Is 2016 the year Canada will develop a national food strategy?

As Canada’s federal politicians enjoy their last few weeks of vacation before Parliament returns Jan. 25, speculation is brewing about what priorities and issues the newly elected Liberals will tackle upon their return.

Developing a national food strategy is one issue that could make its way onto the government’s agenda in the coming year, at least when it comes to agriculture.

The speculation stems from specific instructions agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay received from prime minister Justin Trudeau in November.

In his mandate letter, Trudeau asked MacAulay to craft “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.”

Specifics about what that policy would look like or how it would be developed have not been re-leased, but its mention in MacAulay’s mandate letter is enough to put any conversations about a national food strategy on agriculture’s radar.

Still, Trudeau’s instructions to MacAulay are surprising.

The Liberals have said publicly they are in favour of a national food strategy, but there was no mention of creating such a policy in the party’s recent election platform, which talked instead about investing in research, food processing and food safety.

Developing a national food strategy is not a new idea, nor is it a new political promise. After all, all five of Canada’s main political parties have at one point or another said they were in favour of the policy plank.

The previous Conservative government even campaigned on the idea during the 2011 federal election, with former agriculture minister Gerry Ritz promising his ministerial counterparts at their annual federal-provincial-territorial meeting in July 2011 that a strategy would come to fruition within the year.

It never did.

In the years since, several industry groups, including the Conference Board of Canada and the federal NDP, have drafted their own versions of the policy. All aim, in some way or another, to reconnect Canadians with where their food comes from while addressing the growing complexities of the industry’s supply chains.

At its most basic, a national food strategy is a long-term plan for a country’s food industry. The goal is to establish domestic food security, often while protecting the environment and acknowledging agriculture’s economic contributions.

Food safety, infrastructure, education, health, climate change, innovation, research, home economics, government policy and community engagement have all been mentioned as potential pillars in a national food strategy.

Some countries, such as Australia, have already developed national food strategies, while concerns about global food security have repeatedly been raised by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. In 2009, it was estimated that one-sixth’s of the world’s population was food insecure.

Statistics Canada estimated in 2011-2012 that eight percent of Canadian households, or 1.1. million, were food insecure. Most of those households were home to children.

Food security was particularly pressing in Canada’s North, where all three territories recorded rates higher than the national average. Food insecurity in Nunavut was estimated at 36.7 percent In 2011-12, more than four times the national average.

The Liberals have promised to invest $40 million in the beleaguered Nutrition North program over four years to try and address these food concerns. Still, many say a permanent solution can be developed only in conjunction with a broader national food strategy.

In the coming weeks, the hustle and bustle will return to Ottawa, committees will be named and priorities will be set. Parliamentary studies will be launched and meetings with stakeholders will resume. Perhaps conversations around a national food strategy will make their way into the mix.

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