“One of the most generative tools in the food policy toolkit,” says I


By Wayne Roberts

I always dreaded report cards when I was a schoolkid, because my parents had to sign that they’d seen them, and there was no way of hiding that I had daydreamed and clowned around too much.

So as soon as I heard of it, I liked the idea of a report card on sustainable food systems. Time for someone to face the music for not paying enough attention, not playing well with others, and not getting down to work.

The accountability of report cards is dreaded by many, especially governments

This may explain why governments don’t issue report cards on themselves, and why we need independent organizations that do.

FLEdGE, a research partnership hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, has started the ball rolling in this direction with its new 100-page publication, Food Counts: A Pan-Canadian Sustainable Food Systems Report Card.

This is an important addition to the architecture of transparency and accountability for an issue such as food (not just agriculture or nutrition), which requires a whole-of-government, whole-of-society overview.

The report card not only tells us how well government is doing, but how well civil society organizations, businesses and individuals are doing. It also provides a reliable compass that keeps us from fooling ourselves when we think we’re doing better than we are.

Report cards are important tools to promote transparency

Though I’m not a numbers guy (arithmetic was always the lowest mark on my report cards), I’m so impressed with what a report card can reveal that I want to suggest that every food organization everywhere adopt a project to contribute toward a global report card on food and its many functions — from enabling personal nutrition to supporting societal and environmental health and well-being.

Every effective organization should already be gathering information so its staff, volunteers and community members know if their programs are just making busywork, or actually delivering needed goods and services. We don’t need clock watchers, we need results watchers.

Once we have many pieces of information in place, we need to convert that information into report cards, and contribute to the Big Data we need to chart our way through all the opportunities to improve the collective impact of our food performance.

The authors of this report card — Charles Levkoe, Rachael Lefebvre and Alison Blay-Palmer — have produced one model of how indicators can be converted into a report card, given the relatively modest funding and resources provided an academic institute.

Although I’m partial to food sovereignty as a notion, I was leery about the authors’ ability to turn food sovereignty into a lens for measuring and evaluating progress on food-related activities. In the end, I’m convinced food sovereignty is a great discipline for keeping the assessment of food policies and programs people-centered, rather than nutrition- or yield- or obesity- or pollution-centered.

But I also think others contributing to the report card extravaganza should figure out their own way of grading and classifying outcomes. Progress on food jobs and food literacy, for example, is also worthy of a separate category. Food has many functions, and it takes multi-focal lenses to spot and measure them all.

The lounge of my mentors at Hypenotic

The big point to be made about food report cards is that they are generative, to use a word that Barry Martin of Hypenotic has tried to bring into food movements. That is, report cards do much more than tell us how well we’re doing. They suggest hundreds of ways to think about our efforts, and link them into a bigger, more inspiring and more inspiring loop. They’re a way of making sure that all the people who want to be in the loop are in the loop, and that the loop is grounded in real world impacts.

Here are four (personal, arbitrary and random) examples of how this report card tickled my imagination and opened up the suggestion box in my brain.


Packaging has to be counted as part of food waste, which makes processors the guilty parties of waste

One of the indicators, which has become a very hot topic, is food waste. The authors set a baseline for future report cards by reproducing a chart produced by Value Chain Management International on the distribution of Canada’s food waste in 2014. The chart tallied $31 billion in food wasted, a staggering amount.

I have some problems with this chart that I would like to be considered for future editions of the report card. I identify them here only to illustrate what a great discussion-starting and policy-envisioning tool the authors have invented.

First, we should not accept the standard framing of referring to “food waste.” Waste is a verb, not a noun. The correct term is “wasted food,” especially when it’s used as an indicator of “food for people,” the first category adapted from food sovereignty. It is indeed people who do the wasting, and that reality needs to be profiled.

I’m also questioning how the chart distributes waste — giving 47 per cent of responsibility for wasted food to consumers, for example, and only 20 per cent to food processors and absolutely zero to government services.

Huge percentages of plastic waste ends up in oceans, where water quality and fisheries are compromised

A little rethinking would suggest that food packaging waste has to be included in any measurement of food waste. Otherwise, we could have a dysfunctional “solution,” such as smothering perishable foods in plastic, rather than localizing food production to reduce levels of perishability.

The first strategy would reduce food waste by increasing the amount of toxic waste (plastic packaging), and would also add to the waste of fossil fuels in unnecessary long-haul transportation of perishable foods. The localizing strategy for reducing food waste, by contrast, would reduce the amount of food that is wasted as well as the amount of fossil fuels wasted, as well as packaging waste.

It is seldom acknowledged that non-reusable and frequently non-recyclable plastic packaging is the travelling companion of long-distance food. Shippers wants to reduce the weight and space of packages made from reusable glass or wood or crop residues, and therefore choose plastic, thereby externalizing the true lifecycle cost of their packaging choice onto local taxpayers who pay for recycling and landfill.

Need I add that this adds insult to injury, since the likelihood is that the packaged product has displaced local jobs of someone who used to produce the food with more reusable or recyclable packaging? My bet is that local governments pay much more to handle the throwaway plastic bottles that go along with every sale of bottled water than the pittance charged the bottled water companies for the actual water by senior levels of government. Quite the deal — the state or province get a small fee from corporate giants who get use of public drinking water, and the local governments pay to have the worthless plastic bottles hauled away, landfilled or picked up as litter.

Packaging is now emerging as a prime food security problem. It is estimated that plastic waste in lakes and oceans actually outweighs fish, and jeopardizes both their health and the safety of humans eating them. This is an issue of special importance for people in low-income countries, where fish is the most accessible form of quality protein.

Processors also waste the off-sized and off-shaped fruits and vegetables that don’t meet their canning or bagging requirements. They also don’t ensure all parts of an animal or vegetable are used. For example, slaughtering houses no longer ensure that all animal bones and hides are reused for other products; and this residual waste of potential usefulness should not go unrecorded.

Waste is a verb, not a noun, Clivus founder Abby Rockefeller used to say

A wider lens on food waste would also suggest that what is called “human waste” (excrement) is also part of the story of food waste. Pee and poo, both loaded with critical plant nutrients that can be rendered perfectly safe during careful composting, are wasted by government infrastructure that transports the humanure to the nearest river or lake, thereby degrading the habitat for fish and aquatic life — itself a form of food waste.

The same goes for what is called “grey water,” dishwater and bathing water that are often full of soil nutrients (phosphates in some soaps, and food residues in dishwater) which can be reused in gardens if proper piping is provided. In the era of circular economies, practices and technologies that only use a resource once need to be defined as wasteful. There needs to be a separate place on the report card to note the waste caused by municipal policy failure.

I don’t want to minimize waste caused by sloppiness of individual consumers. Indeed, in Real Food for a Change, Lori Stahlbrand, Rod MacRae and I argued that “consumptivity” needs to be classed on par with productivity in terms of wise use of resources. But the standard portrayal of wasted food is misleading because it blames consumers, rather than a consuming culture and set of technologies, for low rates of consumptivity.

Report cards have to be issued to the right people.


Quite appropriately, given the centrality of food production in the food system, the report card uses several indicators reflecting the well-being of farms and farmers. One major purpose of a report card is to measure and reveal progress or backsliding over time, and the discouraging results are there for all to see.

Farms are put on the chopping block, and rural communities and towns are put at-risk

Canada had 280,043 farms in 1991 and had 205, 730 in 2011. If that rate of decline continues, farmers would be extinct in 80 years. Should someone be concerned about the policy and process responsible for this trend?

To make matters worse, the land which once belonged to a disappeared farm family has not been left vacant, available for a new farmer to give the land a try. It has been purchased by a larger farmer. As a result of this process, another chart shows, the number farms with over 2880 acres has gone up, while the number with 180 to 2879 acres has declined.

There are at least three stories behind these numbers. I hope upcoming report cards can confirm or deny my suspicion about the story line.

My first suspicion is that it is not just individual farmers who are calling it quits. It is farmers of the middle, the very farmers best positioned to produce both the quality and the quantity needed by local urban populations, who are most vulnerable. By contrast, the mega- farms are best positioned to meet the needs of global corporations that want bulk purchases of one or two food commodities or food inputs.

If I’m right, the prospects for localized food systems are declining as fewer farmers own bigger tracts of land.

My second suspicion is that the farms that are left will rely more and more on equipment, and less on the skill and knowledge of people working the land. That suspicion is confirmed by another chart showing a marked decline in agricultural employment, from over 331,500 in 2010 to 314, 600 in 2016. If this trend continues, there will be no agricultural employees in about 30 years.

Huge farms with huge machines mean less of the best fertilizer on any field — a farmer’s footstep

The likely explanation that people are being replaced by machines is suggested by another chart on total farm capital, which increased by $200 billion between 1991 and 2011. That level of investment, which more or less sets the price for how much it costs to produce food from a highly mechanized environment, also suggests that new farmers filled with the traditional farmer assets of blood, sweat and tears will be out of the picture.

Nor is it likely that new farmers will be found among newcomers to the country. At present, another chart shows, fewer than 10 per cent of Canadian farmers were born outside Canada, at a time when half of Toronto’s population was. How are we to produce foods and food marketing relationships for a multicultural society if we fail to recruit multicultural farmers?

The barriers to entry for new farmers are forbidding, at the very same time, another chart shows, as the age of farmers is rapidly going up. In 1991, the average farm operator was 47.5 years old; by 2011, half of farm operators were over 55.

Farmers are getting older, a sustainability danger sign governments aren’t responding to

I remember what it was like to weed and harvest on vegetable farms when I was a mid-50s “woofer.” It wasn’t a pretty picture. But it was prettier than the trend this chart reveals — that farmers and their children see no future in farming.

Report cards can be useful in giving us a sense of the deadlines we’re working to. Should someone in government be alarmed, or someone in opposition be issuing alarms by how quickly these negative and unsustainable trends are moving?

It is my view that this section of the report card needs to be brought to the attention of some sharp lawyers, who know how to sue governments for failure to conduct their due diligence with respect to the food security and food sovereignty of the people they claim to lead.

Maybe lawyers can get governments to pay attention?

When I suggested that the report card was generative, that’s one example of what I meant — a new food policy tool, the report card, generates a new food policy action, the lawsuit. Suit up!


The 40th indicator in the report card (there are 61 in total) features jobs in food service, retail, distribution and processing. There are now over a million such workers in Canada, making food the largest employment sector in the country.

To fully appreciate the significance of policy in this matter, it will be useful (however time-consuming) to develop a chart in the future which reveals how much the government invests in protecting and enhancing food employment — compared to how much they invest in car or airplane manufacture or fossil fuel pipelines, to give examples of industries that are closer to the government trough (to borrow a farm metaphor).

Another way of framing this chart is to indicate that employment in food is tied almost exclusively to the production and movement of goods for money, rather than services provided for love or money.

There is of course, no employment of parents providing food for children or their own parents, because this work isn’t paid employment, even though it plays a vital role in society.

There is also no formal employment in the food sector that is designed to prevent disease — animating children’s gardens, for example, to nurture a culture of activity rather than couch surfing, and to develop a culture of appreciating nutritious food, as well as personal agency and empowerment.

Governments only keep stats on workers who make or move commodities, not those who provide a service, such as health promotion

As well, horticulture is not identified in terms of its considerable employment numbers, even though that is part of the future of urban agriculture — which will increasingly be linked to recreational and scenic amenities and to resilience of green or plant-based infrastructure. Plants, which may well include food-bearing plants, are proving themselves to be much more resilient and cost-effective than conventional concrete and steel infrastructure when it comes to floods, heat waves and other mishaps of the climate change era.

A good report card should also indicate where no assignments were handed in on this subject, which usually warrants a grade of F.


The section on “works with nature,” adapted from a fundamental principle of food sovereignty, indicates some progress that was surprising to me.

The definitive example of failure is in application of commercial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, all of which have increased significantly since 1991.

If this chart were placed beside a chart on the use of genetically engineered foods (standard in soy, corn, and feedlot cattle operations, for example), my guess is that the trend lines would match, putting the lie to any sales propaganda to the effect that genetic engineering leads to environmental protection.

Notwithstanding this backsliding, there are signs of improved conservation practices by working farmers.

Drip irrigation techniques are reducing the amount of water that farmers waste

Farmers are increasingly using techniques to conserve water and use it judiciously. Almost half of farmers now try to water crops in the evening or early morning, when evaporation is low, and also integrate compost into their soil as a way of increasing its water-holding capacity. As a result of such conservation practices, farmers and food industries used less water in 2013 than they did in 2009. However, the quality of the water released after food and ag use declined, another chart records.

The proportion of farmers using organic production methods doubled to 1.8 per cent of farms between 2001 and 2011, which is encouraging, though the number of organic farmers is quite a bit below the percentage of organic food sales, which means that this sector relies disproportionately on imports.

Farmers increasingly see the value of trees, and are cutting back on farming “fencepost to fencepost.”

Although agriculture is the industry most responsible for deforestation (a finding that will surprise most report card readers), the rate of deforestation slowed considerably, from 42,100 hectares in 1990 to 12,000 in 2014. Many farmers are using trees for windbelts and buffer zones around waterways.

Soil quality also improved from 1990 to 2011.


Engagement is the behavior most ignored by food system commentators, but that’s not the case with this report card, which has a section on localizing food systems.

The chapter is slim, as are the sections on building knowledge and skills, and on respect for the sacredness or spiritual side of food.

A food system centered on commodities downplays engagement and conviviality.

This deficiency is not the fault of the scholars who produced this report. The absence of information reflects the bias of the food system.

In a commodity-centered food system, consumers are only useful if they consume. Personal engagement and participation at the household level reduce the demand for highly processed “convenience” foods. Engagement and food literacy at the societal level only complicate the delivery of corporate messaging — the less, the better, which is probably why there is virtually no government support for civil society organizations.

The same goes for the historic relationship between food and conviviality, which is being eroded by people eating alone at their desk, alone in their car, or at the table with friends or family, mobile at the ready.

Government and industry programs to encourage agency by eaters are scarcer than hens’ teeth. There is virtually no representation of consumers or rural residents in any government departments or ministries of agriculture and food. In Canada, more so than other countries, ag and food operates as a department of the ag and food industry.

Some way should be found to depict such information in a future report card.


I have pinpointed my comments on challenges. My aim has been to show how the information in the report card generates information to stir the pot of needed public discussion.

Transparency opens many doors, as well as many windows

That’s where this report excels. It’s why it deserves the highest form of flattery, which is imitation — the production of report cards from many other jurisdictions and organizations.

This report card is one of the most generative tools in the food policy toolkit.

(Whether you do or don’t like this particular blog, please sign up to follow the blog, and add your voice to the discussion by looking for the response button near the button for following. Just to be clear about my organizational standing, I am an unpaid volunteer on the International Advisory Committee of the Wilfrid Laurier Centre for the Study of Sustainable Food Systems, which hosts FLEdGE, the organization that published the report card. Thanks, Wayne)

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