Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has served up a five-point National Food Policy with entrees for both consumers and farmers on the menu.
Speaking on a farm just north of Toronto in late April, Ignatieff said a Liberal government would work toward making more homegrown food available, while pulling the farm sector back from the financial precipice.
“We need more homegrown food on Canadian tables – because our health and our economy depend on it,” he said. “While farmers and our agri-food sector provide one out of every eight jobs and generate $42 billion in annual economic activity, the economic crisis has strained the pillar of our rural communities – our farms – to the breaking point.
The proposed food policy promises healthy eating, safe food, sustainable farm incomes, environmental farmland stewardship and international leadership.
The main item for farmers is a “clean slate” promise to start over again in designing farm income programs. The Liberals say they will work “in partnership with farmers and restore AgriFlex to offer regionally flexible programs that help meet the costs of production.”
The Liberals also promised to strengthen Environmental Farm Plans and reward farmers for their role in clean energy production and protecting wildlife habitat. There was also a vague reference to “improving fertilizer and pesticide management.”
The Liberal policy talks about promoting Canadian food internationally and expanding Canada’s share of high-value export markets.
Laurent Pellerin, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the policy proposals sound promising, but urged the Liberals not to ditch all the existing farm support programs because of the impact on small-and medium-size producers. Instead, government needs to work in partnership with farm groups on developing income programs that actually help farmers.
He also said governments and consumers must realize that Canadians pay very little for their food compared to other countries and that only about 10 per cent of the grocery store prices get back to the farmer. “Our share is declining while the rest of the food industry is earning more and more.”
Richard Phillips, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada, says his group found positive ideas in the Liberal plan. “Getting Canadians to eat more homegrown food is a good step. Connecting consumers to farmers would be a really good thing.”
He also worried about the clean slate approach program if it led to serious gaps between programs in rich and poor provinces. “They could end up dragging us into trade disputes. We need to ensure a lot of caution in that regard so we don’t face trade challenges.”
At the same time, the Liberals must remember that most Canadian farmers are producing for export markets and that fair trade rules and promotion are essential, he said.
The Liberal policy was silent on the need for more research and innovation in agriculture, he added.
Wayne Easter, the Liberal farm spokesman, said his party is “working with farmers to build new farm programs from the farm up, and not Ottawa down. Farmers have told us that a new National Food Policy must wipe the slate clean to create regionally flexible programs by farmers, for farmers.”
The Liberals promised yet another comprehensive review of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada “to ensure Canada’s food safety system is effectively co-ordinated to minimize risks and assure Canadians that the food on their dinner tables is safe.”
They would also “invest an additional $50 million over four years to improve food inspection by the CFIA and to ensure the same food safety standards set for Canadian producers are applied to foods imported into Canada.”