Canada’s Food System Needs An Overhaul

The federal and provincial governments should encourage farmers to ramp up production this year to take advantage of strong prices but also help ease tight world stocks of grain and other commodities, says the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

They issued reports in early February urging gover nments to act quickly to remove impediments to increased food production. In the coming weeks, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Conference Board of Canada will issue details on their National Food Strategies, which will recommend ways to bolster Canadian farm and food industry output.

The CAPI report , entitled the Canadian Agri-Food Destination, says Canada’s status as a leading food supplier has slipped in recent years because of falling profitability, lost opportunity, and declining relevance.

“We need to work differently within the food system and we need to work differently within policy,” said CAPI president David McInness in an interview.

For example, the report notes that farmers and ranchers have lost money from the market seven times in the last 10 years. “Funding programs are not resolving what is causing such chronic unprofitability. A new approach to risk management is required.”

The report recommends what McInness calls a less “farm-centric” focus on agricultural support programs and more emphasis on a food systems approach to business risk management.

It wants a gradual shift away from financing farm support programs towards increased spending on research. A 10 per cent reduction in business risk management funding would result in a 50 per cent increase in research funds.

As well, food imports are rising and Canada’s export status is slipping. Health-care funding is fast reaching a crisis.

“Some 70 per cent of provincial budgets could be consumed by health costs in several short years,” the report says, noting many of those costs will be to treat diseases that can be controlled by diet.

Environmental challenges are looming and government expenditures on research have waned. “Government’s total expenditure on research and development (including agriculture) has fallen from some 35 per cent to nine per cent since the 1970s, relative to all R and D funding in Canada. After years of growth, business R and D has declined steadily by some eight per cent since 2001.”

“Current policies and practices across the sector, and fear of changing the status quo, are holding Canada back. This is in vivid contrast to what Canada needs to achieve in order to provide the higher quality and volume of product demanded by a growing world population and increasingly aware consumers both in Canada and abroad,” the report says.

CAPI sets out specific targets to achieve by 2025:

Double Canada’s dollar value of agri-food exports to $75 billion, up from $38.8 billion;

Produce and supply 75 per cent of our own food up from 68 per cent;

Generate revenue and efficiency by relying on biomaterials and biofuels in 75 per cent of the agri-food sector.

Rising international food prices and demand creates “a massive opportunity for the country’s agri-food industry to maximize its natural advantages of climate, geography and skills,” the report says.

“Canada can be the world’s leading producer of nutritious and safe foods produced in a sustainable, profitable manner. This would pack a competitive punch that few other countries in the world can match.”

Governments and the farm and food sector need to have a dialogue about creating “the most successful good food systems on the planet to deliver on our potential over the next 15-20

years. … We have the potential to change our approach and make a profound contribution to a changing food world.”

As well, the CAPI report calls on the federal government to put in place a Cabinet Committee on Food to co-ordinate policies and regulations for food systems to ensure they are profitable, nutritious and sustainable.

This is a marked departure from previous policies, which have been focused on keeping food prices low, labelled by some as a “cheap food policy.”

“Our focus on policy is not on what we define as cheap, but rather is it safe, nutritious, sustainably produced and reliably supplied?” McInness said.

Meanwhile, optimism levels in agriculture are at a four-year high, says Virginia Labbie, CFIB’s senior policy analyst for agribusiness. The onus is on the federal and provincial agriculture ministers “to send some positive signals to help build on this momentum and continue to address the competitive challenges in the agriculture sector.”

Preliminary results from a report that will be released later this year by CFIB suggest farmers’ top priorities for government action include regulatory reform and cutting red tape, lower taxes, improved foreign

market access for Canadian farm products, increased research and more responsive government income support programs, she says.

“Food safety is a top priority for our members and is a goal all farmers share,” Labbie added. “However, CFIB reminds agriculture ministers that farmers are not immune to the burden of red tape and urges them to make a formal commitment to remove unnecessary barriers to growth.”

Boosting food production in Canada got extra attention Feb. 8 when Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Companies Ltd., the country’s biggest grocery chain, talked up the need for a National Food Strategy in a presentation to Ottawa’s government and business elite Feb. 8. “It should say what we want to be in the next 30 years,” he told the Canadian Club of Ottawa. “We have to have policies that make us more competitive. We need to have more clarity around farm and food policy.”

McInness said people are paying closer attention to food issues since the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned in early January about growing food shortages and price increases that any in developing countries couldn’t afford.

Governments have become “seized with the need to create a long-term vision to position ourselves in the food export business.”

Traditionally, Canada has had robust food and farm product exports, but that’s been challenged in recent years as Brazil has become a major international food supplier.

He hopes the CAPI report will help government officials and industry executives “to connect the dots from an agriculture and food policy point of view.”

And food policy by itself won’t enhance Canada’s international status, he added. “We have to make sure our trade policy and transport policies don’t become choke points in getting our products out the door. Governments have to address these issues.”

It’s no longer just a matter of filling empty stomachs but “ensuring food is safe and healthy,” he notes.

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“Foodsafetyisatoppriorityforourmembersandisagoalallfarmersshare.”

– VIRGINIA LABBIE, CFIB’S SENIOR POLICY ANALYST FOR AGRIBUSINESS

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