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Farm and food talks bring new voices to the policy table

The national food policy development process will pull many out of their comfort zone

The meeting the Canadian Federation of Agriculture hosted in Ottawa June 5 wasn’t the usual assembly of farmers.

Participants included a broad spectrum of stakeholders with an interest in food, including Food Secure Canada, the Nutrition Resource Centre of the Ontario Public Health Association, the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security and the University of Toronto.

Government was there too, but not only Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Federal ministries represented included Health Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

While not directly related to production agriculture, there is growing recognition within the farming community that engaging with groups like these will be an important component of taking advantage of what is the biggest food and agriculture policy opportunity of a generation.

Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph said there are five major federal policy initiatives underway that include food and agriculture as a critical component ranging from economic development, nutrition, climate change to traditional risk management in primary agriculture.

“I think we face an unprecedented window to engage with policy over the next 18 months,” Fraser said.

Ron Bonnett.
photo: File

Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, called the meeting in early June in a bid to get ahead of the complex debates ahead. The Arrell Food Institute held a similar meeting earlier this year.

“It all seems to be coming together at once,” Bonnett said.

Bonnett said the response to the core agriculture economic development files — the Barton Report and export targets set in the recent federal budget — will be handled by the industry. However, the National Food Policy and other initiatives look at all aspects of food, affordability, sustainability issues.

“It’s a blend of social aspects as well as practical aspects of food policy,” he said.

Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, said her network of food organizations has been asking for a National Food Policy for a decade.

“This is a pretty big deal for us. We’re excited. We’re pumped,” she said, although she questions whether the four-month consultation window is too short for debating and defining a national food policy. The government is hosting a Food Summit June 20 and 21 in Ottawa, bringing together the same diversity of voices as the CFA meeting.

Broad mandate

It’s a broad challenge. This initiative aims to address the needs of a farmer in New Brunswick trying to make decisions that save time and increase efficiency, as well as a single parent in downtown Winnipeg who has no access to grocery stores within walking distance.

Sixteen departments and agencies will be involved in the National Food Policy process. A committee of departments has been created to address agriculture and food.

“If they want economic growth in agriculture, they have to clear up some of the old silo problems,” said Bonnett. He has seen Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at meetings where they have not been seen before.

“The word came to Health Canada from above, came from the top, and the message said, ‘we can’t be working in silos.’”

There’s a recognition across the agriculture and food sector that it’s time to get it right.

“We have a rare opportunity with agriculture in the limelight like it is,” he said.

The overarching priority is the National Food Policy. It has its social aspects, but Bonnett sees it as a chance to provide long-term guidance for shorter-term policies like the five-year agriculture policy frameworks such as the Growing Forward 2.

Governance critical

Fraser also agrees that the National Food Policy will likely be the critical guiding document. Getting the governance right is critical, he said. It could be a Ministry of Food, or a National Roundtable on Food that reports to cabinet. There are precedents, such as the National Farm Animal Care Council, and industry-government projects like the Sustainable Beef Roundtable. Bronson said there have been problems with too much secrecy in the national roundtables, but her group is proposing a National Food Policy Council.

“I don’t want to come across that this will be easy,” said Fraser. He said the process needs to identify two or three areas where it can have an effect, create the structure needed to have an impact, and then use that structure in other areas.

The public consultation documents for the National Food Policy have identified four key areas:

  • Increasing access to affordable food;
  • Improving health and food safety;
  • Conserving our soil, water, and air;
  • Growing more high-quality food.

Notably missing are the buzzwords such as “sustainability” that are difficult to define and which are easily co-opted by special interests.

Friction

The process will bring together groups that historically have held conflicting views. The agriculture industry and environmental and food security groups have existed in silos with little potential for finding common ground.

Food policy groups and industry organizations have long been suspicious of each other’s motives, whether it is the industry’s drive for profit or the sense that meeting urbanite’s priorities would threaten farmers’ livelihoods.

“Some people have very different ideas on food policy,” Bonnett said. “They might be focused on local and organic and not understand commercial agriculture. Then there are others who understand what is needed to move commercial agriculture ahead. Not everyone is going to get what they want.”

However, Bronson and Bonnett agree on the need to find common ground. The CFA president said that there are social policy implications of food that need to be considered and the organizations invited a diverse roster of groups to its conference.

“We’ve locked ourselves into a short-sighted, export-oriented system,” said Bronson. “But I’m not speaking against all agriculture exports. I know we’re going to be providing food to the world for a good time to come. However, it should not be our only strategy.”

No one answer

Fraser said there have been deputy ministers of government departments who have thrown up their hands when competing visions of agriculture are presented by people who all can make a claim to be representing farmers.

“They need to be aware that no one-size-fits-all approach will work here,” he said. “Too often debates on food get stymied or driven into that old debate of global versus local, organic versus genetically modified (GM).

“Opponents of different solutions have to know that their cherished solution is only a partial solution. It may include vibrant, low-input, boutique food systems. It also may include high-capital, efficient, export-focused commodities.

“I’m really, really worried that when we get into the ‘must be organic,’ and ‘must be GM seed,’ major policy initiatives will be completely derailed.”

Fraser said the solution is to agree on smaller goals, then at least the process can be established.

“There is a lot of passion and interest and goodwill and activity,” said Bronson. “I think there is common ground and low-hanging fruit, issues we can move on. Let’s get on with it.

“I don’t want civil society groups saying one thing and farming associations saying something else and the business community saying something else and have government throw up its hands and say we keep the status quo,” said Bronson.

After the June 6 meeting with many players in the food sector, “I was feeling good,” said Bonnett, who referred to himself as a warhorse due to his long career in agricultural politics and someone who has seen friction between groups. He said it took awhile to clear the room at the end of the day due to ongoing discussions.

“Some of those barriers are stripping away.”

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