Sustainability of Food Systems and Food Security

Sustainability of Food Systems and Food Security

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Executive Summary

Toronto’s food system is more effective and stable compared to many high-income regions. However, its food supply chain approach does not guarantee long term food security. This report outlines the constraints and limitations to Toronto’s food system to provide a comprehensive picture of the region’s food situation. With over nine million inhabitants and 300000 jobs reliant on the food sector, Toronto has to initiate dramatic changes to its farming methods, agricultural infrastructure, inter-agency collaboration and food consumer culture. Long-term food security hinges on the sustainability of the province’s food system. Achieving such a feat is not only up to agricultural policymakers but also individual and household decisions that influence the welfare of the food system.

Table of Contents


Executive Summary. 2

Introduction. 4

Toronto’s Food Situation. 4

Impact of Sustainability on Toronto’s Food System.. 5

Impact of Sustainability on Toronto’s Food Security. 5

Conclusion. 6

References. 7

Sustainability of Food Systems and Food Security


Food systems play a critical role in national economic development because they provide the labour force with the much-required energy to live and work. However, with the coronavirus pandemic, there were drastic changes in food systems, including the relationship between food and society. The contagion led to a renewed discussion over the sustainability of food systems in pursuit of long-term food security. An assessment by the RUAF Foundation uncovered Toronto’s food system was not sustainable due to substantial resource depletion and unwarranted environmental impacts. Moreover, the effects of the pandemic highlighted the province’s publicly-owned food terminal and supply chain management does not guarantee the stability of food availability. As a result, Toronto’s food system now faces the growing challenge of reconciling rapid population growth with the prospect of high food production. While the transition to resilient food systems involves many changes, long-term food security demands a paradigm shift from sustainability to sustainable development, with an emphasis on food localisation.

Toronto’s Food Situation

            The definition of sustainability in food systems is vague because the term has been hijacked and applied differently in other business-related fields. According to Holden et al. (2018), the most important concept when thinking about sustainability is the environment, specifically actions that prevent the long-term depletion of natural resources. With such an understanding, sustainability can be defined as development that meets the needs of society without negating the capability of future generations to address their own needs. The definition begs an inquiry into whether Toronto’s current food production practices and policies indicate the ability for continued high food production. Holden et al. (2018) educate that it is important to cover food access and availability when assessing a food system. Overall, some factors indicate that while the food supply in Toronto has been relatively stable during and after the pandemic, food insecurity has increased dramatically.

            Toronto has effective protective structures to ensure food supply, but the production approach does not address long-term food availability. Toronto’s supply management matches production yields with market demand from the citizenry (Miller & Palmer, 2018). The approach protects the small population from pressures associated with multiple trade deals to ensure the continuity of family farming. Managing food supply and family farms proved pivotal in ensuring food availability and market stabilisation during the pandemic (Miller & Palmer, 2018). The regulatory approach also safeguards the public from price hikes associated with black market foods and sudden shortages of essential products. Unlike the U.S.A and Europe, farmers in Canada were not documented spilling dairy or throwing away pools of potatoes because of the food system’s supply management. The food system ascertains relatively equitable and visible access to small and large food producers, retailers and distributors (Miller & Palmer, 2018). However, existing food policies and infrastructures cannot guarantee long-term food availability.

            Toronto has a mid-size infrastructure for food production, and distribution is limited. The province’s agricultural industry is heavily reliant on migrant labour to plant, manage and harvest most of the fruits and vegetables. There are over 71000 temporary migrant labourers from Mexico and the Caribbean (Miller & Palmer, 2018). The government places the responsibility to ensure worker safety and security to individual employers, which raises concerns over the stability of the workforce. Family farming also introduces several weaknesses in the food system. The food production approach offers limited fresh food choices compared to commercial farms (Miller & Palmer, 2018). The problem becomes bigger when climate change and weather conditions cause production shocks, reducing food supply. Family farming also faces the challenge of succession, implying increased food insecurity in the coming years. Toronto’s agricultural labour conditions and mid-scale farming are counter-productive to the province’s food security efforts.

Impact of Sustainability on Toronto’s Food System

            Sustainable development in local farms is the solution to Toronto’s food system stability problem. Toronto does not have surplus food, yet literature shows a third of produced food is lost along the supply chain (Belik, 2020). Family farms are more likely to lose food during and after harvesting due to poor management practices. Therefore, reducing food loss and waste provides a great opportunity to improve the sustainability of Toronto’s food system. In high-income countries, food waste mainly occurs post-harvest and during the initial parts of the supply chain (Belik, 2020). Three major aspects of Toronto’s food supply chain have to be improved: increased mechanisation, structural infrastructures, and the operating environment. Enhanced mechanisation addresses the overreliance on migrant labour while improving production yields.

Improving Toronto’s structural infrastructures will increase the food system’s ability to store, recover and recycle surplus and lost food. Lindgren et al. (2018) recommend the partial introduction of industrial crops to offset the food losses from family farming. Industrial farms create demand for bioenergy, which is present in Toronto’s plant-based supply chain. A Japanese study on closing the food waste loop found that companies that recycled food waste as feed or compost were more financially effective than companies that did not close the loop (Belik, 2020). If all Japanese household firms introduced food waste as pig feed, the economic benefits would amount to $167 million. Toronto’s unique food institutions, such as Toronto Food Policy Council and Toronto Urban Growers, spend a significant amount of money providing farmers with fertilisers, yet there is untapped household capacity. Building community storage and recycling plants will help family farms close the food waste loop. 

Toronto has to enhance collaboration between family farms, food retailers, the government and agricultural institutions to transform the food system. RUAF Foundation’s study reveals that family farms in areas with less stable funding rely on sub-sectoral partnerships to make food production less volatile (Miller & Palmer, 2018). Farmers do not venture into other agricultural products when there is a perceived lack of support. One of the identified lapses in Toronto’s food system was the lack of fruit and vegetable diversity. Therefore, collaboration can help address the diversity concern. Partnership is essential for systemic change and can facilitate the change from family farming to commercial farming. Collaborations last longer at the regional level instead of city levels, as most farming transactions are done outside urban areas (Miller & Palmer, 2018). The creation of business networks for restaurants and retailers will create demand for higher food production, incentivising farmers to shift to industrial crops.  

Impact of Sustainability on Toronto’s Food Security

            Sustainable development will not only preserve natural resources for future generations but also enhance the capability to feed the growing population. While improvements for food systems mainly revolve around technical solutions, food security tends to entail social-based approaches. Holden et al. (2018) argue children are growing up with little information and practice on sustainable farming techniques. The incoming generation has minimal awareness of the food situation they find themselves in and how to handle it. The lack of knowledge is evident in the poor consumption culture, characterised by poor diets (Holden et al. 2018). Therefore, educating the public about healthy nutrition and food sustainability will ensure long-term access and availability of food products. A change to healthy diets reduces the demand for meat and sugar, which frees up more arable land for commercial farming while reducing the environmental implications associated with the beef industry (Diez et al. 2021). Land is a significant challenge to Toronto’s food security, and a change in local feeding habits will address the issue.

            Enabling technology is another feasible approach to improving food production yields in family and commercial farming. The deployment of sensor networks is more prevalent in industrial animal farming than family crop farming (Diez et al. 2021). One of the problems facing Toronto’s food system is the overreliance on manual, low-skill labour, which is associated with substantial food loss along the supply chain. The gap provides an opportunity for system integration. Toronto farmers have to be trained and incentivised to adopt relevant technologies for food production. For instance, sensors can be used in soil monitoring, post-harvest storage, process control, and logistics monitoring (Diez et al. 2021). Sharing sensor data can enhance the real-time tracking and management of regional food production. The approach will ultimately improve collaboration between Toronto farmers while leveraging the benefits of big data. The immediate implication is an improved understanding of the opportunities, constraints and limits of Toronto’s food system.


Toronto is Canada’s most populous urban area, and the city region is experiencing increasing food insecurity following the coronavirus pandemic. The province has a strong public health sector that has matched food production and demand over the years. However, with the expanding population and lack of surplus food, Toronto’s food system will not be able to meet the needs of the future generation. Enhanced food localisation is required for the food supply to remain stable. Agricultural stakeholders are encouraged to maintain and improve local family farming while advocating for changes in food consumption behaviours to ensure the long-term viability of the agri-food sector. The improvements should centre on increased mechanisation, stakeholder collaboration, expansion of structural infrastructures and consumer education. Toronto and its wider city region provide an ideal opportunity to test the viability of the sustainability measures.


Belik, W. (2020). Sustainability and food security after COVID-19: Relocalizing food systems. Agricultural and Food Economics, 8(23).

Diez, J., Goncalves, C., Grispoldi, L. & Saraiva, C. (2021). Determining food stability to achieve food security. Sustainability Journal, 13(7222).

Holden, N., White, E., Lange, M. & Oldfield, T. (2018). Review of the sustainability of food systems and transition using internet of food. NPJ Science of Food, 2(18).

Lindgren, E., Harris, F., Dangour, A. D., Gasparatos, A., Hiramatsu, M., Javadi, F., Loken, B., Murakami, T., Scheelbeek, P., & Haines, A. (2018). Sustainable food systems-a health perspective. Sustainability Science, 13(6), 1505–1517.

Miller, S. & Palmer, B. (2018). Synthesis report: Assessment and planning of the Toronto city region food system. RUAF Foundation.

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