Food policy is a good start but must be taken further

Canada’s first attempt at a national food policy covers the foundation of the food supply, but it reads more like a check-off of an election promise than a roadmap to better nutrition for Canadians.

The Liberals’ election promise of creating a food policy has ostensibly been met with the announcement of the “ambitious initiative” earlier this month by Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

One could argue that tackling such a venture is ambitious, but what came out of it — not so much. Still, there are opportunities for progress.

The numbers show why a national food policy is important. Agriculture and agri-business contributes more than $110 billion annually to Canada’s gross domestic product. The sector employs more than 280,000 people, and is responsible for more than one in eight jobs in Canada. Food is the third-highest household expenditure after shelter and transportation.

Agriculture is also responsible for almost five percent of total exports. Canada is the fifth largest agricultural exporter in the world, with the lofty goal of becoming the second largest by 2025. And while exports may seem a bit abstract from Canada’s food consumption, many of the same producers responsible for exports also produce food for domestic consumption, lending to the economic viability of the sector.

The ministry says one in eight Canadian households do not have reliable access to enough “affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food,” so it makes sense for the health of Canadians and the Canadian economy that there is some sort of plan.

The policy was formed after consultations with 45,000 people and a myriad of groups, so we expected a bit of meat.

What we got is a skeleton — with funding of $134 million over five years — but its bones are generally worth fleshing out.

Key areas of focus are food security in northern and indigenous communities, reduction in food waste and the formation of a food advisory council.

The policy provides $15 million for training and small projects such as community freezers and greenhouses in the north. This is helpful, but spread among the vast region it’s not a gamechanger.

There is a little more than $26 million to address food waste. It’s good to see this recognized, because so much opportunity exists here. It’s estimated that 11 million tonnes of food, worth nearly $50 billion, are wasted every year, creating almost 57 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, and adding to the methane gas generated from landfills.

Food waste remains an under-addressed opportunity, yet progress out of this policy does not look to be ambitious.

There is funding for a buy-Canadian initiative, for local food efforts and for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to address accuracy in food labelling (an understated issue).

Overall, the policy sticks to laudable goals, but it avoids contentious issues such as genetically modified foods, gene-editing, organics, and meat consumption versus plant proteins. Where will all this fit in with Canada’s food plans?

Still, initiatives stemming from the food policy can pick up steam with a capable advisory council. It’s important that the composition of the council is science-based, and avoids politics. Members will likely include representation from the agriculture and food sector, health, academics, non-profits and indigenous organizations.

Producers should have important representation on this panel. Who knows more about feeding the nation? And care should be taken to include consumer input while avoiding overt activism.

Nominations for the council are being sought over the summer. Farm organizations should ensure the names of knowledgeable and forthright individuals are put forward.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.


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