Creating national food policy will require give and take

Sometimes during an election, a candidate will choose an event at a farm or farmers market to solemnly state that Canada for too long has been without a national food policy.

Most voters will nod in agreement and applaud.

But the problem is that different people have different ideas of how a national food policy should look.

People’s vision of a food policy is influenced by whether they are primarily a food producer or a food consumer.

Prairie people will likely have a different perception than Eastern Canadians, and rural folk will likely envision something much different than city people.

An Alberta wheat farmer whose grain is shipped to dozens of countries around the world will have a different concept than an urban social worker concerned about poverty and urban food issues.

So it will be an interesting exercise when the Canadian Federation of Agriculture this week gathers 50 representatives from agriculture, public health, government, academia, indigenous groups, processors and others to add detail to Canada’s food policy goals.

An example of the different views that will likely come to the table are found in a recent Senate report, Market Access: Giving Canadian Farmers and Processors the World (PDF format), and a response from Food Secure Canada, an alliance of organizations and individuals working together to advance food security and food sovereignty.

The Senate report focused on Canada’s export-oriented agricultural sector, recommending elimination of trade barriers domestically and internationally and investment in infrastructure to get products to market.

Canadian wheat, canola, hog and cattle producers would likely agree wholeheartedly with everything in the Senate report.

But Food Secure Canada posted a response on its website that said the Senate report, while containing some useful suggestions, misses the need for a more fundamental discussion about Canadian agriculture.

“This blind drive and obsession towards export-oriented agriculture needs to stop,” the post stated.

The international market is an important part of Canada’s agriculture, but “we cannot forget the role of domestic markets, and the necessity of shifting to a more environmentally sustainable set of practices.”

It said that if Ontario substituted only 10 percent of imported fruits and vegetables with locally grown product, it would in-crease the province’s gross domestic product by $250 million and create thousands of jobs.

While there are opportunities to replace imports and the barriers to producing fruits, vegetables and other food for domestic consumption should be addressed, we can’t ignore natural competitive advantages.

Just because food has to be shipped some distance to market does not necessarily mean it is worse for the environment than food produced locally.

And the solutions to most problems of hunger, unhealthy diets and food affordability can be more readily found in poverty eradication and education than in food production policy.

The food policy path laid out by Food Secure Canada, with its themes of the right to food, sustainable diets, environment and climate resilience and inclusive and equitable growth through regional economies are well meaning, but we fear that they are too broad to build meaningful policy upon.

We are reminded of the moral of an Aesop fable: When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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