Linking agriculture and health policy could improve Canadians’ health and, at the same time, revive this country’s agricultural sector, says a new report released by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI).
Canada’s health crisis, a result of rising rates of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases and the farm income crisis could be tackled by what this report calls an integrated health and agri-food strategy, a proposal that would demand the agri-food sector become, in effect, more responsive to the health needs of Canadians.
The report suggests agriculture and health policy-makers begin to work in tandem towards shifting consumer preferences towards healthier homegrown foods, and includes calls for increased public investment in food-related research and development, improvements to the regulatory environment,
“Under this strategy, the consumer must be the central focus.”
advancing health claims for foods, and promoting traceability.
The report also includes a proposal to introduce a “Canadian diet” to promote awareness among consumers of the health benefits consuming Canadian-grown foods.
Canada’s diet-related health and farm income crisis has emerged from very different challenges, said report’s author, Laurette Dubé, chair of consumer and lifestyle psychology and marketing, at McGill University and founding chair and scientific director, of McGill Health Challenge Think Tanks.
“But a solution to both rests increasingly on the convergence of health and agriculture policy,” Dubé said.
The report details the costs of Canada’s health crisis, directly related to higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Much of this disease is traceable to diet. The report also notes the increased health-care expenditures that go with it.
Health-care expenditures rose from seven per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1975 to 10.5 per cent in 2005, or a per capita increase from $1,700 in 1975 to $3,600 by 1997.
Treating chronic diseases, meanwhile, makes up two-thirds of direct costs to the health-care budget. These diseases are also estimated to contribute approximately 60 per cent of indirect health-care costs to the Canadian economy – with an annual price tag of $54.4 billion.
At the same time, Canada’s agri-food system isn’t feeling so good either. “In recent years, low grain and oilseed prices have driven down farm income to the point that many farmers turned to government payments, rather than the market, to generate that majority of their income,” the report says. “As incomes fell, program payments rose. Neither farmers nor governments view the situation as sustainable in the long run,” it adds.
These perpetual costs are also high – government program payments now cost an estimated $5 billion annually,
The report aims to stimulate dialogue on how Canada’s health and agricultural policies could converge, and produce a strategy that addresses the needs of both sectors.
The agriculture and agrifood sector would benefit from becoming more responsive to the health-care challenge, through strategies that would drive up both exports and domestic consumption of healthier, Canadian-grown foods, it says.
Farm organizations like Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) are keen to re-establish linkages between the primary producer and the consumer, said KAP president Ian Wishart.
The CAPI report contains “some surprisingly familiar themes” that align well with farm organizations’ priorities like KAPs, said Wishart.
“We have been fairly focused on the new interest the public seems to have taken in food and food safety and traceability and this fits in really nicely with that,” said Wishart. “It focuses more on the health side of things than we have done before, but I think generally speaking we’re not uncomfortable with that.”
Wishart said the way the report looks at consumer preferences and choices driven by environmental concerns is also welcomed.
“It’s some of the same principles we use in ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services), he said. “We see parallels in this one.”
He also likes the report’s emphasis on shortening the value chains for producing healthier foods, so that benefits would accrue to farmers.
“One of the problems in our current system is that value chains are pretty long, and by the time we do find a product and start producing something that has these health benefits, getting that extra value or extra benefit to us, as producers, is a bit of a challenge,” he said.
The approach called for in the report is a “whole-of-society” approach, which requires influence on “local and global culture and media, rural and urban communities, the education system, the transportation sector, the environment and even urban design.”
“Under this strategy, the consumer must be the central focus,” it also says.
That may shake the agricultural tree. Surveys such as one done for Farm Credit Canada’s 9,000-member Vision panel this spring, show even as shifting consumer demand shapes “a new reality for Canadian agriculture,” consumer demand continues to rank last when producers and agribusiness owners were asked what factors were driving any changes they planned to make to their operations in 2009.
But many commodity and trade organizations are paying closer attention on their behalf.
“I think we’re all on the same page on this one,” said Gordon Bacon, CEO for Pulse Canada, which recently saw the completion of several industry and government-funded human clinical trials into the health benefits of consuming more pulses. Pulse Canada is also advancing a message about the environmental sustainability of a diet containing more pulse foods.
“I think it (this report) confirms and provides support to what our (industry) vision is, of health being one of the pillars that will help make our industry stronger,” Bacon said.
Producer groups must continue to focus on issues such as transportation and market access, but health and the environment are society’s priorities and cannot be ignored, he continued.
“I think the reason the report calls for more integration between health and agricultural policy is that perhaps one of the problems is that agriculture doesn’t understand the whole health file,” he said. “And, on the flip side, how much does Health Canada, as a regulator and a policy provider, understand the extent to which agriculture can be the provider of solutions?”
The report was prepared for CAPI by The McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence, authored by Laurette Dubé, Paul Thomassin and Janet Beauvais. The institute is an independent, policy forum aimed at bolstering Canada’s agr icul ture and agr i -food sector by identifying emerging issues, and promotes dialogue and advancing alternative solutions. It was established in 2004 by the federal government.