New talks planned to develop national food strategy

As the federal government prepares to launch consultations on a new national food policy, industry and citizen groups appear to have beaten them to it.


On June 5, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture plans to bring about 50 representatives together from the food and public health sector, including academics, government representatives, MPs, Indigenous groups, civil society groups, dietitians, food processors, primary producers, input providers, and possibly retailers.


CFA president Ron Bonnett said the goal is to add detail to food policy goals they hold in common.


Those areas of commonality were identified at a March meeting in Guelph convened by Food Secure Canada, Maple Leaf Foods and the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.


The government policy is expected to cover not only agriculture and food production but also food-related issues to do with health, nutrition, food security and the environment.


Consultation would involve not only feedback from people involved in those sectors but also the general public and consumers.


At the March meeting, there was discussion about the need to develop a national food strategy, a process rather than a policy, a document to manage the diverse interests, Bonnett said. 


There also seemed to be consensus around the table that someone needs to be in charge.


“If nobody’s in charge, it’s likely not going to go somewhere. So (at the June meeting) we’re taking a look at who is going to try and set the direction and how do we ensure that we get the right mix of individuals around the table to make sure it can move ahead.” 


Convincing the government to adopt cross-departmental approaches to dealing with food issues is yet another shared goal. 


Right now, lack of connection between government departments creates challenges for many groups. Bonnett used the example of Agriculture Canada wanting to expand agricultural exports but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the regulatory system creating roadblocks.


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“We also have to take a look at how do we engage provincial and municipal governments,” he said.


In recent years, national groups have tried to convince the government to establish a food policy, including the CFA, Food Secure Canada, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and the Conference Board of Canada.


Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, which represents groups such as the National Farmers Union, the Canada Organic Trade Association, Dietitians of Canada, United Church of Canada and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, said the decision to hold preliminary discussions independent of government consultations came about because the discussion hadn’t been moving fast enough.


“There is a lot of support for a national food policy,” she said.


Like Bonnett, Bronson noted that breaking down barriers between government departments would likely be one of the benefits of the policy, and a top priority. 


From the development of Canada’s Food Guide and Nutrition North Canada subsidy program to the finalization of the latest agricultural policy framework, the number of food initiatives underway are many and they’re being led by different departments.


Without an overarching framework in place, no integration takes place and government departments and different levels of government work at cross-purposes, she said. 


“Now under Minister (Jane) Philpott there is serious work going on around a healthy eating strategy and reforming Canada’s Food Guide, but if that just goes off in its own direction and never talks to people who are producing the food, then we’re not getting maximum bang for our buck.”


Areas of consensus, however, appear to be fragile and narrow. 


Bonnett expressed concern about policy being influenced too much by social issues that are not necessarily about food production. Each is a component of the whole discussion, he said. 


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Bronson noted that recent enthusiasm about agriculture being identified as a potential growth sector for the country’s economy is taking “the wind out of the sails” of other areas of focus for the food policy such as equity, health and environmental concerns.


“It’s really, really important that that not happen.” 


Even within groups differences of opinion exist. 


Jan Slomp, president of the National Farmers Union, said his organization wants protection of farm income. Slomp said he’s worried that his organization’s priority may fall by the wayside as compromises are made to get the policy through.


Bronson said some form of income guarantee for farmers is important. She also said to expect compromises and fights along the way. 


But much of misunderstanding is lack of communication, she said. Groups need to sit down face-to-face and build relationships. 


“Right now I’m still very hopeful.” Bronson said senior officials from 12 departments including the Prime Minister’s Office have formed a committee chaired by Agriculture Canada. The group has prioritized areas or themes that were presented at a Food Secure Canada meeting in October. These include food security, the environment, sustainable growth of agriculture and food production and health.


She anticipated the government would roll out public consultations soon. 


Patrick Girard, a spokesperson with the agriculture department, said by email in mid-May that broad public consultations “to gather input of Canadians and stakeholders in the development of this policy” would be held this year.


Establishing a national food policy was one of the priorities Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlined to MacAulay in a 2015 mandate letter. 


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Bonnett noted that the first policy would be unlikely to affect the new agricultural policy framework that will come into effect next year. It will, however, have an impact on future policy frameworks as well as the way governments deal with issues.