New food policy should include input from agricultural experts

To make good decisions, you need good information.

Decisions or policies made with limited information or diversity of input often fail when they meet the real world.

The Liberal government’s recent attempt at tax reform is a prime example. A superficially attractive desire to make the tax system fairer crashed when it became clear that it would cause great damage to many small businesspeople, including farmers.

Clearly, that terrible policy was created in a single silo without adequate information.

Another policy under development is the revamp of the Canada Food Guide.

The food guide might seem trivial — an elementary school lesson soon forgotten or a colourful poster in a medical office.

However, the guide is important. It is a foundation, a set of guiding principles that influence menus, medical and health advice and government policy.

We’ve all heard the adage “you are what you eat.” And for many, we don’t like what we have become. Too many Canadians are overweight or obese. Diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are killing us.

To change ourselves, we need to change what we eat, and that is a prime motivator for the new food guide.

The first version of the food guide came out in 1942 and was last updated 10 years ago. Our understanding of how our bodies react to the food we eat is constantly evolving. Health Canada, the department responsible for the food guide, wants it to reflect the latest research.

Recognizing the fundamental role of food in who and what we are, Health Canada has appropriately established a public consultation process.

Also, given the huge part of the economy that is based on food production, processing and retailing, Health Canada wants the consultation to be transparent and free from conflicts of interest.

That is a worthy goal, but surely policy should have input from other departments. In this case, Agriculture Canada, which deals directly with food producers, would be a prime contributor.

However, a story produced by the Globe and Mail last week, which details interaction between Health Canada and Agriculture Canada on the food guide file, leaves the impression that input from Agriculture Canada is unwanted interference.

The implication is that Health Canada is good and pure and Agriculture Canada is in the pocket of evil industry. However, we know this is unfair. Bureaucrats in all departments are human with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. They might know a lot, but they can’t know everything.

They have prejudices and preconceived notions, and these can influence the direction of the food guide, especially when the process says up front that the environmental impact of food production should be a consideration in the guide’s design.

Given that most Canadians, even Health Canada scientists, have a poor understanding of modern agriculture and its success in reducing farming’s environmental footprint, we would be uneasy if guidance from agricultural experts was ignored.

We also suggest that the best contribution the government could make to health would be to promote a simple message encouraging Canadians to eat less junk food and highly processed meals and to instead eat a diversity of whole foods that they prepare themselves and enjoy in the company of family and friends.

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

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