You need to make connections between these various disciplines and McGill has figured that out.”
Knowledge breeds confidence
Johnston invited the next set of panelists, Marcel Groleau, President, Union des Producteurs Agricoles du Québec (UPA) and Darlene McBain, Industry Relations Manager, Farm Credit Canada, to examine the role of higher education in strengthening the agri-food sector and discuss how knowledge impacts industry stakeholders.
Although Groleau and McBain acknowledged universities’ essential role in the obvious areas of research and development and partnerships with key players in the sector, they also stressed the significance of an enhanced education offering for new farmers, equipping them with the skillset to effectively navigate and adapt to this rapidly evolving field.
“Quebec has a host of college– and university-level programs that support and educate new and young farmers and, statistically, we know that farmers educated in agricultural management or in agricultural production have much higher success rates. They can more easily obtain loans, they’re more receptive to new technologies, and they’re better equipped to work with industry professionals,” said Groleau.
McBain agreed. “Our producers need to be experts in all parts of the agricultural value chain and a university education gives them a solid foundation in the key areas like production, environment, and economic and technology management that improve efficiency and lead to important developments in the industry.”
Further, said Groleau, institutions like McGill have a social responsibility to share research that enables the public to make informed decisions about the foods they consume and to help them understand how those choices contribute to food independence.
“Today’s consumers select foods based on factors like environmental impact and nutrition, and universities can demystify these concepts by sharing research and scientific data. They can also educate the public about how their choices impact food independence and help them understand how progression in the agri-food sector are helping drive society closer to achieving those objectives.
Driving Quebec closer to food independence
In the final conference segment, Johnston sat down with keynote speaker André Lamontagne, Quebec’s Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and Minister Responsible for the Centre-du-Québec Region, to talk about the factors that promote and hinder provincial food autonomy and how education can impact consumer choices.
Lamontagne pointed out that although a large part of the foods we consume can’t be produced locally due to Quebec’s northern geography and climate, vibrant agricultural community, supportive government, and informed consumers are all positive factors that help drive us closer to food independence. The key to the success of the agri-food industry, however, relies on confidence between those who produce and those who consume.
“Quebec’s Sustainable Agricultural Plan, developed in October 2020, hopes to build that trust by addressing the need to take better care of the environment and move toward more ecological, sustainable agricultural models that will benefit both consumers and producers.”
Like Groleau and McBain, Minister Lamontagne also stressed the vital role that higher education institutions like McGill play in strengthening food self-sufficiency.
“Higher education makes several things possible: it equips today’s farmers with the essential knowledge and skills required to effectively manage modern-day agriculture; the investment in and application of agricultural research conducted through these institutions leads to practical improvements in the field; and it helps help to inform consumers, allowing them to make educated decisions about their food choices.”
Finally, when asked what advice he would like to impart on conference attendees, Lamontagne referenced the “$12 challenge” launched by the provincial government last year. “If Quebec households swapped just $12 of their imported grocery purchases for locally grown food, we’d see an additional $1 billion per year being put toward local producers and fishermen. It would represent a significant investment in our sector that could move us that much closer to our goal of self-sufficiency.”
Visit the McGill Bicentennial website to watch a recording of A Road Map for Greater Food Security and Autonomy Conference.