Expert panel at the University of Ottawa: A National Food Policy Council is vital for Canada

As the Government has been developing A Food Policy for Canada, actors from all parts of the food system have come together to express their support for a National Food Policy Council. To discuss the challenges and opportunities around a such a council, Food Secure Canada and CFICE gathered leaders from civil society, academia and industry for a special panel on March 23, 2018 at the University of Ottawa. The panel was chaired by Larry McDermott, a member of Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation and Executive Director of Plenty Canada, who opened the dialogue with some reflections on co-governance from a First Nations perspective.


Bringing more voices to the table

DIANA BRONSON (Executive director of Food Secure Canada) highlighted the need for more voices at the table when it comes to food policy. There are a myriad of challenges inherent in food policy governance: complex food issues, multiple levels of decision-making and juggling competing priorities and interests. But inherent in these challenges is great potential as well. As an independent advisory body to the government, the Council could do much that a single government or policy  by itself cannot do: build consensus and engagement across diverse stakeholder groups, commission research to inform policy, and set benchmarks to monitor progress.


Capitalizing on collective intelligence

Next, LAUREN BAKER (expert on food systems issues) drew on her experience as the  former coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council for ideas of what a national council could look like. According to Lauren, a food policy council could have 3 general roles: facilitating connections, contributing a systems-wide lens, and using collective intelligence to promote policy coherence with other ministries. Along with these opportunities are also challenges, including where the food policy council is housed, setting aside possibly competing interests to best advise the council, and setting up a an effective secretariat.


Balancing differing interests with a whole food system lens

According to DON BUCKINGHAM (President and CEO of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI)), this is an exciting moment for food policy because we are “seeing people in the same room who are not normally in the same room.” This is important because of the scope of a national food policy, which would need to address the concerns of farmers, and consumers, balancing economic growth with the conservation of natural resources. As such, it is vital for the food policy to have a whole food system analysis, governed by a group where dialogue and cooperation would be key.


A governing council is vital to an effective food policy

With decades of experience in international policy, PAT MOONEY (Founder of the ETC Group and member of IPES Food) gave an overview of food councils globally, and the political and societal contexts that led to the Committee on World Food Security, a forum within the UN that is a space for exchange and debate on global food security issues. Seeing the iterations of food policy governance internationally, he underscored the fact that “the national food policy is going to be a national food platitude if we don’t have a Council backing it up.” The challenge lies in making room for all actors at the table, to facilitate access for those who are marginalized. However, Pat also sees hope, where civil society and the private sector have come together in the past to influence policy for the better.


An opportunity for cross-cultural governance

LARRY MCDERMOTT (Executive Director of Plenty Canada) gave a personal account on growing up in an Indigenous community, learning to value the land and how it can nourish us. A national food policy should recognize the interdependence between food and our natural resources, in addition to the richness of Indigenous food culture and history. This would require diverse leadership with cross-cultural governance.   He also cited the new Pathways 2020 on Canada’s Biodiversity targets with its Indigenous Circle of Elders, as a potential model for the food policy council.


An example for local and international food policy

For CATHERINE MAH (Associate professor, Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University), the upcoming national food policy and its governance holds a lot of potential.  Recognizing that a bulk of the action takes place at the local level, a National Food Policy Council could set guiding principles for local initiatives across the country. The council could also be an example for lower level projects, reinforcing the values of co-governance, bottom-up policy-making, creating room marginalized groups while at the same time looking outward to set an example on food policy internationally. Catherine brought the conversation back to how governance is key, because policy by itself cannot change the food system.


This panel was followed by a lively dialogue, with questions from the audience in the room and online. Among the issues discussed were:

  • The importance of a national food policy to be coherent with international food policy
  • The vital issue of workers’ rights within the food system
  • Sharing lessons learned between all levels of food policy governance


Special thanks to PETER ANDRÉE, Carleton University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for supporting CFICE and FSC in organizing this panel.