• Kate Ayers

Ag's position in the national food policy puzzle

After more than a decade of advocacy by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) and other agri-food organizations, the feds announced their Food Policy for Canada this summer.

The first of its kind in Canada, this policy provides a path for industry stakeholders to work together to achieve short- and long-term goals. Government officials want to help Canadian communities access more healthy food, make Canadian food the top choice at home and abroad, support food security in northern and Indigenous communities and reduce food waste, the federal government website says.

The policy and its supporting advisory council “offer the potential to engage in dialogue with diverse stakeholders on some of the most complex challenges facing the sector and the broader food system,” says Scott Ross, CFA’s assistant executive director.

“Whether it’s climate change, the role food plays in the health of Canadians or the vibrancy of agricultural communities in remote rural locations, this kind of dialogue helps address issues proactively and brings new ideas and viewpoints to the table.”

Better Farming spoke with government officials, ag organization representatives and other stakeholders to learn how the agri-food industry fits into the food policy puzzle.

What is the national food policy?

The government introduced Canada’s food policy in June. The feds plan to enact a range of programs to enhance our food system.

We certainly have big hurdles to overcome. Annually, we waste 11 million metric tons or $50 billion worth of food. In total, four million Canadians (10.8 per cent of the population) do not have secure access to food, and one out of every two Nunavut households experiences food insecurity.

The federal government’s vision is that “all people in Canada are able to access a sufficient amount of safe, nutritious and culturally diverse food. Canada’s food system is resilient and innovative, sustains our environment and supports our economy,” the Government of Canada website says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s party promised to develop a food policy in the 2015 election campaign. During the resulting post-election consultation, the government heard from more than 45,000 Canadians, including food producers and processors, experts in health and food safety, and Indigenous groups, a June Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) release says. AAFC leads the policy but other federal departments are also involved.

This five-year investment of $134.4 million focuses on four pillars:

· health

· sustainable growth

· food security

· reducing waste

For each pillar, the government has identified short-term action areas with related programs, a Budget 2019 document says.

One pillar focuses on improving access to healthy food. The federal government will collaborate with the provinces and territories to create a National School Food Program to ensure children have access to healthy meals. To work towards this goal, the feds developed the Local Food Infrastructure Fund, which includes a $50 million investment to support infrastructure, such as food banks and farmers markets, for local food products.

The second program, called the Buy Canadian Promotion Campaign, is a $25-million commitment to promote Canadian ag products through advertising and marketing. The government is also tackling food fraud through a $24.4 million investment to enhance the detection of food fraud and enforce related laws.

The second pillar aims to promote domestic and international consumption of Canadian food. The feds plan to support food processors through an additional $100-million investment from the Strategic Innovation Fund that will assist value-added food production. The Export Diversification Strategy will help exporters and the three-year immigration pilot project will bring in full-time non-seasonal agricultural workers and reduce labour shortages.

The third pillar supports food security in northern and Indigenous communities. The Harvesters Support Grant will help lower the high costs of traditional hunting and harvesting. The Northern Isolated Community Initiatives Fund is a $15-million investment to support community-led projects and fund equipment purchases such as community freezers and greenhouses, and skills training for local and Indigenous food producers.

The fourth pillar addresses Canada’s food waste. As part of this program, the feds announced a Food Waste Reduction Challenge. Officials will dedicate $20 million to develop a contest to encourage and award innovations in minimizing food waste. In addition, the Federal Leadership in Food Waste Reduction will refocus $6.3 million in existing resources to lower its employee and facility food waste and launch a National Food Waste Reduction Forum.

What does the policy mean for Canadian ag?

Canada’s food sector is extensive, providing one in eight jobs and contributing over $110 billion annually to our country’s gross domestic product, an AAFC article says.

Although the feds are only starting to roll out the strategy, ag organizations (including the CFA, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and the OFA) are optimistic about the new policy.

“We were the only leading agricultural country in the world that didn’t have a food policy or strategy,” says Keith Currie, OFA’s president.

“We are happy the government did its consultation work and put this strategy together,” he says. “And we look forward to working with the Canadian government to implement more aspects of the policy.”

While agri-food industry members are significant stakeholders in the food policy puzzle, other groups can also help Canada reach its sustainability and economic goals. Some of these supporting players include people involved in research and development, labour relations, environmental conservation and natural resources.

The government wants the policy to be inclusive. The resulting collaborations could present both opportunities and challenges for the food system, however.

“This national food policy, which throughout its planning has brought people together under the big tent of food and ag, presents an opportunity for agriculture to continue making connections with food processors and people who are closer to consumers,” says Lauren Martin. She leads the government and industry relations portfolio of the Canadian Seed Trade Association and formerly worked as a lawyer.

While most of the players in the agri-food industry operate in separate silos, organizations such as Food Secure Canada are pushing for a coordinated and systems-oriented approach to solve issues.

“In a way, the food system is interconnected, but we have difficulties understanding each other and contributing to and implementing policy in a way that addresses the entire system to (achieve) health, social justice and environmental outcomes,” says Gisèle Yasmeen, Food Secure Canada’s executive director.

Food Secure Canada is a national alliance of organizations and individuals who work together to advance food security and food sovereignty, the organization’s website says.

In the past, siloed policy development within governmental departments created hurdles for Canada’s producers and food system, says Ross.

“Canadian farmers are affected by policies from a wide range of government departments,” he says.

“This structure creates a challenge for farmers. It can result in conflicting policies, unintended consequences and a cumulative burden on profitability and competitiveness that falls outside the remit of any one department or agency, with no clear accountability on the part of government to address it.”

Dr. Evan Fraser, director of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute, hopes the policy will fill in those governance gaps.

“Food is a holistic and cross-cutting issue,” he says.

The policy is a “sincere attempt to do something different and take a whole government approach.”

The roadmap also “aims to ensure that Canada’s food system is safe, stable, sustainable, resilient and innovative and that it can address growing challenges, including climate change,” says James Watson, AAFC’s senior media relations officer.

One of the government’s proposed policy outcomes is inclusive economic growth. It will improve “access to business opportunities in the agri-food sectors for all Canadians. This development will help Canadian farmers put even more healthy high-quality food on the tables of families across the country,” Watson adds.

As the government and stakeholders enact the new policy, communicating effectively and setting priorities may be the biggest challenges, Yasmeen says.

We must consider “how we engage with one another and how we learn and understand each other’s languages, businesses and priorities,” she explains.

We need a clearly understood system to bring about discussions and enact programs, Ross says.

“Depending on how it’s implemented, the food policy holds the potential to further complicate policy development,” he says.

“With more voices at the table and greater cross-departmental accountability, it could slow down progress on important policy areas. So, we need formal mechanisms to promote effective collaboration, both within and outside of government.”

And farmers should ensure they are a part of the conversation.

As the government develops the policy’s supporting advisory council and the AAFC engages further with stakeholders, “we expect farm organizations will have an important role to play in communicating the voice of farmers,” Ross says.

“The best way to have your voice heard is to get involved and sit at the table with your commodity and provincial general farm organizations.”

While the food policy is quite comprehensive, some groups believe it lacks a few items that the ag industry wants.

For example, the policy does not address labour shortages, soil health, biodiversity enhancement and pollinator protection, Yasmeen says.

“Stakeholders involved need to keep raising issues, pointing out the gaps and being proactive,” she says.

The government may need to tweak the policy along the way, other stakeholders suggest.

“Since the beginning, we’ve cautioned the need to take this process slowly and ensure it’s done right,” Ross says.

“We look forward to seeing how the food policy can support the ambitious agri-food growth agenda set out by the agri-food economic strategy table. It’s important not to rush this process and get ahead of ourselves in loading on expectations.”

Consumer trust

The Food Policy for Canada should help consumers understand their food system and bridge the gap between producers and consumers. These developments could enhance transparency and improve consumer trust.

“I think a lot of the questions around food production occur because people lack the information,” Currie says. “We can do a better job of engaging consumers to understand what they want.”

The policy “will help to get information out there about what our food system is,” he says.

Ross agrees.

“We hope that continued dialogue and progress under this food policy will help demonstrate the immense benefits our industry holds for all Canadians and reinforce the strong reputation Canadian farms and food businesses have of producing safe, quality products for Canadians and consumers abroad,” he says.

Watson provides an example.

The Buy Canadian Promotion Campaign “will be a national approach to better connect Canadians with and instill pride in Canada’s food system,” says Watson.

“This campaign will tell the story of Canada’s food sector and highlight the advantages of its products, help grow recognition for the work of Canadian producers and build public trust.”

The government is also investing in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “to improve its capacity to tackle food fraud, such as the intentional mislabelling or misrepresentation of food products like fish, honey, olive oil and spices, helping to protect consumers from deception and companies from unfair competition,” Watson adds.

Overall, the policy “provides an important avenue through which we can communicate the benefits that Canadian agriculture provides to all Canadians, whether the benefits are food security, environmental stewardship or inclusive economic growth,” Ross says.

Next steps

After the federal government launched the food policy, officials began selecting members for an advisory council.

“We are creating a Canadian food policy advisory council with the expertise and diversity needed to sustain momentum and dialogue on food-related issues that matter to Canadians,” Watson says. The council “will bring stakeholders and experts together to better understand diverse perspectives, work toward a common understanding of food issues and facilitate collaborative action.”

The deadline to apply for council membership passed on Sept. 20.

“The council will likely include a diversity of members from the agri-food industry, health professionals, academia, non-profit organizations and Indigenous organizations,” Watson adds. Canada’s ag minister will approve the group’s members.

Representatives of the ag industry like the focus on diversity.

“We’ve advocated for the need to have a multi-stakeholder body providing oversight on the food policy and contributing perspectives from a diversity of relevant, key stakeholders,” Ross says.

“We look forward to engaging the department on this council over the coming months to ensure this body is implemented effectively and provides the accountability to stakeholders we believe is critical within a comprehensive food policy.”

Sights set on sustainability

The food policy will help Canada meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include ending hunger, promoting good health, cutting food waste and encouraging a sustainable food system, the Government of Canada website says.

Some stakeholders hope the policy will enable Canadians to take a more holistic approach to sustainability.

“Sustainability is complex, and no one-size-fits-all or prepackaged solution exists. The only way to demonstrate and realize our commitment to continued improvement is to learn from one another, build common understanding and ensure that understanding informs sound policy and practices into the future,” Ross says.

The agri-food industry will continue to contribute to the country’s sustainability goals.

“Canada’s hardworking farmers, and the ag sector as a whole, have a solid track record of using sound management practices, innovation and new technologies to reduce greenhouse gases while boosting productivity, efficiency and income,” Watson says.

A healthy environment and a sustainable agricultural sector that continues to provide good jobs and healthy, safe food for Canadians are dependent on one another.”

Using innovative tools, technologies and programs, farmers will be better prepared to adapt to a changing climate and grow the sector sustainably, Watson says.

With Everyone at the Table, we can hope that Canada’s first food policy will support a strong agri-food industry that will continue to benefit our people, economy and environment. BF


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