Gordon Bacon is urging the federal government to think differently about agriculture and climate change.
Instead of a simplistic and punitive tax on carbon, Canada needs a food policy that addresses a broad swath of issues, including health care costs, environmental outcomes and economic prosperity.
Bacon, who is chief executive officer of Pulse Canada, said a narrow focus on farm practices and greenhouse gases is the wrong approach. More attention should be paid to consumers.
“Ingredient production (at the farm) is looking at only one variable. We also need to look at what people choose to eat and how the food they eat can be formulated and manufactured to reduce the (sector’s) contribution to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bacon, who spoke March 30 to the standing Senate committee on agriculture and forestry, which is studying the impacts of climate change on agriculture.
“We need to look at food solutions that are not only going to improve the health of the planet, but are also going to improve the health of the people.”
The committee his holding hearings on farming and climate change because the federal government and provinces are hashing out policies around greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told provinces to introduce a price for carbon or a cap and trade system by 2018. Otherwise, the feds will impose a price on carbon, starting at $10 a tonne of emissions in 2018 and rising to $50 a tonne by 2022.
The government is hoping a carbon tax encourages farmers to innovate and produce food with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Bacon was one of three industry representatives who addressed the Senate committee. Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl and Phil de Kemp of the Barley Council of Canada also spoke at the meeting.
Dahl and de Kemp emphasized familiar talking points within the ag sector:
• Other grain export countries and regions, such as Australia, the United States and Black Sea producers, don’t have a carbon tax, so Canadian farmers would be at a competitive disadvantage.
• Canadian growers have and are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through conversation tillage and precision use of crop inputs.
• Farmers should be compensated for carbon that they sequester in the soil.
• A carbon tax would curb growth in the ag sector, damaging a key driver of Canada’s economy.
Bacon mostly avoided those arguments. In his 50 minutes before the committee, he talked mostly about a food policy that is broader than penalizing methane from cows and nitrous oxide from the soil.
“Carbon pricing does not address issues like growing health care costs associated with the rising rates of obesity and the related diseases,” he said.
Instead, giving consumers tools to choose healthy and sustainable foods might make it possible to improve the health of Canadians, expand the economy and protect the environment.
Canada’s Food Guide is one potential information tool.
“The Swedish food guide says on page two, ‘what you eat isn’t just important to your own personal well-being, it’s important to the environment as well,’ ” Bacon said.
“We can calculate the greenhouse gas reduction that could be achieved through food reformulation and dietary innovation, through sourcing from sustainable cropping systems in Canada and encouraging companies and consumers to make informed choices.”
Industry leaders are already moving toward food that is healthy and sustainable.
Companies such as Unilever, Walmart and PepsiCo have adopted sustainability protocols, in which they will buy only grain, oilseeds and other ingredients from farmers who use less fertilizer and emit fewer greenhouse gases.
Yuen Pau Woo, a senator from B.C., challenged Bacon’s idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture through “moral suasion.”
Society and the environment would benefit if Canadians ate more peas, lentils and other healthy food that have minimal environmental impacts.
However, a carbon tax could push consumers in that direction.
“The price mechanism is the best way to get at changing consumer behaviour without making normative judgments about whether your meat diet is harming the planet,” Woo said.
“If we can capture all the (costs) of carbon emissions in the supply chain and have it show up in the price, it’s more likely to influence consumers than anything else.”
He said taxation is a blunt instrument. If Canadians would make different choices if they knew how a certain food affected the environment.
“I think we’re underestimating the ability of consumers to make informed (decisions),” he said.
“And we’re underestimating the role of government to provide leadership in a food transformation.”
Bacon said such a transformation could produce a new global brand for Canada, where the country is seen as the “healthy people, healthy planet food basket” for the world.
The country should act swiftly on a food policy that targets health, environmental and economic outcomes because it is 20 years behind other western nations, he added.