News and announcements 12/22/2017

On December 11, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food Canada released its report on A Food Policy for Canada. The report makes a series of recommendations informed by the input of witnesses invited to address the committee, including Community Food Centres Canada. It’s the first of the consultation reports. The results of public and regional consultations are expected early in the new year. All of it will feed into a finalized National Food Policy in the spring.

We applaud the committee for listening to and reflecting the needs and voices of a broader group of stakeholders than have been consulted in past agricultural consultations. A policy that truly reflects the complex food landscape and the needs and interests of Canadians will have to be informed by broad spectrum of voices. However, we remain concerned that noting input is not the same as creating policy directions that address it. There are many occasions in the report where a mosaic of contradictory input is recorded, and where the corresponding recommendations are so vague that they effectively avoid the issues.

The positive:

The report makes some encouraging recommendations. A whole-of-government approach to implementing the policy is identified as necessary, as is the establishment of a National Food Policy Council made up of representatives from relevant government departments, the agriculture and agri-food sector, academia, Indigenous groups, and civil society organizations. Recommendations relating to resourcing efforts at the community level to build food literacy and community food security are welcome, as are support for organic farmers and reduction of greenhouse gases.

Recognition of the problem of food insecurity and right of all Canadians to food is a significant recommendation that -- if pursued with political will and resources across the many ministries that need to be involved -- could create significant improvements in the lives of the four million Canadians we know to be food insecure.

The less positive:

Where things start to look a little fuzzier is around recommendations that seem to suggest that more food production and better distribution is a way to reduce food insecurity. Though the report cites comments by CFCC President Nick Saul and others clearly stating that the source of food insecurity is income insecurity, specific recommendations suggesting or supporting the policy mechanisms that would address these issues are not made. At the same time, comments in the food access section that promote the idea that animal welfare activists are contributing to food insecurity by pushing up chicken prices point to the uncritical acceptance of positions that we would suggest are clearly irrelevant to the issue. A National  Food Policy will have to do much more than simply record all points of view to take positions that will address the many out-and-out contradictions that arise from the needs of particular industries vs. the needs of Canadian citizens.

In a similar vein, though the report supports changes to Canada’s Food Guide, the recommendation suggests that the agri-food industry should have significant input into shaping the guide, which is concerning when the trade associations promoting meat and enriched white flour are cited in the report raising concerns that a new guide will reduce consumption of their products. Hopefully, since the guide is currently being developed under the mandate of Health Canada, that ministry will continue to stick to their stated principle that the best health and nutrition evidence, and not industry needs, will be the sole drivers for the new guide.

The too-vague-or-weak department:

While it’s positive that Indigenous food security is identified as an issue worthy of attention, the recommendation to overhaul the Nutrition North program are redundant and weak compared to the scale and severity of the issue. Similarly, the report notes input from witnesses relating to the connection of chronic disease and poor diet, and the incredibly high human and financial costs thereof, but rather than supporting the suggestion to promote taxes on unhealthy foods like sugary drinks and/or incentives to promote healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, the report opts for a recommendation to educate consumers about healthy eating.

This report still heavily bears the mark of its genesis within the Ministry of Agriculture, with its traditional primary mandate as a promoter of the agri-food industry. That said, it is clear that civil society groups such as Food Secure Canada have made inroads in promoting a more holistic view of the food system that’s driven by the needs of all those who are a part of it, including a full range of producers, and all of us Canadians who eat food -- or suffer when we don’t have access to it.

We are watching with interest to see how the policy will evolve, and whether the governance mechanisms, political will, and necessary financial resources will be strong, progressive and comprehensive enough to address the pressing health and food security issues that affect all Canadians.