Quest to brand Canadian food draws industry-wide interest

A recent two-day forum explored how Canada’s policy framework needs to change to better measure performance

Canada2020’s David McInnes has a tough time hiding his excitement when talking about the future of food in the country.

Over a two-day event in Ottawa, numerous speakers and delegates brought forward suggestions of how to shape the next agri-food policy agenda as part of the Canada Food Brand project.

“There’s been a tremendous refocus on priorities, driven by the market place and society,” he says. “In the last several years, trust has come up a lot. Sustainability has come up, but I think it is intensifying.”

That intensity is being driven in part by the realities of climate change and the changing demands of consumers.

To him, and others at the event, that refocus creates opportunities. Investors are interested, and were in attendance, in putting up the dollars to support the long-term success of Canadian-branded food.

“We’ve seen an evolution. What does that mean for policy? What does that mean with how we compete? These are some of the ideas we’re looking at exploring,” he says.

Already Canada has a strong agri-food sector, ranking high in global measures of food safety performance.

Industry has the capacity to respond to the opportunities presented by challenges facing it, such as climate change and changing consumer demands.

“The opportunity is, how do we document and leverage that response so that we can present Canada’s positive food brand to the Canadian consumer and to consumers abroad, so we can take advantage of what we’re doing, and so we can step up where we may not be doing enough,” says McInnes.

In the hunt for that leverage, Canada2020’s Food Brand Project met with 300 stakeholders determined to find a different set of benchmarks to judge the performance of the industry, focusing on criteria based on things like sustainability, which is measured by economic, environmental and social impacts.

In the absence of such criteria, organizations outside of Canada will make those judgments. In many instances, they already do. For example, there are third-party validators for responsible beef production practices, and companies measuring what is certified sustainable seafood.

This is part of the core of everything being done by the Food Brand project.

Don Buckingham, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, says those benchmarks can only be found if players from across the value chain take a broad approach.

“To really crack this nut, we’re going to have to get together and do systems-wide thinking and these kinds of opportunities, where you have people who are producers, policy makers, government regulators, they will have to talk to each other to get out of the silos and into the systems’ analysis,” he says.

Already there is widespread agreement the conversation around sustainability and its benefits to Canada’s international food brand is changing.

“For a long time, there was mistrust, even saying the word environmental if you were in a producer context. I think that was from a lack of understanding of where the two sides are coming from,” Buckingham said.

“Now there is no question producers understand they have to sell things and they have to make sure they are meeting some kind of consumer demand, but at the same time consumers are not always fully aware of what they want, and if they can understand what some of the ramifications of their choices will be on environmental sustainability, on economic sustainability.”

A policy agenda is expected to emerge from all of this, with the next step scheduled to take place in Toronto in early December.

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