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When it comes to food, how self-sufficient is Québec?

While buying local is being encouraged more than ever, many Québecers are keen on the idea of food autonomy. Here's an overview of the situation.

By Fonds de solidarité FTQ

Fonds de solidarité FTQ

It seems that more and more Québecers are embracing a lifestyle that involves eating fresh, organic, and local food. Some are involved in community gardens, some have their own gardens growing herbs and vegetables at home, while others are starting to raise chickens in urban areas. Jardinage Québec (in French) has lots of great project ideas if you're interested in planting a garden.

Although eating and buying local are all the rage, there's been a lot of talk recently about food autonomy in Québec. What's it all about? Here are the broad strokes.

What is food autonomy?

There's a tendency to associate food autonomy with the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, and rightly so! But because Québec has four seasons, it's a lot harder to get fresh, local corn, strawberries, and broccoli year-round. According to Jean-Martin Fortier, a Québec farmer and writer, 40 percent (in French) of our fruits and vegetables come from the United States.

That said, the idea of food sovereignty is much broader. Practices such as baking your own bread, cooking more, and canning also foster food autonomy. The concept encompasses everything we eat, from milk and cheese to meat and processed foods. Indeed, agriculture takes many forms in Québec. So just how self-sufficient do we want to be? For instance, are we prepared to stop eating products that can't be grown here, like bananas? Are we willing to reduce the amount of food we import? Québec is already self-sufficient when it comes to certain items, such as pork, beer, and dairy products.

In short, a society that's food autonomous could be seen as one that's no longer dependent on imports to meet its needs and that can provide all its citizens with year-round access to fresh, quality food.

From field to table

In addition to traditional agriculture, Québec has many farms that rely on greenhouses. However, this method is very energy-intensive and requires a significant investment, putting it out of reach for many farmers.

Despite this, you can get locally grown strawberries and tomatoes even in January, thanks to the innovative efforts of Québec farmers!

The entire agri-food sector in Québec has a role to play. Whether it's in terms of seeds, equipment, cultivation, production, processing, distribution, or wholesalers, it's the whole system that makes it possible to provide Québecers with quality, local products. That's why the Fonds invests in the agri-food industry: to back local businesses that help Québec grow and prosper—starting with what's on your plate. It supports businesses such as Semican Atlantic, Dauphinais, Les Productions Horticoles Demers, Les Brasseurs du Nord - Bière Boréale, La trappe à fromage, Cunico, and Lufa Farms.

Greenhouse innovation with Lufa and Demers

Lufa Farms is a great example of an innovative project that's making fresh, local produce more accessible. The Montréal-based company builds greenhouses on urban rooftops where they grow tomatoes, eggplants, microgreens, herbs, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, and leafy greens year-round! Of course, the supply of vegetables varies with the seasons, but you can get their organic food baskets anytime.

According to Lufa Farms, we would only need to convert the rooftops of 19 average-sized shopping centres to grow enough fruits and veggies for all of Montréal. Every new greenhouse the company builds gets bigger, better, lighter, and cheaper, so that urban rooftop farms can become a must when building new structures. This allows it to deliver thousands of organic food baskets filled with its rooftop-grown products, along with products from its local farmer and market gardener partners, every day. Lufa Farms wants to provide Québecers with the most direct access possible to local food. It's a fine example of sustainable development and a great step forward for food sovereignty in Greater Montréal!

Located in the Chaudière-Appalaches and Centre-du-Québec regions, Les Productions Horticoles Demers (in French) are known for their greenhouse tomatoes and peppers, which you can find at the grocery store year-round. They also produce raspberries and strawberries. What sets them apart? The Les Serres Demers team represents three generations of master greenhouse growers. For 50 years, they've been committed to providing Québecers with quality products through healthy and sustainable agricultural practices, striking the perfect balance between nature and culture with their greenhouses! They grow their red fruit (berries and tomatoes) according to the natural cycle of daylight and handpick them to preserve their integrity.

Their latest build, in Drummondville, is now the largest tomato greenhouse in Québec. This major project was made possible by individuals and investors who believed in it, including the Fonds. Les Serres Demers can now supply Québecers with fresh, local tomatoes all year long—one more step toward food autonomy!

Jacques Demers, CEO of Les Productions Horticoles Demers, points out that Québecers' desire to eat fresh, local, and tastier food is nothing new. "This was already the case 30 years ago," he says. "In the last 5 or 10 years, we've seen even more interest from consumers, but change is also slowly taking place on the distributors' side. Big chains are more aware." He thinks it would be hard to achieve full food autonomy, but that the current situation is conducive to it. For Demers, it's an inspiring goal. In his opinion, the focus should be on year-round food production—in other words, greenhouses.

"I'm an advocate for using our hydroelectricity to produce fresh food that we can eat year-round. Hydroelectricity is to Québec what the sun is to Mexico. You have to be bold and inventive. It would be an amazing Québec initiative," he adds.

Cooking and distilling local products

In a similar vein, raising the profile of locally grown food also contributes to food autonomy. Whether you think of restaurants like Au Pied de Cochon and Manitoba in Montréal, La Buvette Scott in Québec City, or L'Eau à la Bouche in Gaspésie, whose seasonal menus revolve around local cuisine, or Menaud gin, made with wheat and rye from the fields of Isle-aux-Coudres, it's a trend that's been gaining ground over the past few years—not to mention another way to gain direct access to local products.

Québec and healthy agriculture

Agriculture and innovation are of the utmost importance in Québec. That's why the Centre-du-Québec region's Victoriaville CEGEP is home to the Institut national d'agriculture biologique (INAB) (in French), where you can find agriculture-related teaching, research, technology transfer, and incubation activities all under one roof. It's the largest centre for organic agriculture training and research in Canada!

No autonomy without food security

Food autonomy is also a question of ensuring access to fresh, quality products for everyone, including vulnerable populations. Food security is only achieved when no one goes hungry, regardless of social or economic status. Therefore, ideally we would reduce, or even stop, the importation of food, but also combat the widespread dependence of citizens on food banks, which work hard to provide food to those in need.

For example, in 2019, before the health crisis, Québec's food banks received more than 1.9 million (in French) requests for assistance. The Regroupement des cuisines collectives du Québec defines food autonomy as "individual and collective empowerment aimed at access to quality food and better control of the food system that cannot be achieved without a public education approach." That's why we all need to work together to improve access to healthy, local food over the long term.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the Fonds has made several cash donations to organizations that help those in need, including Cuisines solidaires, a La Tablée des Chefs initiative.

 

Although many people in Québec support the idea of food autonomy, it poses a number of challenges. It has to be done gradually, notably in terms of labour, production capacity, and greenhouse energy costs.

Québec is capable of accomplishing great things, but it also faces climate limitations. To truly achieve food autonomy, we would have to eat fruits and vegetables only when they were in season, which would mean changing our consumption habits. Aim to eat products that are in season and, when you have a choice, choose to buy local food rather than imported products.

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