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Farmers As… Health-Care Professionals?

It’s become common for farmers to refer to themselves as food producers, environmental managers or businesspeople. Now a discussion paper recently commissioned by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) aims to radically expand their job description.

How about adding “health-care professional” to your resumé? Concluding that farmers’ fortunes and public health are intrinsically linked, the report Building Convergence: Toward an Integrated Health and Agri-Food Strategy for Canada, makes a case for tying agriculture together with health policy in Canada.

“Canada is facing a diet-related health crisis and a farm income crisis driven by very different challenges,” said Laurette Dubé, professor and founding chair and scientific director of the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence. “But a solution to both rests increasingly on the convergence of health and agriculture policy.”

The report cites rising obesity rates and diet-related chronic diseases as well as higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes that are associated with diet. Health-care costs are skyrocketing.

Chronic diseases consume up to two-thirds of the direct costs of the health system.

Meanwhile, government support to farmers routinely exceeds the incomes generated by their farms.

The report’s authors say that by collaborating, both sectors can “simultaneously improve the health of Canadians, reduce health-care budgets, stimulate agri-food innovation and improve the economic viability of the agri-food industry.”

One of the recommendations is to develop the concept of a “Canadian diet” emphasizing the nutritional quality of foods produced by domestic farmers such as pulses, canola oil, and whole grains while encouraging increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, many of which are also produced on Canadian farms.

Not surprisingly, it calls for increased public investment in food-related research and development, more traceability, an improved regulatory environment and advancing health claims on foods. And it notes that the Canadian diet could be exported, under a strategy similar to the Mediterranean diet.

There is one key point underpinning this whole idea however, and it is one to which farmers and the agricultural sector in general routinely pay lip service.

“This discussion paper suggests that a ‘whole-of-society’ approach …. However, this whole-of-society solution needs to place the consumer at the centre, and must consider the conditions and dynamics of local and global markets from a systems perspective.”

One of the propositions in this report is to reduce the amount of fat, starch, salt and sugar in Canadian diets, which implies a movement away from highly processed foods. If this happens, it would tend to shorten the supply chain and makes what they produce less of a commodity and closer to food.

But this is where farmers must confront a mental stumbling block.

Farmers see themselves first and foremost as producers. After all, they get paid by the bushel, not for the nutritional content. Their focus is on production efficiency, which is not always in tune with consumer preferences or public health objectives.

Another recent study by the George Morris Centre, this one on value chains, highlights the hurdle this presents. “To put it bluntly, farming has been in the tonnage business, not in the value-generation business,” says a report titled Characterizing the Ideal Model of Value Chain Management and Barriers to its Implementation.

“Changing industry mindsets toward creating value through innovation rather than simply ‘producing more’ is extremely challenging,” the report says.

It would seem that many farmers remain blissfully unaware of how their business environment is changing.

Farm Credit Canada (FCC) recently released its own report citing how consumers are increasingly driving change. “We’re seeing rapid change in domestic and international food markets that will influence how food is grown, processed, packaged and purchased in the future,” said Kellie Garrett, senior vice-president of strategy, knowledge and reputation for FCC. “These changes will impact business decisions at every point in the food value chain.”

However, when FCC surveyed its 9,000-member Vision Panel, it found consumer demand ranked last when producers and agribusiness owners were asked what factors were driving any changes they planned to make to their operations in 2009. Their top choices were business and succession planning, and the global economy.

Farmers aren’t to blame for this disconnect with their changing business environment. But they can’t afford to discount this growing interest in farming as it relates to health and the environment as an irritant, or intrusion on their business. Increasingly, that is their business. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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