Agriculture, health policy perfect fit: academics

A team of senior academics is proposing that agriculture policy be developed in concert with health policy in a way that increases demand for healthy Canadian food at home and abroad.

And the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, supported by government and industry, is interested enough in the idea to propose a national debate on the issue.

“The message for policy makers is clear,” CAPI president David McInnes said in a statement issued when the CAPI-commissioned study was published last week. “A co-ordinated and effective policy framework is required for health and agriculture and this is the basis to further engage producers, industry and researchers, among others, to bring about the benefits of convergence.”

In an Aug. 21 interview, McInnes said CAPI, created with Agriculture Canada seed money and housed in a departmental building, wants to organize a national debate on the issue.

“We want to ensure what we are doing is not just tabling interesting research but also being involved in influencing policy,” he said.

The report, “Building Convergence,” prepared by the McGill University-centred McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence argues that focusing agriculture policy on creation and promotion of healthy foods and good diets would help both farmers and the Canadian health care system.

“Canada can benefit tremendously by investing in an integrated health and agri-food strategy,” the report’s authors wrote. “Health care costs are rising and chronic disease and obesity are becoming more common. Lifestyle changes that encourage a better diet and exercise could significantly help combat these trends.”

Looking for answers

Meanwhile, as federal and provincial health ministers search for “innovative solutions to these diet-related challenges and rising health-care budgets,” agriculture ministers also are looking for some answers to persistent farm income problems and high government farm support spending.

The authors say farmers are looking for a way to make money without needing government payments to keep them from chronic losses.

“The costs to government are huge at a time when they are facing mounting pressure to reduce expenditures,” they wrote. “Both industry and government are looking for a different model.”

For agriculture, it suggests part of the solution could be putting greater emphasis on producing higher-value crops considered part of a healthy diet.

And the move toward traceability could be used to convince domestic and foreign buyers that Canadian food is part of a healthy lifestyle.

“I certainly think this could be a strategy for both domestic and export marketing,” said McInnes. “Emphasis and education on the health benefits of Canadian product could be a strong brand for Canadian exports.”

The report authors were: Laurette Dubé, a professor of consumer and lifestyle psychology and marketing at McGill University; McGill agricultural economist Paul Thomassin; McGill professor and former senior Health Canada food directorate official Janet Beauvais; and David Sparling, chair of agri-food innovation and regulation at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business.

They concluded a number of evolving factors in agriculture and consumer preferences make this an opportune time to consider linking health and agriculture strategies.

More consumers are interested in buying local food and this could be a boon to a low-income sector of Canadian agriculture.

“Supporting small agricultural producers is a balance between agricultural and rural social policy,” they wrote.

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