People and programs 08/09/2017

In late June, we travelled to Ottawa for the Food Policy for Canada Summit, coming together with 300 representatives from all corners of the food system to talk about what a new food policy could look like. For a long time, we have imagined how a “joined-up” approach to the food system could work. The possibilities, while intriguing, would involve major shifts to the current system. Many questions remain about the realities of working across many silos, particularly when significant issues and interests are at play in each of the four priority areas identified by the government: food security, health and safety, agricultural economy, and the environment.

The Ministry of Agriculture is leading the development of Canada’s food policy, and has shown they understand the policy needs to be informed by many different voices. They have invited a number of other ministries to the table, including Health, Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and Employment and Social Development. However, it’s still unclear how this collaboration will work in practice, and there are concerns that the food policy could end up looking more like an agriculture policy. The federal government has set a target to grow Canada’s agri-food exports to at least $75 billion annually by 2025.  Significant resources will be invested to drive toward this goal, which carries with it explicit premises about the purpose and nature of our food system. We have concerns that this type of priority will make a holistic food policy based in competing assumptions—and likely far fewer resources attached—difficult to achieve.  

That said, those who attended the Summit did not necessarily share the agricultural growth focus. Certainly not the 30 member organizations of Food Secure Canada in attendance, who gathered the day before the Summit to talk about their Five Big Ideas for a Better Food System. But even amongst the larger group of participants, a number of progressive themes emerged that we at CFCC are encouraged by and support.

We should work to reduce food insecurity by increasing incomes, not lowering food prices

Income security is key.  By far, the most important factor in creating food security is having sufficient income to buy healthy food. The issue is not that food is too expensive, but that many Canadians can’t afford itFood in Canada is already among the cheapest in the world, and creating downward pressure on prices will only harm farmers’ incomes and incentivize unsustainable production practices. This is why Canada needs a poverty reduction strategy that helps increase income security through mechanisms like a basic income or increased transfer payments to provinces for social assistance. It’s unclear how a food policy will support or contribute to the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy currently being driven by the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development.

We need to stop redistributing food waste to people living on low incomes 

While food waste is a big issue in our food system, we need to find dignifed solutions that do not further entrench stigmatizing charitable programs that will never be able to compensate for a lack of comprehensive income and housing supports.

A National Food Policy needs to adopt a "triple bottom line" philosophy 

This means prioritizing economic, social and environmental sustainability. This approach provides a more holistic lens through which to view all policies related to the food system.

Food sector workers need food security, too 

We need to view the agriculture and food sectors as employers, and hold them accountable to ensure that those working within the sectors earn enough money to access healthy food themselves.

A National Food Policy needs to make addressing Indigenous and northern food insecurity a priority

Though this is also an issue that needs significant drivers in the Ministries of Health and Indigenous and Northern Affairs, a food policy can potentially add value with a holistic approach due to the unique nature of the cultural, environmental and economic realities of northern and Indigenous communities. The urgency of these issues will involve a significant and immediate focus, and any processes must be based in a food sovereignty framework.

A joined-up National Food Policy can pave the way for multi-sector impact

With a National Food Policy in place, we can work in more connected, impactful ways. Initiatives that increase access to healthy food for low-income and vulnerable populations—such as institutional food procurement at schools and hospitals, and healthy food subsidies and fruit and vegetable prescriptions—would also support economically and environmentally sustainable food production.

We need to expand our definition of safe, high-quality food 

Food safety is about more than preventing foodborne illness. For our food to be considered safe and high quality, we must take into account pesticide reduction, animal welfare, and soil and habitat preservation.

A National Food Policy should support a viable agricultural sector

A viable agricultural sector includes a diversity of farm sizes and types, and supports new farmers to enter the agriculture sector and secure land.

We need a government body to oversee food policy development that includes a broad spectrum of voices 

The National Food Policy should not be dominated only by agriculture or industry—civil society and “eaters” need to be at the table, too. At this point, the format or resources for a food policy governance body are yet to be determined.

To sum up, a lot of valuable input was given by the Summit participants, and government staff in attendance made it clear that they were trying to listen. However, many of them represent particular Ministries with their own mandates, and what remains for the Ministry of Agriculture to pursue through a food policy is still unclear.

We expect the government will publish a “What We Heard” report this fall. In the meantime, all are invited to attend consultations or submit feedback. The deadline to complete the online survey has been extended to August 31. Have your say now.

You can learn more about the civil society response to the food policy spearheaded by Food Secure Canada here. They have also posted resources about how to host an event in your community here.