National Advisory Council on Economic Growth addresses “ag-food:” a civil society perspective

By Kathleen Gibson and Keith Robinson

In March 2016, the Minister of Finance established the Advisory Council on Economic Growth (ACEG), with a mandate “to develop advice on concrete policy actions to help create the conditions for strong and sustained long-term economic growth.”  Its most recent report, released in February, includes the ag-food sector under the heading Unleashing the Growth Potential of Key Sectors.

Greater policy attention to food and agriculture in general is positive. However, this report and what it proposes do not – in our view – represent a full spectrum of innovation, and fail to address some critical shortcomings of existing food systems and related policy.

The ACEG’s synopsis of ag-food in Canada provides a familiar focus on Canada’s expertise in producing commodities for export. Certainly, exports are important to a small-population, large-land-mass country like Canada.  However, it is surprising that a sector-wide report makes so little mention of the domestic market, especially at a time when consumers (and provinces) are avidly interested in local food.

Economic growth in the 21st century cannot be the whole story or prescription when it comes to food.  The global operating context – economically, socially and environmentally – is far from stable and is likely to become less, rather than more, predictable and stable in coming years. Uncertain times call for flexible, adaptive, diversified strategies and management.

Here are four areas of concern to us with the ag-food recommendations of the ACEG:

Issue analysis.  Scant attention is paid to sustainability, climate change, health or hunger in relation to food or to critically important related factors such as fossil fuel dependence and unequal distribution of income.  Global food systems – if uniquely focused on growth and failing to take these factors into account - are locked into an unsustainable trajectory.[i]

Perspectives. The above issues have everything to do with the rise of the environmental and food movements over the last 50 years. Consideration of environmental, cultural and social perspectives on food, both domestic and international – and the economic choices that arise from them - can provide greater diversity and resilience as all sectors consider how Canadians and the rest of the world will be fed as world population exceeds 9 billion.  Social, health and environmental dividends are potential “value adds” that can be delivered by local production for local markets, something that institutional food procurement, for example, could usefully support.

A broad range of civil society, private and public sector bodies are involved in food in Canada, yet the report mentions only the private sector, not the full spectrum of participants.  This limitation affects all of the report’s process proposals, including an Ag-Food Growth Council, value chain task forces, an interdepartmental task force on food and more.

Obstacles to growth.  The report has a significant focus on clearing away obstacles to economic growth, though offering little precision on what these obstacles are.  At the same time, there is emphasis on the importance to consumers of food with a high trust quotient. Some policies tagged as economic obstacles (e.g. trade restrictions or supply management) have an environmental or social case which contribute to that trust: these should be taken into account.

National food policy.  Government, private and not-for-profit sector representatives are currently engaged in interdepartmental discussions about the possible content, structure and ongoing direction of a national food policy for Canada.  The only reference to the National Food “Strategy” in this report is in the context of supporting “Canada’s reputation as a source of “trusted food” through international marketing in collaboration with the private sector … emphasizing the safety, accessibility, affordability, sustainability, nutritional quality, and health attributes of our agfood products” – in other words, as a branding tool.  To us, this sells short the potential of a collaboratively designed, interdepartmental, multisectoral National Food Policy, with an emphasis on health, sustainability and community food security.

It’s significant that an influential body like the ACEG is calling for more attention to the ag-food sector.  Several of its process suggestions are interesting. However, if diversity is key to sustainability and if systems thinking and adaptive management are key for 21st-century problem solving, the sole economic focus and restricted number of recommended participants and perspectives mentioned in this report will not effectively serve the potential of Canada’s full ag-food sector.

The ACEG certainly has the ear of the Minister of Finance, and presumably the entire senior bureaucracy reads the reports.  But reports are advice, and it is not clear which recommendations resonate with the government, and which ones are actually actionable. Let’s hope that as they read this advice, and weigh the recommendations, government managers are also paying attention to the other food-related policy processes out there, the range of sectors currently engaged, and the diversity of perspectives available.

Kathleen Gibson is a food policy analyst working on sustainable food systems nationally and in BC.

Keith Robinson is a former federal public servant, and has worked at AAFC and CFIA, among others. He teaches food policy at Carleton University.

[i] The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, led by Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, suggests in a landmark 2016 report entitled From Uniformity to Diversity that global food systems are locked into an unsustainable trajectory in eight distinct ways.