How can governments foster healthier national diets while contributing to long-term global food security, promoting sustainable food systems and still competing in international markets? Here are some possibilities for a national food strategy
1) Minister(s) of food
Right now, responsibility for food and agriculture is split between federal and provincial governments and varying departments. Affirming that access to food is a human right, a federal minister of food would liaise between these often-competing offices: agriculture, health, environment, fisheries, industry and foreign affairs. A board of citizens from varying backgrounds - industry, farmers, academics, nutritionists, sustainability experts, economists and trade veterans - would advise the minister. This structure would be mirrored in each provincial government to ensure a true national focus on food.
A win for: food movement, consumers, government
Neutral for: agribusiness (with possible short-term pain)
2) Community food centres
As proposed by Nick Saul, a Toronto-based community-food innovator, a combination of government and private funding would support a national network of community-food centres that would operate like a food division of the public library. The centres' mandate would be to improve food literacy among adults and youth with cooking classes, gardening workshops, compost crash courses, nutritional advice and specialized seminars for farmers (in rural areas, this might resemble the agriculture extension services popularized in the United States) - as well as supplying hampers of healthy food to the needy. Reconnecting people with real food would lead to long-term decreases in health-care costs for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
A win for: food movement, consumers, government (with some bottom-line discomfort)
Neutral for: agribusiness
3) Food at school
Canada is the only Group or Eight country without a government-funded school lunch program. Providing healthy school lunches (a job best fit for Jamie Oliver) could fit into a broader food-education program that aims to explain why the best food doesn't come from the drive-through. Students would learn from their earliest years where food comes from, how it is grown (with the help of on-site greenhouses) and how to prepare it. To graduate, students would need to be able to cook a week's worth of recipes.
A win for: consumers, government, food movement, smaller farmers (with some short-term budget adjustment for school boards)
A loss for: the fast-food industry, and possibly large agribusiness
4) Risk management that works
Programs designed to help farmers buffer against risk are out of control: Canada spends 70 per cent of its agriculture money helping farmers stay afloat. About half our farms would go under without income support. Canadians deserve a farm-support system that rewards productivity rather than mediocrity with innovative, regionally specific strategies. That doesn't mean turning our back on small farmers. It means allowing economics to take care of farmers that aren't the cream of the crop.
A win for: government (a big win), consumers, the food movement (with some short-term pain)
Mixed for: agribusiness - there will be some winners and some losers
5) A boost for young farmers
The future of farming in Canada depends on young farmers entering the profession. But taxes are high, quota shares are expensive, capital needs are intense and loans are tough to come by. Farm succession could be eased by implementing tax breaks for young farmers taking over the family operation, as well as preferential loan rates and debt-repayment options for those who demonstrate productivity. Their chances of success would be boosted through regular access to agriculture experts, technology and skill-building assets.
A win for: the food movement, government (with some expense), agribusiness (with short-term pain)
Neutral for: consumers
6) Return to R&D
The past 30 years have seen well-documented declines in agriculture-research investment. Canada risks falling behind if money isn't put back into pure, public research. But it should be done more economically than before: Cross-country research clusters could foster collaboration between government, industry and academia. The results would enable a more focused food-aid policy for Canadians to contribute to improving agriculture around the world.
A win for: agribusiness, government
Neutral for: food movement, consumers
7) Sustainability subsidies
Farmers, food producers and retailers need incentives to make their operations more sustainable. There's a whole menu of options that apply, from economizing the use of water and natural resources to switching to farming practices that reduce soil erosion and increase carbon sequestering. Heavy-hitting retailers should be encouraged to lean on suppliers to switch to sustainable ingredient sources (think Loblaw's and seafood), less-harmful packaging and more local food when it is in season.
A win for: government, food movement, consumers (long term)
A loss for: agribusiness, retailers, consumers (short term)
8) Traceable food safety
Canada needs a system that can trace the supply chain across all sectors and reduce the impact of food-related outbreaks. Industry has been leading a slow push to improve traceability, but governments need to chip in with national standards and partial funding. A truly national system would not only mean safer food at home, but it would give Canadian producers a serious brand advantage abroad.
A win for: consumers, food movement
Mixed for: agribusiness - short-term loss, long-term win; government - short-term expense, long-term win
9) Fairer trade
Canadians need a fuller picture of how trade agreements affect domestic producers. In some areas, it would make sense to ensure that imports comply with domestic rules on pesticides, hormones, animal welfare, organics, labour, etc. Balance export exposure against domestic production for Canadian consumption.
A win for: food movement, consumers
A loss for: agribusiness
Mixed for: government
10) Institutional procurement
Procurement policies in all government-funded institutions should increase the offering of healthy, non-processed food produced in Canada - from offices to Parliament, hospitals, schools, prisons, military bases, seniors homes and other institutions. The driving force of this is not supporting local farmers, but ensuring food that is whole, fresh, relatively unprocessed, grown sustainably and reflects Canada's nutritional needs.
A win for: food movement, consumers
Mixed for: agribusiness, government (expenses)