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Trudeau's government to grab right end of the food stick

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Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay

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If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's instructions to his new Minister of Agriculture are followed, Canada will soon lead the pack of G20 economically powerful countries when it comes to food policy.

Among the duties listed in Trudeau's public mandate letter to Minister Lawrence MacAulay is one to "develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country."

Although the challenge is daunting, the bar could not be set any lower. Amazingly, fewer than four nations in the world (Wales, Scotland, Sweden and Finland) have ever adopted anything resembling a genuine food policy, and no large industrially advanced nation has even tried to come close.

That virtually universal government blind eye to food policy is precisely what gives Trudeau's mandate letter its significance. It is arguably one of the most tantalizing declarations about food policy anywhere in the world.

Let me explain why this shift in the understanding and governance of food has such profound importance.

As obvious and natural as food's essential importance seems to any person who enjoys eating good meals at regular intervals, food is a verboten four-letter word for government bureaucrats.

Most governments have an energy policy, water policy, industrial policy, health policy, transportation policy, environment policy, agricultural policy and fish policy, but then disperse responsibility for food among a wide range of ministries or departments that have no eye, lens or taste for food. As a consequence, when any of these ministries for health, transportation, energy, environment and so on reach for food, they grab it at the wrong end of the policy stick.

It doesn't take a food expert to know that grabbing this end of the stick will create gooey and unpleasant results. As agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry put it with regard to one glaring aspect, it leads to a healthcare system with no appreciation for or accountability to food, and a food system with no appreciation for or responsibility to health.

Changing government architecture so that departments of transportation, energy, water, environment and health link are part of an overarching food policy, as one well-known writer might put it, changes everything.

At long last, the policy stick can be grabbed at the right end.

A foundational food policy allows a government to say what no government has said before -- we will design a healthy, local and sustainable food system because that minimizes our need for expensive and unnecessary follow-up expenditures on:

  • energy to process, store and sell food in packages that withstand long shelf life;
  • transportation for a long-distance food system (a fifth of all city car trips are to buy food, and a third of highway trucks carry food);
  • water that subsidizes water-intense food products such as beef and pop;
  • environment clean-ups resulting from polluting fertilizers and pesticides;
  • a healthcare system consumed by chronic diseases associated with food abuse;
  • and on and on...because the list of food-related costs that are always assumed -- and never calculated as "externalized" downstream costs relating back to faulty upstream food decisions -- is very long.

The government tradition of assuming agriculture and food belong together, and that responsibility for food can be subsumed within a host of unrelated departments that have no food mandate, goes back to the distant past -- a time when the great majority of the world's people produced food for a living, and almost all people cooked their meals from foods they bought whole and then cooked from scratch.

That thinking deserves a label: best before 1954.  

The reason why today's ministers of agriculture are called Ministers of Agriculture and Agri-Food is that since 1954, when the term "agri-business" was coined, agriculture and food have been infused by products offered by a relatively small number of behemoth-sized corporations. These agri-food corporations provide engineered seeds and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for farmers, industrial processing and packaging, mass distribution and retail, as well as massively-scaled food preparation and service -- to the point that half of all meals are now eaten away from home, and over a quarter of meals are eaten in the car or at a desk.

It is these agri-businesses that benefit most from stale-dated government architecture, because the government support for their lifeblood services is thereby covered by an invisibility cloak more brilliant than Harry Potter's -- it hides the externalized costs of a agri-food industry that stands between producers and eaters of food in a variety of government departments that can't be traced back to food.

That subterfuge is the result of a stale-dated food policy. We now have a golden opportunity to hold an open discussion on an alternative architecture. As the Prime Minister so wisely said shortly after the election: this is 2015.

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