Conference Board of Canada set to unveil Canadian Food Strategy

| March 19, 2014
Photo: flickr/jpopesku1

As an organization with an active interest in a national food policy for Canada, Food Secure Canada (FSC) has been watching the Conference Board of Canada (CBOC)'s progress on its "Canadian Food Strategy." This work has been under way since 2010.

The CBOC has issued 19 research papers and has held a nationwide consultation process based on an online survey. It has held two national "Food Summits" and, as we go to press, is about to unveil its national food strategy at a third Summit, March 18-19, 2014 in Toronto.

The Conference Board offers the following rationale for the development of its Canadian Food Strategy:

There is a new urgency to safeguard and sustain the health and profitability of the producers, manufacturers, shippers, traders, distributors and retailers in Canada's food system, who are pivotal to ensuring the quality, healthiness and safety of the food supply to Canadians. Appetites are growing for a national strategy for food -- a grand vision --that connects the parts and the players in the food system and that can guide and stimulate efforts to change it.

The Conference Board's process is about and for the industrial food sector. It is legitimate and useful for these players in the national food system to express their views. However, theirs is not the whole picture and their process omits many valuable issues, questions and policy perspectives coming from civil society. This was outlined in an op-ed we published last year as well as at the Tasting Food Democracy event which featured some of the voices that would not be heard at the Summit (although one of the speakers, Don Mills of Local Food Plus, will indeed have a platform this year).

Three other national food strategy documents were published in 2011 as the CBOC process was getting under way. FSC, after involving 3,500 Canadians, released Resetting the Table, which identified five key policy directions: localism, ecological production, poverty elimination, a national Children and Food strategy and full citizen participation in food policy development. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) released Towards a National Food Strategy, and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) published Canada's Agri-Food Destination: A New Strategic Approach.

Our sense is that, over time, some government observers and some of its own sponsors have become somewhat disenchanted with the CBOC process and products. Certainly the survey and related consultation process in 2013 were criticized for their limited nature and biased content. One of the most important failings of the consultation was that an unusually diverse group of food system participants were gathered face to face but without time for an open exchange of views.

Nineteen policy research papers have now been published. Overall however, much is missing and many connections are not being made in the research. We would say, no: food security is not just about access to food; good nutrition is not just about consumer choices; food literacy is not just about nutrition; and farming is not just about efficiency.

There is no discussion about failures of social policy resulting in a situation where people in poverty are stuck with cheap food; about the loss of connection with culturally appropriate, especially indigenous, foods being a factor in chronic disease; about the "colonization" of food and what that means for cultural recovery; about food security as a social determinant of health; about agro-ecology and a multifunctional approach to agriculture; about new food technologies and ways to evaluate them; about sustainability of place and the need to build up and protect soil and water resources, especially in light of climate change; or about food sovereignty at personal, community or national levels: the matter of who decides about our sustenance.

These are some of the discussions FSC would want to be part of in a public policy context. We need to consider the ecological, cultural and social justice aspects of food, which have resonance beyond simple economic interests and a "bigger is better" paradigm. Every food transaction has multiple impacts. That's why arguably the most important research paper in the group is the one on performance metrics: we will only see and evaluate what we measure.

In December 2013, Diana Bronson, Executive Director of FSC, was invited by Carleton University to participate in a panel discussion about national food policy with Michael Bloom from the CBOC, Terry Audla from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Ron Bennett from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture before an audience of academics, MPs and others. This discussion bringing different actors together is the kind of debate we need to be having in order to come up with a food policy worthy of the name.

Going forward, as the Canadian Food Strategy finds its place amongst the various other food policies that are being proposed, we hope for more comprehensive discussions and ongoing opportunities for wide-ranging dialogue about a national food policy for Canada.

Kathleen Gibson is a FSC Board member, Victoria BC.

This piece appeared on Food Secure Canada and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/jpopesku1

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