Canada’s first food policy is pointless

After more than two years of work and hearing from almost 45,000 Canadians, Agriculture Canada has released its first ever food policy.

A total of $134 million will be spent to support this five-year plan that centres around four major pillars: food security, health, environment, and the sustainable growth of the agriculture and food sector.

These are noble goals, but the policy by itself is an affront to anyone who considers our agri-food sector to be the cornerstone of our economy.

The budget is underwhelming at less than $4 per capita and is expected to cover an endless wish list before going to the electorate.

Meanwhile, a new food strategy was introduced in Quebec last year in which $349 million was set aside to support the province’s ambitions. That’s $40 per capita, 10 times more than Ottawa. Quebec’s approach was strategic, systematic, and engaging and offered specifics in terms of goals and benchmarks.

Even though Ottawa opted to go with a policy and not a strategy, the framework presented was incredibly short on details.

The new food policy does not provide a vision or focus for our agri-food sector and it avoids addressing major issues in the sector, like labelling of genetically modified organisms, the use of pesticides, and the future of our supply management scheme. It does not suggest that Canada should focus on certain commodities more than others, given what lies ahead with produce and vegetable proteins.

The new policy offers no support for the development of impactful value chains. Food processing appears to hardly be on Agriculture Canada’s radar. Value chains are used to guide high-impact and sustainable initiatives, and the growth of small and medium food processors in the sector. That is where most innovation and economic growth is typically generated.

Any nation should aspire to control its food value chains, but Canada currently does not.

Maple Leaf Foods is building a $300 million facility in the United States for its plant-based protein manufacturing, using Canadian ingredients, and will likely sell its products back to Canada. This is shameful. A strong food policy would at least give Canada a shot as a viable option for a respectable company like Maple Leaf Foods.

The policy’s social justice undertone makes it look like a wish list for small-scale community groups. Community freezers, gardens galore — these are cute ideas but are measures that won’t help Canada become an agri-food powerhouse. There is no downside to supporting these groups, but Canada needs much more. As a strong advocate for a National Food Policy Council, Food Secure Canada got its wish but nobody really knows what this council will actually do, what authority it will have, or what the scope of its membership will be. This policy appears to be about checking a box of an election promise made a while back, just for the sake of it.

Our agri-food sector deserves better.

The policy does outline some important initiatives. A comprehensive Feeding the North program and the development of a Made in Canada brand for Canadians are long overdue. Labelling products that are made in Canada will also be critical, but with the success of several provincially based programs like FoodLand Ontario and les Aliments du Québec, Ottawa is coming late to the game.

In the end, this is a policy hardly any Canadian will care about, not necessarily for its lack of relevancy but rather for its potential reach and potential impact.

Sylvain Charlebois is director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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