Feds’ national food policy called inadequate

An academic specializing in food issues says the policy announced in the federal budget is underfunded and unfocused

Details of Canada’s new national food policy are expected to be fleshed out over the next few years, but one expert says it needs more funding and better focus.

Sylvain Charlebois from Dalhousie University said he thinks the policy is more like a strategy.

“A policy will dictate what a government will or will not do,” he said. “A strategy is what everyone, all stakeholders, agree to prioritize and that is always linked to resources.”

The federal government has budgeted $134.4 million over five years beginning in 2020 to improve access to food, tackle food waste and promote Canadian food.

Charlebois said the amount of money is far below what Quebec is spending to implement its own food strategy.

“It’s basically 71 cents per Canadian every year supporting a food strategy/policy versus $6.55 in Quebec,” he said. “It’s not even close.”

He said the lack of meaningful funding toward a national policy indicates that agriculture and food is “irrelevant” to Ottawa.

“It’s an urban government and it struggles to fully understand or appreciate the agrifood sector’s contribution to the overall economy.”

But agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the policy contains different strategies to make healthy Canadian food available and affordable.

She said consultations on the policy heard from more than 45,000 Canadians and the government has responded.

She points to the pledge to develop a national school food program as an example of how partnerships with the provinces, as they are responsible for education, and private-sector organizations that are already providing such programs, could better feed Canadian children.

The program’s announcement came with no dollar value attached, leading to criticism that Canada continues to lag behind its G7 counterparts as the only one without a school meal program for low-income children.

“Obviously looking at food security for the indigenous communities in the North” is important, Bibeau said. “And there’s also a very important section for food waste.”

Charlebois said in keeping with the recent food guide announcement the government should be looking at how the agricultural landscape has to change and how to support that.

“If you’re asking people to eat more fruits and vegetables maybe you should think about growing some,” he said.

By the numbers, the government intends to spend, over five years, $50 million to support local food projects such as farmers markets and food banks, $25 million on a Buy Canadian campaign and $24.4 million to tackle food fraud.

It plans to invest another $100 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund on value-added production, $20 million on food waste reduction proposals in food processing, grocery retail and food service, and at least $15 million in the North on community initiatives, such as freezers and greenhouses.

Charlebois said a commitment to tackle food fraud is commendable.

“Twenty-four million dollars will help but in the grand scheme you’re looking at a problem worth anywhere between $10 to $30 billion,” he said. “It is an improvement but we’re going to have to really look at this problem much more seriously.”

The policy also includes the launch of a three-year immigration pilot project for full-time non-seasonal agricultural workers to gain permanent residency.

Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson, also chair of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, said labour limitations clearly fit into a national food policy.

She said primary producers can’t be sustainable or expand without access to workers.

“If we don’t have primary producers interested in investing in their businesses, we don’t need to have a food policy other than where will our food come from,” she said.

The pilot is available to producers and processors and will set aside 2,750 permanent residency positions each year, Robinson said.

“They’re going to be looking at people with at least a year of Canadian work experience, so this is going to be creating an opportunity to transition skilled temporary foreign workers into permanent ag careers in Canada.”

The types of work included in a program like this would be lower-skilled jobs such as mushroom harvesters and meat cutters.

Charlebois added he was surprised at the largely positive messages coming from the agriculture industry on the federal budget as a whole.

“Overall for the ag sector it was an underwhelming budget,” he said.

Food processors received “peanuts” he said, and there was no funding to help agricultural exporters reach the goal of $85 billion by 2025.

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