Why a new national strategy on food can't satisfy all
Photo illustration: The Globe and Mail
The Liberal government has promised to create Canada's first-ever national food policy. But, as Ann Hui writes, with diverse demands from agriculture groups, the food industry and environmental advocates, it has a lot on its plate
In a darkened theatre at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto recently, hundreds of activists, environmentalists and academics gathered to discuss what they would like to see in Canada's first-ever national food policy.
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election victory last year came a promise to introduce such a policy. And that morning in Toronto, the woman who had brought everyone together, Diana Bronson, stood onstage impressing its significance on the crowd.
Ms. Bronson, the executive director of Food Secure Canada, rattled off a long list of issues: poverty and social injustice, climate change and the environment, obesity and diet-related disease. "Food policy can help us solve some of the most intractable problems we are facing as a country, and as a planet," she said.
After that, it was time for Greg Meredith, the man whose job it will be to put together the long-awaited policy, to take the stage.
Mr. Meredith, an assistant deputy minister at Agriculture Canada who will chair the committee that works on the policy, approached the mic. "Thank you," he said, gesturing at Ms. Bronson, "for raising expectations so high that it's impossible for me to do my job."
If Mr. Meredith is feeling pressure, it's no wonder. For years, groups like Ms. Bronson's have lobbied for such a policy, arguing that it could help address issues such as food insecurity in Canada's North and the rising cost of food. And, because food touches so many areas – agriculture, the environment, health and international trade – they say it could bring under one umbrella the many piecemeal programs that currently exist under different departments.
The anticipation built up from those lobbying efforts, coupled with an unprecedented level of public interest in all things related to food, means that now that the government has agreed to create the policy, expectations are sky-high.
More than anything, the Food Secure Canada event illustrated the deep divisions and entrenched ideologies that have evolved over food – divisions Mr. Meredith's group will be left to contend with. That morning alone, presenters called for a national food policy that will address issues including foreign influence over farms, urban food deserts, and racial inequality and injustices in our temporary farm worker programs. More than one speaker demanded "structural and systemic change."
All of this to say that Mr. Meredith and his colleagues have their work cut out for them. Using the very broad guidelines set out for them in the Prime Minister's mandate letter to Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, their objective will be to craft a policy that will satisfy an extremely diverse set of stakeholders – everyone from food growers, processors and retailers, to environmentalists and activists – that isn't watered down and ineffective.
"The biggest challenge to developing a national food policy is that people want to do too many things," said Peter Andrée, who teaches about food politics at Carleton University. "And there's the risk that it doesn't really do anything."
First, they will have to figure out what the policy is meant to achieve.
Mr. Trudeau's mandate letter last year asked Mr. MacAulay to "develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier this year, the Agriculture Minister did not offer details other than to say he was "very pleased" to take on the challenge. Consultations are set to begin in the new year, and it's not yet known when a draft policy will be unveiled, though it is expected before the end of this term of government.
But in Mr. Meredith's presentation at the Food Secure Canada event, he revealed the four key areas on which his committee plans to focus: food security, the environment, sustainable growth in the food and agriculture sector, and health.
As one of the few countries that can not only feed its own population but also export food, Canada has "an enormous economic opportunity … but also almost a moral obligation for the country to produce and trade and sell food to the rest of the world when we're one of the few countries who can do so," he said.
In an interview, Mr. Meredith said he remained undaunted after the event. "The diversity of ideas is never a bad thing," he said. "Yes, there are expectations that people will have about the impact of food policy that may or may not be met. It can't be all things to all people because it'll be a lowest common denominator."
In crafting a policy, he said, his team will look to the proposals already brought forward in recent years by different groups.
But even those reports represent vastly divergent views. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture's "National Food Strategy," focused on farm incomes and promoting local food, while the Conference Board of Canada's "Canadian Food Strategy" – funded in part by companies such as Heinz and Loblaw – emphasized industry prosperity. The FSC "People's Food Policy," meanwhile, includes ideas such as phasing out genetically modified crops and bowing out of food and agriculture-related agreements with the World Trade Organization.
There are at least a few outside examples Canada can look to, including attempts by Scotland and Ireland in recent years to create national policies. Both of those initiatives, however, were focused largely on increasing agricultural production and promoting local industries.
Another challenge Mr. Meredith's team is likely to face relates to jurisdiction. He said staff at Agriculture Canada plan on creating a "joined-up" policy that will work collaboratively with other federal departments, such as Health Canada and Environment Canada.
But many provinces and even cities have in place policies that address different aspects of food. Though Mr. Meredith said he was optimistic about working together, they could pose a stumbling block.
Still, some say any kind of a united, long-term policy will be a step in the right direction – that action is better than no action.
Ron Bonnett, president of the CFA, said he attended the Food Secure Canada event in Toronto, and was skeptical about some of the "negative feelings" expressed onstage about commercial agriculture. But he remains hopeful that there is common ground – for example, an agreement on the importance of healthy, local food.
"I'm not suggesting it's not going to be difficult," he said. "But there are some easy wins we can work on."
Mr. Meredith also was optimistic. "I've learned there's actually more common ground and more common interest than not if you just stop and listen."
One of the last panelists to speak that morning was Jan Slomp, president of the National Farmers Union, which represents smaller-scale farmers. For 10 minutes, Mr. Slomp spoke out against industrial agriculture, blaming the government for a string of disastrous food policies and accusing Ottawa of enabling foreign entities to take control of the food system.
A short distance away sat Mr. Meredith, listening intently. As soon as Mr. Slomp returned to his seat, the senior bureaucrat reached out, and the pair shook hands.
Photo illustration: The Globe and Mail
What others have done
Canada is not the only country that has attempted to create a national food policy. Here are some of the models the federal government may look to in crafting its strategy:
Six years ago, Ireland unveiled its Food Harvest 2020 plan, aimed at increasing its food output by €1.5-billion, or 33 per cent, in time for 2020. The strategy was led in large part by Ireland's own food industry, and included input from researchers at the Harvard Business School.
The policy set out specific targets, including boosting milk production by 50 per cent and increasing the value of the beef industry by 20 per cent.
Under its national food and drink policy, launched in 2009, the Scottish government worked alongside the industry in hopes of increasing sales to £12.5-billion by 2017 from £7.5-billion in 2007. It met that target six years early, and has now set a new target of £16.5-billion by 2017.
It also invested in a widespread marketing campaign, branding Scotland as a "Land of Food and Drink," as well as spending tens of millions of dollars in grants toward research and development in the food sector. The government also spent £56-million on a "Healthy Eating, Active Living" marketing campaign aimed at consumers to improve diets and increase physical activity.
In 2010, Britain's then-Labour government unveiled a comprehensive plan called Food 2030, which looked at promoting healthy diets, encouraging sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in food production, reducing waste and investing in technology.
The plan was set aside with the election of a Conservative government in favour of a new 25-year plan, its intent to "up the country's ambitions for food and farming, setting out how we can grow more, buy more and sell more British food."
Photo illustration: The Globe and Mail
A wish list for food
Assistant deputy agriculture minister Greg Meredith says bureaucrats will look at work already done by some organizations that have put together proposals for a national food policy. Here are some of these groups' main priorities:
Conference Board of Canada
The 2014 "Canadian Food Strategy" was funded in part by large food companies such as Heinz Canada, Maple Leaf Foods and Nestlé Canada, and rests on the premise that industry success is the "engine that can fuel our progress" on other food issues.
As such, the plan calls for a number of initiatives to facilitate such success, including improving exporters' access to international markets, building a "Canada Brand" for local food, increasing private- and public-sector research in technology and streamlining regulations for the food industry.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture
This 2013 plan from the CFA, which represents farmers across the country, was born out of a frustration that the federal government was failing to set long-term plans regarding agriculture and farming.
Many of the recommendations from this plan revolve around promoting local food and securing farm incomes. Some of these recommendations include asking public-sector institutions, as well as restaurants and retailers, to increase their use of Canadian-grown products by 2 per cent each year, creating a "Canadian-grown" food labelling system and increasing funding for food research by 10 per cent each year.
Food Secure Canada
The organization's plan, released in 2011, represents a diverse group of activists, community workers and environmentalists, and focuses in large part on social justice issues related to food.
Among the report's recommendations: land reform and redistribution to "heal and rebuild relationships between Indigenous people and stakeholders," improving access to food in urban communities, shifting toward community-based agriculture, phasing out genetically modified crops, and removing food and agriculture from agreements with the World Trade Organization.