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Local Food Systems and Public Policy: The Case of Zoning Laws in Quebec

Food is one of our basic needs. It is an integral part of culture and has been a driving force in the creation of human settlements. Originally, food was closely linked with urban form since most of it came from local or regional sources. However, over the past few decades, our food system has become increasingly globalized (MacLeod and Scott, 2007). With the rise of agribusiness, the ability to transport food cheaply over long distances and the development of food preservation based on technology have enabled the distance between farm and market to increase dramatically. Recently, such practices have been questioned for the damage they cause to the natural environment, high energy consumption, and their contribution to climate change. In addition, the quality of the food available to residents is subject to increasing concern. In fact, the trend toward increasing distances between producers and consumers has prompted many to question the environmental and social sustainability of our food choices (MacLeod and Scott, 2007). The question of how to feed the urban population, particularly during crisis, is becoming urgent every day. Concerns about health and the loss of tradition and culture that began to take hold in post-modern society, the spread of the ‘food desert’, especially in poor urban areas (Cummins and Macintyre, 2002: 436), where there is no easy access to affordable food, food banks and soup kitchens, demonstrated that the urgency of access to food and food security for everyone must be confronted. To note here, the modern movement for LFS (local food systems) as an alternative to the conventional agricultural system is not new. It started in Japan in the 1970s with the teikei, which means ‘putting the producer’s face on the product’ (Mundler 2007: 2). The teikei were organized around consumer cooperatives, whose members would link up with producers and even helped with the work on the farm (Pretty 1998: 164-165). A similar model was also adopted in Québec by Équiterre in 1995 where consumers, organized into groups, pay up front at the beginning of the season and receive deliveries of food baskets each week, thereby sharing the risk inherent in agricultural production (Blouin et al., 2009).

Agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change (Nierenberg and Reynolds, 2012). The sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity is likely to be particularly beneficial for small-scale farmers, who need to optimize the limited resources that are available to them and for whom the access to external inputs is lacking due to financial or infrastructural constraints (FAO, 2011). Benefits on a large-scale can also be achieved by focusing on improvements relevant to large commercial farmers and conservation agriculture has already been effective in this respect. Inevitably, there is considerable skepticism over the practicality of the widespread adoption of agricultural production practices that embody a greater use of biodiversity for food and agriculture and a greater emphasis on ecosystem functions (FAO, 2011). Two major geopolitical realities have a constraining effect on peoples’ thinking. Firstly, modern, intensive farming in developed countries receives very large levels of financial support and all sectors of the agricultural and food industries are linked in to this highly subsidized system to a greater or lesser extent. Secondly, there is a continuing commitment to ensuring that food prices remain low and that basic foodstuffs are affordable by all sectors of society including the poorest. These both tend to lead to a disinterest in the nature of agricultural production systems and present a very real barrier to the development of new approaches to production (FAO, 2011). However, it is increasingly recognized that an appropriate policy framework can largely overcome these constraints and, indeed, must be developed (FA0, 2011).

In the last few years, more localized food supply chains have been proposed as a vehicle for sustainable development (Lyson 2004; Halweil & Worldwatch Institute 2002; Rosset & Land Research Action Network. 2006; Desmarais 2007; Via Campesina n.d.). We can note here that the term ‘local’ is still contested and its definition varies from one local market development organization to the next. Literally, the term ‘local’ indicates a relation to a particular place, a geographic entity. However, as our literature review has uncovered, most organizations have a more elaborate definition of what is local, often incorporating specific goals and objectives that an LFS ought to deliver into the definition itself. There are three aspects of LFS, which are proximity (geographic distance, temporal distance, political and administrative boundaries, bio-regions, and social distance), objectives of local food systems (economic, environmental and social objectives), and distribution mechanisms in local food systems (farm shops, farmer’s markets, box schemes, community-supported agriculture, institutional procurement policy, and urban agriculture).

Besides the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), there is a growing interest by the public sector for local food, which is mainly linked to the idea of food sovereignty – a global movement that aims to transform food systems into engines of sustainable development and social justice (Blouin et al., 2009). To note here that La Via Campesina was the first organization to develop the concept of food sovereignty in 1993 in Belgium as a more radical alternative to the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (Pimbert 2008: 41). Thus, the pursuit of food sovereignty implies that work should be done in international treaty negotiations and human rights conventions in order to allow state sovereignty over food policy—that is, to prevent interference from foreign powers in the policy-making process, lift restrictions placed by international trade agreements, and eliminate dumping practices (Blouin et al., 2009). In 2007 in Montreal, a definition of food sovereignty was developed by a Québec-based coalition for food sovereignty that included producer organizations, civil society groups, food distributors, and development organizations. The definition states that “food sovereignty means the right of people to develop their own food and agricultural policy; to protect and regulate national food production and trade in order to attain sustainable development goals, to determine their degree of food autonomy, and to eliminate dumping on their markets. Food sovereignty does not contradict trade in the sense that it is subordinated to the right of people to local food production, healthy and ecological, realized in equitable conditions that respect the right of every partner to decent working conditions and incomes” (Blouin et al., 2009).

Over the last 60 years, Canada‘s overall food system has become more geared to large-scale systems of production, distribution and retail. In Quebec, the agricultural, food processing, and retail sectors account for 6.8% of GDP and 12.5% of all jobs. The province produces fresh and processed food worth $19.2 billion, while only consuming $15.4 billion (a 25% surplus), and retailers imported $6.9 billion worth of fresh and processed foods last year. About 44% of Quebec’s raw and processed food production finds its way into Quebeckers’ plates, the rest being exported to other Canadian provinces (30%) and oversees (245) (MAPAQ, 2009). We can note here that since 1941, the evolution’s of Quebec’s agricultural landscape is characterized by the decrease in the number of farms and a market concentration dominated by few producers. And this is very similar to what we see in other Canadian provinces and other industrialized countries (Lemay J., 2009).

As it was already mentioned in this report, local food systems are proliferating in Quebec (Lemay J., 2009). There is now a growing interest in the production, processing, and buying of local food. New “local food systems” are being set up to organize the various components that will meet the needs of all the stakeholders in the community or region (Irshad, 2009). The initiatives that are helping in this process in Quebec are: organic and other specialized agriculture ((316 certified organic livestock production units, 341 organic maple syrup producers, and 585 certified farms (CARTV, 2009)), famer’s markets (network of 82 open markets, seasonal or permanent, daily or occasional), community- supported agriculture (CSA) (Équiterre runs a networkwith over 100 participants farms. Others: Union paysanne, La Mauve (Coop CSA)), and solidarity markets (A new phenomenon, solidarity markets are a more flexible box scheme. Consumers can an order through a web portal) (Lemay J., 2009). Despite the growth of these initiatives, there remain several obstacles inhibiting their expansion. The three main obstacles are: lack of financing (for example, banks are not willing to issue micro-loans at competitive rates), economic power (in fact, the food retail sector is marked by high rates of market concentration; supermarkets have been able to achieve economies of scale because they do not have to pay for the social and environmental costs of their business practices), and knowledge (the lack of demand for local food attributed to a lack of information about where to procure it, and a lack of information about prices).

Now, identifying every obstacle, policy and existing initiative related to the nodes in the value chain in the literature of Blouin et al., (2009), we notice there is a dilemma between land protection and land access. This is mostly attributed to the case of zoning policy. In 1978 and in the context of rapid economic development, speculation on land, fragmentation of the land and non-agricultural use, the government of Quebec passed agricultural land protection legislation, the second in Canada (Loi sur la protection des terres agricoles (LPTAA)). This law also reflected a desire to plan and regulate in this area and an overseeing agency was also created – the Commission de protection du territiore agricole du Quebec (CPTAQ). Except for a similar law in British Columbia, this law is the only one of its kind in Canada, and it effectively organized the use of agricultural land over the years. However, today with greater concentration of ownership and fewer people in the business of food production, the zoning law is causing problems since it acts as barrier for entry for smaller and more value-added producers who need smaller plots (Lemay J., 2009). In fact, the zoning law is one of the laws that facilitates industrial long-distance agriculture at the expense of small-scale sustainable agriculture and short supply chains (e.g. zoning laws that favor big farms, subsidy systems that favor big retailers, funding schemes targeted at large producers, …) (Blouin et al., 2009). At the same time, we can see this on an international level – the pressure for city expansion, speculation and non-agricultural use is still strong. Moreover, beyond the provincial level, municipalities have authority over certain zoning laws and by-laws that can facilitate or inhibit the development of LFS, particularly regulations concerning the use of agricultural zones for commercial purposes (Blouin et al., 2009). Though aimed at protecting agricultural zones from industrial development and other forms of encroachment, such by-laws effectively prevent on-farm direct sales or the use of farmland for farmers’ markets or farm shops (Wormsbecker 2007) and organizers of such initiatives typically have to negotiate with municipal authorities for special permits or designated spaces (Connell et al. 2007). However, agricultural zoning per se (designations for tax purposes) falls within provincial government jurisdiction or a land management agency, such as the Agricultural Land Reserve in British Columbia or the Commission pour la protection des terres agricoles du Québec (Blouin et al., 2009).

To conclude, to achieve this vision of food sovereignty, LFS have to go beyond the distance travelled by food products before they reach the final consumers (food miles) and integrate social, economic and environmental benefits. Also, Farmers’ markets, CSA and other initiatives are becoming increasingly present in industrial countries in recent years, but they still only represent a very small part of the food market (Blouin et al., 2009). For example, in Quebec, Équiterre’s CSA went from one to 102 farms between 1995 and 2006. It contributes to 73% of the average turnover of the farms, and yields an average annual profit of $3,582 annually when conventional agricultural produces an average annual loss of $6,255 (Chinnakonda & Telford, 2007: 38-39). In addition, regarding the zoning law, there are some good possibilities. In fact, within the existing law, new initiatives are emerging elsewhere and new possibilities can be developed in other provinces. These include cooperative land trusts and the collective buying of land and green belts (Lemay J., 2009). However, other aspects require reform. CPTAQ should be more flexible to LFS needs. For example, in one case, the CPTAQ has agreed to allow municipal authorities in Ste-Camille to take management over a large farm that was for sale in order to help new young families establish small farms. In order to do this, the CPTAQ de-zoned the land, thus technically empowering municipal authorities to develop it however they chose;  however, there was an understanding that the municipality would keep the land for agricultural use. If this case is inspiring, there should be a formal way to make such arrangements without necessarily de-zoning the land and placing it at risk. The main and remaining question is how to allow the creation of small farms without endangering land protection for the future of agriculture in Quebec, especially in the context of rising non-agricultural activities in farming areas (e.g. shale gas exploitation) (Lemay J., 2009). Even though there is no national policy to promote LFS, provincial governments have been active with various programs in this area. There is much variations from one provinces to another, but the existing programs tend to cluster on the demand side, focusing on consumer education and marketing projects, even running some themselves (the origin labeling and promotion programs). To a lesser extent, there are some programs to support organic farming (transition programs) but very few focusing on processing and distribution. Moreover, it is important to provide knowledge for policy action on food sovereignty given the gap which exists in understanding the impact of existing public policy initiatives (Blouin et al., 2009).


Cummins, S., and Macintyre, S. (2002). “‘Food Deserts’ – Evidence and Assumption in Health Policy Making.” British Medical Journal Vol. 325, No. 7361: 436-438.


LITERATURE. Équiterre &The Centre for Trade Policy and Law, Carleton University.

Chinnakonda, D. & and L. Telford. 2007. Les économies alimentaires locales et régionales au Canada: rapport sur la situation. Ottawa: Agriculture et Agroalimentaire Canada.

Lyson, T.A. 2004. Civic Agriculture. UPNE. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2009august/a1.phpp://www.joe.org/joe/2009august/a1.php

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Wormsbecker, C.L. 2007. Moving Towards the Local: The Barriers and Opportunities for Localizing Food Systems in Canada. Master of Environmental Studies in Environment and Resource Studies. University of Waterloo.

Vía Campesina. La Vía Campesina: International Peasant Movement—Small Scale Sustainable Farmers are Cooling Down the Earth. Available at: http://viacampesina.org/main_en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=457&Itemid=37 [Accessed June 13, 2009].

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Connell, D.J., R. Borsato. & L. Gareau. 2007. Farmers, Farmers Markets, and Land Use Planning: Case Studies in Prince George and Quesnel. University of Northern British Columbia.

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A Literature Review. Ecology Action Centre For the Nova Scotia Department of Energy. Retrieved from http://www.ecologyaction.ca/files/images/file/Food/LocalFoodProcurementPolicies.pdf

Lemay J-F. (2009). Local Food Systems and Public Policy: The Case of Zoning Laws in Quebec. Retrieved from http://canada-europe-dialogue.ca/events/2011-03-03-05-LocalFoodSystems/summaries/2011-03-04-summary-jean-frederic-lemay.pdf

CARTV, (2009). Statistiques pour l’appelation biologique. Retrieved from http://cartv.gouv.qc.ca-statistiques-pour-lappelation-biologique

MAPAQ. (2009). Statistiques economiques de l’industrie bioalimentaire. Retrieved from http://mapaq.gouv.qc.ca/fr/md/statistiques/Pages/statistiques.aspx

Irshard, H. (2009). Local Food – A Rural Opportunity. Government of Alberta. Agriculture and Rural Development. Retrieved from http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$Department/deptdocs.nsf/all/csi13484/$FILE/Local-Food-A-Rural-Opp.pdf

Nierenberg, D., and Reynolds, L. (December 4, 2012). Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production. WorldWatch Institute. Retrieved from http://www.worldwatch.org/supporting-climate-friendly-food-production

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International Law Students Association (ILSA) / Association des étudiant(e)s en droit international (AÉDI)

By: Kathleen Childs

Professor Lucie Lamarche of the University of Ottawa moderated this three-person panel. The speakers were Professor Geneviève Parent (of the l’université de Laval), Dr. Christophe Golay (of the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action), and Professor Graham Riches (of the University of British Columbia).

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BALTA Researchers Present at Food Secure Canada Assembly

BALTA research on the role of farmers’ markets in scaling up local food was presented at the 2012 Food Secure Canada Assembly. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Farmers’ Markets.


Several BALTA linked researchers presented on BALTA research at Powering Up!: Food for the Future, the 7th National Assembly of Food Secure Canada, in Edmonton (November 2-4, 2012).

Mike Lewis was a keynote speaker during an evening panel on Energy, Resilience and the Future of Food. His presentation drew on content from his recent book, The Resilience Imperative: Co-operative Transitions to a Steady State Economy, co-authored with Pat Conaty. The panel was open to the public and drew around 170 people. Following the presentations, Mike signed copies of his book being sold at the event.

Mike Lewis also presented during a workshop on Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Matter. The workshop examined a number of approaches to financing, particularly with reference to supporting new farmers.

Hannah Wittman and Mary Beckie presented BALTA research on farmers’ markets as part of a workshop on Scaling Up the Role…

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