More Voices Needed on National Food Strategy
by Steffanie Scott (Director of the local economic development program at the University of Waterloo and Vice-President of the Canadian Association for Food Studies)
Who’s setting the table for the food that Canadians are eating? And who should be involved in establishing a national food strategy for Canadians?
Between 2008 and 2011, over 3500 Canadians participated in ‘kitchen table talks’, a process that culminated in the publication of Resetting the Table: A People's Food Policy for Canada. The report was coordinated by Food Secure Canada, a national network of people and organizations mobilized around three priorities: zero hunger, healthy and safe food, and sustainable food production and distribution systems.
In stark distinction to this grassroots process, and to these priorities, this past week in Toronto the Conference Board of Canada hosted a food industry-sponsored Canadian Food Summit 2012, and the Conference Board is purporting to be leading a process to create a Canadian Food Strategy.
First, through establishing the Centre for Food in Canada, the Conference Board of Canada is positioning itself as a legitimate convener to create a Canadian Food Strategy. And yet there was no acknowledgement from the Conference Board staff (until after I mentioned it in a question period) of the existence of the People’s Food Policy. Nor was anyone involved in this undertaking permitted to be part of the Summit’s agenda.
And although Food Secure Canada’s People’s Food Policy is the most comprehensive policy document produced to date, it not the only such initiative: in the past year, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture released Towards a National Food Strategy and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute produced Canada's Agri-Food Destination.
Details of the Conference Board’s plans for consultations to develop its own Canadian Food Strategy are not clear, nor are its plans to take into account proposals already generated and networks already mobilized through the three initiatives identified above. I suspect the Conference Board will face challenges in positioning its new Centre for Food in Canada as the most legitimate convener to shape a major new Canadian Food Strategy.
Second, the agenda of this two-day event reflected a narrow range of viewpoints. Keynote speakers on Day 1 included the CEOs of Loblaw Companies and Maple Leaf Foods. Only in much smaller breakout sessions could participants hear the perspectives of people like Lauren Baker, Coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, or Kim Raine, an academic who studies social and environmental determinants of the emerging obesity epidemic. Nick Saul, Executive Director of The Stop Community Food Centre, indicated that it was the first major food strategy event that he’d attended that didn’t have a dedicated session on hunger in Canada. This is particularly deplorable given the background of the Conference Board’s president, Anne Golden, who formerly worked on social and poverty issues with the United Way in Toronto.
The predominant messages from many of the plenary sessions were that price is king, factory farming is necessary, and government's role is to get out of the way (no one mentioned its role as protector of its citizens’ wellbeing). The local food economy, small and medium scale food production, processing, and retailing, community gardens, and issues of hunger and poverty in Canada were largely relegated to a light-hearted evening debate and to the penultimate session on Day 2 after which many of the corporate sponsors—which even included IBM and CIBC—had left. The fact that the Summit organizers arranged separate tables at the front of the room for its sponsors is itself indicative of its efforts to not encourage broad-based discussion.
Third, the Conference Board’s purported ‘holistic’ approach to food is in practice extremely narrow. Most glaring was the interpretation of food security as meaning industry viability. Ecological considerations appeared important only insofar as they helped to maintain economic competitiveness. Too bad none of the Summit organizers went to hear Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé on her speaking tour a few weeks ago in Toronto and Ottawa.
Fourth, the quality of the research produced by the new Centre for Food in Canada has been disappointing. During one of the sessions at which they presented findings from a household survey on consumers, food, and health, informed analysts in the audience identified one after another flaw in the study’s methodology.
The Conference Board’s process is structurally flawed. Since ‘investors’ — large-scale industry and government partners — pay in to be part of the Centre, this ties the hands of the Conference Board to produce any meaningful analysis about the challenges facing the food system. A multimillion-dollar budget will ensure widespread dissemination and access to decision-makers, even though the quality of the research has been abysmal, and an expert review process for the research is sorely lacking. This appears to be a form of privatized policy development, with only a veil of consultation.
The vision offered by the Conference Board for a national food strategy is the status quo: the same kind of market based growth strategy that only emphasizes boosting productivity and availability of food. In the last 15 to 20 years of agricultural policy making, we have consistently seen government piggybacking on industry processes.
Yet, there are many more voices to be included. The fact that over 500 people, from all angles of the food system, chose to attend the Canadian Food Summit indicates that there are many people, within and beyond industry and government, who are keen to be part of the conversation in shaping a national food strategy. The Conference Board would be wise to ensure that they design a truly inclusive consultation process and ensure they are not continuing to endorse systems that work for very few members of society.
- About Us
- What's New
- Get Involved
- Northern Food Network
- Provincial / Territorial Food Networks
- Local and Sustainable Food Systems Network
- Children and Food Network
- YOUTH CAUCUS
- Community Academic Collaborative
- Learn More
- Become a Member