National Perspectives on a National Food Policy

A summary of one of the interactive roundtables held at Resetting the Table, FSC's 9th Assembly, bringing together the leaders of major national organizations seeking to influence Canada’s national food policy.

Compiled from notes by Lynn Roblin (FSC Volunteer), Peter Andrée (session chair) and Hugo Martorell (FSC)

This roundtable discussion included participants from five organizations seeking to inform the development of a National Food Policy (NFP) in Canada.

Presenters: Ron Bonnett, Canadian Federation of Agriculture; Diana Bronson, Food Secure Canada; Jean-Charles LeVallée, Centre for Food in Canada; David McInnes, Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute; Kim Scott, Assembly of First Nations. Chair: Peter Andrée, Carleton University. Chaired by Professor Peter Andrée from Carleton University.

The session began with the question, “What difference will the proposed NFP have made, 10-20 years from now?”

Jean-Charles Le Vallée (Centre for Food in Canada) spoke from the perspective of his work on The Conference Board’s Canadian Food Strategy. Dr Le Vallée began by stating that “a food policy will have helped Canada respond to shocks and changes over time”. He spoke about the potential role of an NFP in improving food industry prosperity, food safety, the health and well-being of Canadians, reducing the ecological footprint of the food sector and agriculture, and in the progressive realization of food security. A key role of the NFP will be to set goals and targets on these and other issues, and then require reporting on outcomes at national and provincial levels. It should be comprehensive in scope. On health outcomes that an NFP can help to improve, Dr. Le Vallée noted that “Canadians aged 14 years or more are not close to consuming their required eight servings a day of fruit and vegetables recommended by the food guide, or even the five servings a day reported by Statistics Canada”.

Ron Bonnett, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, was involved in the development of the CFA’s national food policy. Bonnett says, “now more than ever we require a strategy that can deal with many elements, including climate change.” It should ensure that the achievements of agriculture are measured by more than productivity goals, and include health and environmental goals. This is important to farmers because “Canada exports 65% of what we grow and we need to know the needs of the domestic and world markets.” Canada’s role in producing for the world is a “moral responsibility.”  Mr. Bonnett added that a new national strategy will put demands on all players to ensure that food produced in Canada meets social and environmental needs. An NFP should address a range of issues, including food affordability and social issues. Developing it should implicate a range of government players, from the Department of Health to Indigenous and Northern Affairs. 

Kim Scott from the Assembly of First Nations stated that an NFP should reinforce key national values of equity, democracy, transparency and accountability. These can be reinforced through greater access to healthy food and greater support of localized production systems. Ms. Scott elaborated on this idea, noting the importance of innovation in a rapidly changing world. The potential for food access,  food production and storage in remote communities will be tied to the growth in renewable energy and storage: “Diesel-dependent communities will be going solar and increasing their food self-sufficiency.” Reflecting on the core principle of accountability, Ms. Scott noted that “child poverty in Manitoba is 70%. Who is held to account?” According to Scott, “children are living in poverty and are food insecure [and] we need scaled-up solutions” that have been shown to be effective.  

Diana Bronson of Food Secure Canada emphasized the need for “more diversity in farm and food production, an enabled environment and measurement especially around achieving the right to food” as “four million Canadians don’t have it.”  Food Secure Canada played a central role in creating the citizen-driven food policy document entitled Resetting the Table - A people's food policy for Canada.  Ms. Bronson stressed that “solutions in the south are not going to solve issues in the North.” Instead, “the North has to do what works best in their communities.”  An NFP must also fully recognize the principle of food sovereignty.  Bronson also said we need healthy school nutrition programs: “No child should be kept from meeting their full potential because they are hungry at school.” An NFP should move from a “patchwork to coherence.” FSC advocates for “a forum that will bring governmental, para-governmental, industry and civil society together at the same table.” 

David McInnes, from the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute worked on the Canadian Agrifood Destination food strategy and more recently on the report on Canada’s Agri-Food Future . Mr. McInnes spoke about how food policy connects us all – food industry, plant and animal agriculture, Indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations. He stressed that “trust” is what should connect everyone. The core principles of a national food strategy should be defined by enhancing trust which depends on metrics and transparency – a means to help deliver on a range of objectives including on food security, food safety and health. He argued that the NFP could help achieve the “grand aspiration” of Canada being accepted as “the most trusted food system on the planet.” He also noted that we face a “grand challenge” – that is, looking to one policy framework to address all food-related issues spanning a full range of economic, social, health and environmental priorities. In order to achieve greater trust, we need to be careful about what to base such claims on. He noted the proliferation of claims like “100% sustainable seafood”, “sustainable palm oil”, or “sustainable coffee”: “How does Canada differentiate itself going forward” should be a key driver of policy and a means to link economic objectives, increase competitiveness and advance social and health food priorities.

Over the course of the next hour, panellists shared their aspirations in an effort to identify common ground, as well as clarity on differences. High on the list of core goals for an NFP for Ms. Bronson and Ms. Scott are zero hunger and that every child is fed. For Mr. Bonnett, the top priority is that Canadian food be the preferred choice for both domestic and international consumers. From the conversation, it was clear that this goal can only be achieved through strengthened public trust in agri-food systems and that building such trust must involve real dialogue between food producers, the food industry, and consumers. Establishing trust also requires greater transparency of data and “independent scientific evidence” to inform dialogue.

Some panellists did not want to rank priorities, arguing that a food strategy for the nation is complex and that we can’t prioritize health over production of food, for example. This led to discussion about whether the NFP will be about agriculture, social policy, or some combination. There were a number of questions around the implementation of a national food policy. Is it best to see this as a “Pan-Canadian Food Strategy” involving multiple levels of government in collaboration with other partners? Where would be the institutional home of the NFP? Who will be held accountable (a Ministry of Food?)? Should a national food policy council be established, as proposed by Food Secure Canada? If so, should it be arms-length from the government, and should it include a research mandate? What are models for a national strategy that have been successfully implemented from other sectors? How will we connect municipal, provincial and national food policy efforts? One suggested model of a cross-jurisdictional policy and programming is “ParticipACTION”. Another mentioned was the Canada Health Act. What can we learn from other countries’ food policy efforts – e.g. Finland, which achieved decreasing heart disease through prevention programs, or Ireland, which promotes itself as having the “greenest agriculture in the world” but is highly dependent on EU subsidies? Another question centred on how action on Indigenous food sovereignty is to be reconciled with the fact that many treaty processes are ongoing.

A central point of agreement among all of the panellists was that an NFP should have a strong role for stakeholders (or even be “stakeholder-led”), both in definition and implementation. Dr. Le Vallée argued that it should build on existing efforts, such as the policy documents named above. One panel member noted that a key step in that direction is for the organizations around this table to “build working relationships together.” That work needs to involve breaking down some of the binaries of “good and bad.”

Dr. Elizabeth Moore, who works at Agriculture and AgriFood Canada and sits on the inter-departmental committee working on the NFP file, thanked speakers and the audience for the discussion and mentioned that there will be public consultations over 2017 to identify common ground and priorities for action. She said: “a national food policy is not a means to the end but will be evolving and evergreen.”

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