CAPI Sponsors National Discussion on Barton Report

Thursday, May 31, 2018 - 4:12pm

Written by Rhonda Ferguson

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) held their fourth and final session in a series of ‘conversations’ on what is commonly called the “Barton Report”, May 10 in Ottawa.  This event convened senior people from diverse sectors: government, industry and farmer associations, business, and non-governmental organizations. A number of “next generation” stakeholders in our food system were present, intermingling with the more experienced among the group. Food Secure Canada was represented by Executive Director Diana Bronson, who appeared on a panel discussing consumer preferences. Two Deputy Ministers (Industry and Agriculture) were in attendance as well as the Assistant Deputy Minister from Health Canada and the President of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.


The Barton Report – named after Dominic Barton, Chair of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and Managing Director of McKinsey Consulting, appointed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau – outlines Canada’s untapped export-led growth potential. It identifies agriculture and food as key to realizing our export potential. The report lists natural resources, including land, Canada’s reputation as a safe food producer, and existing geographical clusters in which production, education, innovation and labour are concentrated as our strengths – and the unfortunate trends of a shrinking arable land mass, climate change, environmental degradation, and the increasing demand for animal proteins as our opportunity.

The report claims that its proposals, if implemented, would increase median Canadian household income by $15,000 annually. However, there is no strategy on how the ambitious sectoral growth targets would translate into benefits for most people, particularly the most food insecure. Concerns about the availability and accessibility of healthy and sustainably-produced food are left out of the economic modeling used by the Advisory Council, despite the intimate linkages between one of its main industry examples, agriculture, and food security.


How the Barton Report Should Shape Agriculture

A question posed to each panel – how the report should be used to shape agriculture in this country - was met with a range of views, from how to improve yields, the need for more value-added products, and the importance of monetizing public trust. Diana Bronson argued that the Barton report should be “put in its place” – it's a strategy for economic growth, not the replacement for a comprehensive food policy. Dale Worme, CEO of the National Indigenous Agriculture Association, noted the importance of Indigenous peoples’ participation in the transformation of the agri-food sector by improving cooperation, making more financial resources available, and inclusive decision-making processes.  While there were some references to the much anticipated Food Policy for Canada, the relationship between it and the ideas envisaged by the Barton Report was absent from most of the day’s exchanges. There was relatively little discussion about the potential trade-offs between intensifying agricultural production for export and the overall sustainability of our food system.

Sustainability More than a Marketing Strategy

Enhancing public trust and marketing the safety and sustainability of our agricultural products were themes that ran throughout most of the panel discussions, though an in-depth conversation on long-term food security here at home and in importing countries was missing. The report notes a growing skepticism toward trade in some parts of the world, however, instead of asking the hard questions about how it can best be used to benefit people, we focus on monetizing trust and sustainability as a brand. Trade has always been an important aspect of ensuring food security, but it must be asked, what is the point of increased trade in agri-food products if the means by which this is achieved threaten long-term production or food access for Canadians or those in importing countries? As Diana Bronson noted, there is a difference between viewing economic growth as a means to an end and an end in itself.  Sustainable production and trade must be processes used for the benefit of the earth and its inhabitants, and not merely as a way to increase market share.

More Voices to the Table

This is where the report misses the mark, and where, perhaps, we missed an opportunity to have a deeper discussion. If there is truly going to be a national conversation about the future of agriculture in this country, it needs to involve all stakeholders. At present, the under-resourced modes of agricultural production informed by Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, environmental stewardship, and community, as well as broader civil society concerns, are sidelined, while large-scale production businesses receive a disproportionate amount of attention and resources from policy makers.  Increasingly, Food Secure Canada is invited into some of these conversations that previously only involved industry and government, but civil society perspectives are not yet fully integrated into how the future of agriculture is framed. Until we are truly able to have one conversation about the future of food in Canada, the food policy agenda risks being sidelined by a narrow economic agenda that will do little for most Canadians.  


The report of CAPI’s consultations is expected mid-June.


Rhonda Ferguson recently joined Food Secure Canada as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Charles Levoke at Lakehead University.