This past March, the Conference Board of Canada launched its Canadian Food Strategy at the 3rd annual Canadian Food Summit in Toronto. That Canada needs a national food strategy is largely agreed upon. Canadians are relying on food banks in ever-increasing numbers and the rate of diet-related diseases continues to rise, while fewer and fewer people are cooking at home.
People are also becoming far more aware of how conventional agriculture is impacting the environment. Agriculture contributes hugely to greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn contribute to climate change, ultimately having a detrimental impact on farmers who have to deal with increasing incidents of extreme weather.
A national food strategy – especially a progressive one with a strong environmental focus – could go a long way to solving some of Canada’s more pressing food problems. It could provide support and incentives for farmers switching to organic, create consistency in how sustainable farming methods are being implemented, and offer a step-by-step, goal-oriented plan for that implementation. From a food security and nutrition perspective, a national strategy could support food access as an important piece of city planning and provide stability and consistency for student nutrition programs. These are just some of a wide range of benefits a progressive national food strategy could provide.
Unfortunately, the Conference Board’s strategy is not that.
The Canadian Food Strategy presents five key elements for consideration: industry prosperity, healthy food, food safety, household food security and environmental sustainability. Overall they’re not bad elements. That ‘industry prosperity’ receives top billing is problematic, but the other four elements are sound.
The strategy is further broken down into eight goals, and here is where the obvious favouring of industry prosperity is most obvious. It secures three of the eight supporting goals: (1) the food sector is viable and prosperous; (2) the food sector is innovative competitive and growing; and (3) up-to-date policies, laws and regulations address food industry and household interests. It is notably the only element to garner any attention for policies, laws, and regulations.
Industry prosperity in and of itself is not necessarily an unworthy element. Farmers across Canada continue to face mounting debt and ensuring that farmers are receiving a fair slice of the industry pie is important. One of the constant struggles faced by food activists is the balance of ensuring affordable access to food without creating more farmer debt. But this struggle is not adequately addressed by the Conference Board. Much of their concentration on industry prosperity revolves around increasing global trade, removing barriers to trade and focusing on research and development to increase production yields. Localism is given only brief consideration as a niche market rather than as a vital piece of a sustainable food system that needs to be expanded and developed.
Most of the environmentally-focused action strategies are solid. They mention using food waste as a source of compost and bio-energy, as well as minimizing waste at the harvesting and production level. Several items focus on improving water management, reducing soil contaminants and protecting agricultural land from development. Ecosystem conservation and sustainable fishing practices also make appearances. All of these actions are needed to create a more sustainable food system.
Unfortunately, none of the environmental actions are mentioned in the implementation portion of the document except in examining organic as a case study for market-driven change. Relying on customer demand to drive food production changes will likely be too little, too late. Customer purchasing behaviour is important, and does have the ability to drive change, but it can’t be the only factor driving change or nothing significant will happen with any speed, efficiency or even consistency.
The main problem with most of the strategy is that many of the suggested actions fail to take into consideration the fact that dominant industry has been the cause of many of the food problems now being addressed. It attempts to present itself as an integrated approach, but by concentrating on profits, the reformulation of existing food products and new technology, it not only ignores how those factors have been damaging in the past, but turns a blind eye to sustainable solutions that already exist.
Additionally, many of the action items are geared towards individual consumer behaviour rather than changes that would be more effective at a government policy level. Placing the onus of responsibility for health, food security and sustainability on individuals is not nearly as effective as having laws, regulations and policies in place to support the necessary behavioural changes.
While the Canadian Food Strategy at least demonstrates that food issues are receiving increased attention from the food industry, Canada will need a much more holistic, progressive and environmentally-focused plan to effect any significant and lasting changes.
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