The 21 recommendations toward developing this country’s first national food policy delivered to Parliament recently establish one thing fairly succinctly.
However, from the first recommendation (making adequate nutrition as a basic human right) to the last (calling for a national food policy advisory body with a wildly diverse range of stakeholders), the committee’s report marks an important step forward for food policy in Canada.
As odd as it sounds, formally recognizing access to affordable food as a human right, and acknowledging that eaters should be recognized as a “stakeholder” in agriculture and agri-food policy were something akin to heresy in some influential circles until very recently.
The federal government launched its public consultation on a national food policy in May 2017. It received input from more than 40,000 Canadians on the four main themes to be addressed: increasing access to affordable food; improving health and food safety; conserving soil, water and air; and growing more high-quality food.
Expecting one policy to address all that is a tall order.
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But when the House Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food started its hearings in September, it expanded the mandate further to include considering the next generation of farmers and access to farmland and labour.
Depending on how you look at it, the resulting recommendations either cement the solitudes dividing the food sector into factions, or it sets a starting point for greater reflection on common ground within those incongruities.
For example, one recommendation urges ongoing support for supply management and regional food systems, making sure trade negotiations don’t undermine their domestic markets. Another recommends the government continue to focus on reducing barriers to export growth with a view to increasing Canadian agricultural exports to at least $75 billion per year by 2025.
Many in the agricultural sector see continued support for supply management as undermining Canada’s ability to negotiate improved access to foreign markets.
This recommendation is also bound to be controversial: “The committee recommends that the new food guide be informed by the food policy and include peer-reviewed, scientific evidence and that the government work with the agriculture and agri-food sector to ensure alignment and competitiveness for domestic industries.”
The consultation and review of Canada’s Food Guide also announced last year expressly denied special status to agricultural interests, which had been allowed under previous reviews.
These days, it seems science is often contorted by conflicting belief systems in highly politicized food debates, such as meat versus plant proteins, or conventional versus organic production. Just because GMOs are considered scientifically sound, are consumers morally bound to accept them?
For its part, the committee recommends streamlining the approvals of new biotechnology innovations, particularly new seeds and plant breeds. But it also recommends a greater government commitment to supporting growth of the organic sector, which eschews these products of biotechnology.
The committee recommends: keep food costs low, promote healthy food choices, help young farmers, solve the farm labour crisis, increase exports to support the Canadian economy, reduce food waste, help farmers innovate, increase trust, make farming more environmentally and animal-welfare friendly.
What does a government do with all that?
The danger is nothing, or perhaps even worse, a policy so vague and full of platitudes that it accomplishes nothing while allowing the government to say it did something.
In a policy note issued last month, University of Guelph agricultural economist Al Mussel warns against expecting too much, too soon.
“If some see the process as an opportunity for redress from historic inequities, or seek a fundamental change in policy, they will likely be disappointed,” he writes, noting the history of food and agricultural policies in Canada, the shared federal and provincial responsibility, and the diverse factions at the table make for a slim likelihood of a “stunning policy outcome here that sends the Canadian food system in some bold new direction.”
Any policy that emerges will have to be aspirational rather than finite. The best possible outcome would be a commitment to a forum that keeps stakeholders at the table — and talking.