Food Counts: A Pan-Canadian Sustainable Food System Report Card

Section 1: Introduction

This section provides the context, outlines the objectives, and explains the theoretical and practical framework for the Food Counts Report Card. This section also provides a brief overview of how the rest of the report is organized.


Objectives of the Food Counts Report Card

Indicator Framework: Food Sovereignty

Evaluating Data

Organization of the Report


Within Canada, there is growing concern about how the food system is organized and governed and who has the power to make decisions that impact social systems and the natural world. While many claim that the dominant food system is managed in the public interest, there is growing evidence that this is not the case. Controlled primarily by corporate interests, the global food system privileges profit over social and ecological well-being.[1,2] Despite supplying large amounts of foods to global markets, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) has outlined that the dominant food system is contributing to a host of negative outcomes, such as: degradation of land, water, ecosystems, and biodiversity; high levels of greenhouse gas emissions; persistent hunger and under-nutrition together with rises in diet-related diseases; and the fragility of farmer and fisher livelihoods around the world.[3]

A fundamentally different way of governing food systems is required—one that is rooted in a coherent alignment of social justice, support for local economies, ecological regeneration and deep democratic engagement with producers, harvesters, processors, retailers, eaters and Indigenous Peoples. Practical tools are needed to help us understand the current state of the Canadian food system and to frame a future vision of justice and sustainability. In a recent report, the IPES recognized that “current systems will be held in place insofar as these systems continue to be measured in terms of what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver, at the expense of many other outcomes that really matter in food systems.”[4] In response, they call for the development of new indicators for sustainable food systems that benefit long-term social, economic and ecological systems.

A food systems report card, as one such tool, can support several relevant, reflective and visionary functions. First, report cards can provide a lay of the land by bringing together relevant statistics into a unified overview of the food system. Second, they can act as a benchmark to inform historical analysis as well as comparisons with future developments. Benchmarks can indicate areas where things are going well in addition to areas where opportunities for improvement might exist. Report cards also help to identify gaps in the data and where case studies can elaborate on successes and limitations. Making “data gaps” visible in a systematic way can help identify the key areas requiring further research and examination, which can then inform a more comprehensive food policy and practice.

Report cards, however, are not politically neutral. A scan of existing report cards on the state of food in Canada (and elsewhere) revealed significant limitations based on narrow foci and scale. For example, the Conference Board of Canada’s Food Report Card [5] (2015) and the Global Food Security Index [6] presented at the World Economic Forum (2016) are rooted within an economic perspective; the Food Banks Canada annual Hunger Count Reports [7] focus primarily on food access; and, the Diabetes Association of Canada linked food with health expenditures through their report The Economic Tsunami: The Cost of Diabetes in Canada [8] (2009). Each of these contribute to the conversation on food systems, yet none of these reports focus on measuring or supporting the crosscutting, multi-sectoral dimensions needed to assess the state of sustainable food systems. While comprehensive report cards do exist at the municipal or regional level [9] Canada lacks an assessment tool that takes a Pan-Canadian food systems approach with an integrated focus on social, economic and ecological sustainability.

Five orange carrots on a wooden table lined up from smallest to largest, left to right.

Objectives of the Food Counts Report Card

The main objective of this report card is to establish a framework for benchmarking and assessing the state of Canada’s food systems using available measures of social, environmental and economic well-being. Using indicators which take a food systems approach, we can better understand the linkages and interconnections within the food system in order to inform decisions about how to ensure it is more just and sustainable into the future. The specific objectives of the Food Counts Report Card are to:

  1. Reframe the way we understand food as part of integrated and interdependent systems;
  2. Provide a snapshot of the Canadian food system using measurable, available, stable and reliable national-scale indicators which provide baseline measurements for comparison;
  3. Identify gaps in knowledge to inform future research and tools; and,
  4. Support food movement organizations and researchers by providing access to relevant food systems data.

Due to the limits of available data, this first version of the Food Counts Report Card is only a beginning. We expect that over time more data will become available so we can enhance this report as a metric of food systems sustainability in Canada.

Indicator Framework: Food Sovereignty

The indicators used in report cards should be practical, but also visionary, with an explicit and defined trajectory. Easily understood indicators can help identify trends towards or away from a specific goal. The development of the Food Counts Report Card was guided by a food sovereignty framework. Food sovereignty prioritizes “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” [10] Food sovereignty pushes back against the economic growth and individualism fostered by the mainstream development paradigm and provides the basis for a global movement focused on food as a means for collective social change. Indicators framed around food sovereignty provide a strong political and values-based focus which favours a consensus around core themes and a common departure point. At the same time, food sovereignty is an evolving place-based concept and provides opportunities to establish interconnected priorities, actions and strategies between different regions. These principles have been adopted into legislation by several national governments including Mali in 2006, Nepal in 2007, Ecuador in 2008, Venezuela in 2008, Bolivia in 2009 and Nicaragua in 2009 and were formative for Brazilian food policy over the last decade. Constituent groups, for example pastoralists, within the UN-FAO system have also adopted principles of food sovereignty to protect their right to food and land. This work is supported by international organizations including FIAN International and La Via Campesina as well as regional and continental food sovereignty alliances (e.g. Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance).

We used the six core pillars of food sovereignty developed at the International Forum for Food Sovereignty in 2007 in addition to a seventh pillar which was added by members of the Indigenous Circle during the People’s Food Policy [11] process to inform the themes of indicators chosen. As summarized by Food Secure Canada [12], the food sovereignty pillars are as follows:

1. Focuses on Food for People

  • Puts people’s need for food at the centre of policies
  • Insists that food is more than just a commodity

2. Builds Knowledge and Skills

  • Builds on traditional knowledge
  • Uses research to support and pass this knowledge to future generations
  • Rejects technologies that undermine or contaminate local food systems

3. Works with Nature

  • Optimizes the contributions of ecosystems
  • Improves resilience

4. Values Food Providers

  • Supports sustainable livelihoods
  • Respects the work of all food providers

5. Localizes Food Systems

  • Reduces distance between food providers and consumers
  • Rejects dumping and inappropriate food aid
  • Resists dependency on remote and unaccountable corporations

6. Puts Control Locally

  • Places control in the hands of local food providers
  • Recognizes the need to inhabit and to share territories
  • Rejects the privatization of natural resources

7. Food is Sacred

  • Recognizes that food is a gift of life, and not to be squandered
  • Asserts that food cannot be commodified

Using this framework, the Food Counts Report Card uses a food systems lens to explicitly address social, economic and ecological sustainability while at the same time linking the report to the work of Canadian food movements as well as the global food sovereignty movement [13] (for specific details on our methodology used, please see Section 2). Although there has been increasing acceptance of the proposal of food sovereignty, organizations and governments lack the tools for monitoring and evaluating projects or actions in this area. [14]

Evaluating Data

For those indicators which we were able to extract historical data, we evaluate that data in this report card by noting simply if the trend shows a positive or negative change with respect to food sovereignty goals. We depict these trends by indicating “getting better” vs. “getting worse” but we do not attempt to indicate what absolute values are most favourable. Due to certain considerations, it was difficult to determine whether trends were positive or negative for some indicators. For these indicators, we label them as a “mixed” interpretation. For many indicators, data was only available for one point in time. For these indicators, we expect that this data will continue to be collected on a regular basis and that current data points will act as the baseline for future reports. In all cases, the data represents the most recent time point in which the information was available at a national level. It is important to note that the availability of recent data varied depending on the data source.

Organization of the Report

The remainder of our report card is broken into four sections: Section 2 outlines the methodology;

Section 2 outlines the methodology;

Section 3 describes indicator data;

Section 4 identifies current gaps in knowledge; and,

Section 5 details next steps for the Food Counts Report Card.

Indicators in Section 3 are organized by the seven pillars of food sovereignty for Canada. For each pillar, we provide a brief introduction and a summary table of indicators chosen to reflect that broad theme. Next, the specific data from the indicators chosen are shown graphically with some interpretation. For the purposes of this report, we collapsed the principles ‘localizes food systems’ and ‘puts control locally’ together and present the principles and their corresponding indicators in the following order: 1) Focuses on Food for the People, 2) Values Food Providers, 3) Works with Nature, 4) Localizes Food Systems and Puts Control Locally, 5) Builds Knowledge and Skills, and 6) Food is Sacred. In Section 4, we outline a summary of ‘wish list’ indicators which we wanted to include in the Food Counts Report Card, but for which we could either not find national data for or required primary or secondary data collection and/ or analysis to include. Where information exists for these ‘wish list’ indicators which did not meet our selection criteria, we provide links for reference purposes.

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Please note: The Pan-Canadian Sustainable Food Systems Report Card is a working document. If you have comments, questions, or would like to suggest additional data sources or indicators, please fill out the Food Counts Report Card Feedback Form.


Section Notes

1. Weis, A. J. (2007). The global food economy: The battle for the future of farming. New York: Zed Books.

2. Howard, P. (2016). Concentration and power in the food system: Who controls what we eat? New York: Bloomsbury.

3. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. (2016). From uniformity to diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. Available at: http://www.ipes

4. Ibid. pp. 57.

5. The Conference Board of Canada. (2016). Canada’s food report card 2015: International comparisons. Available at: did=7617.

6. The Economist Group. (2016). The global food security index. Available at:

7. Food Banks Canada (2008 – 2016). HungerCount. Available at:

8. Diabetes Canada. (2009). Ecomomic Tsunami: The cost of diabetes in Canada. Available at: publications-newsletters/advocacy-reports/economic-tsunami-the-cost-of-diabetes-in-canada.

9. See for example, Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy. (2015). Community food security report card. Available at FoodSecurityReportCard_WEB.pdf FoodSecurityReportCard_WEB.pdf and MiddlesexLondon Health Unit. (2016). Middlesex-London community food assessment report. Available at: community-food-assessment.

10. Nyéléni Forum for Food Sovereinghty. (2007). Declatation of the forum for food sovereignty. Available at: https://nyeleni. org/spip.php?article290.

11. Food Secure Canada People’s Food Policy Project. (2011). Resetting the table: A people’s food policy for Canada. Available at:

12. Food Secure Canada. (2016). What is food sovereignty. Available at:

13. See for example La Via Campasina ( and FIAN International (

14. Binimelis, R., Rivera-Ferre, M. G., Tendero, G., Badal, M., Heras, M., Gamboa, G., & Ortega, M. (2014). Adapting established instruments to build useful food sovereignty indicators. Development Studies Research, 1(1), 324-339.