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Could We Have One Too?

JOHN MORRISS

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

“Pickles, no garlic.”

That was one of the items on the shopping list, an unusually long one before Christmas when those of us blessed to live in Canada need to worry about having too much food, not too little.

Among the brands was one which was almost a dollar cheaper, which prompted a look at the label. “Product of India.”

As we are so often told, trade drives the world economy, and thank goodness that we live in a time where we can buy fruits, vegetables and other healthy products year round. It’s not as if we can grow them where there’s snow on the ground for six months.

But is there something wrong with a system where a glass bottle containing mostly water can be shipped 11,000 kilometres to be put on a shelf for less than a product made in Manitoba? At a time where we have 100-mile diet promoters on one side, and full-blown unrestricted trade advocates on the other, how does a socially conscious consumer make the right decision on a jar of pickles?

More and more consumers are starting to ask those questions, as are farm groups in their efforts to on one hand promote free and open trade while on the other promoting “Buy Canadian” policies. What’s the right balance?

There hasn’t been an objective and comprehensive analysis of some of these issues in Canada, but last week one was released in, of all places, the land of the chip butty (french fry sandwich on white bread with plenty of butter) and deep-fried Mars bar.

Indeed the physical and financial toll of the questionable British diet was one of the reasons for the government commissioning the report “Food 2030,” which sets out national priorities for a food policy encompassing the objectives of sustainability, security and health. The 84-page document was released last week at the prestigious Oxford Farming Conference by Hilary Benn, Britain’s secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, with a foreword by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The “food miles” question was one of many addressed in the report, and says it’s not a helpful measure of food’s environmental footprint, noting that transport makes only nine per cent of the food chain’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that importing food by low-energy ocean vessels from warm places may in fact consume less energy than getting it from high-input local agriculture.

However, the report doesn’t shrink from addressing the challenge of reducing the considerable amount of greenhouse gas now being produced in U. K. and world agriculture. Nor does it adopt the embarrassing “we’ll reduce ours if you reduce yours” policy of the Canadian government, bluntly stating that “Action on climate change is urgently needed to prevent human suffering, ecological catastrophes and political and economic instability. The U. K., like every country, must act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In fact, concern for farmers in other countries, and for the health of their soil and environment, is one of the threads running through the report. It highlights the importance of supply chains, such as Kraft’s in working with the Rainforest Alliance, to protect the environment – and farmer income – in less-developed countries. The report also emphasizes the importance of fish in a healthy diet, but also the need for more sustainable fishing practices worldwide.

However, the focus is still very much on how British farmers and processors can produce more, and more healthy, food for British consumers. Especially refreshing is the section on regulatory policy, which in Canada has tended to discourage small processors and retailers because of the cost of meeting specifications designed for large facilities.

The Food 2030 report says that “Given the cumulative impact of regulation on the economy, it is important to keep a focus on efficiency and effectiveness, only regulate where there is a strong case for doing so, and avoid creating unnecessary burdens,” and “We are committed to regulating smaller businesses in a way that considers simplified or more flexible approaches, to find the most effective way to meet intended outcomes and minimize burdens for them.”

A notable feature in the report is its focus on the importance of reducing food waste. It says U. K. households throw away 8.3 million tonnes or a value of 12 billion (C$20 billion) a year, 65 per cent of which is avoidable because of buying too much or leaving food too long, partly because of misunderstanding “best before” dates.

Perhaps what’s most refreshing of all about Food 2030 is that it’s written in clear, direct language, which is in stark contrast to the jargon-filled, qualified six-ways-from-Sundays documents that we get from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The U. K. government is in far more political trouble than ours, but it still seems able to produce an agriculture and food policy that doesn’t read like a campaign speech.

It’s only a dream, but wouldn’t it be nice if Canada could have one too? [email protected]

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