Canadians need a national food policy, not a food industry business model

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Canada's food guide. Photo: Kathy Cassidy/Flickr

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Christmas can bring out the best in us. We're encouraged to think of others and remember the holiday season's humble beginnings. Some invite the lonely to share a meal, while others volunteer at their local food banks.

If the crass commercialism is hard to avoid, at least we can console ourselves by shopping for others. And then there's always a moment when the Dickensian ghost of Christmas future descends upon us, encouraging shifts in behavior.

For those of us concerned about Canada's food policy (or lack of one), the ghost is already here and it has a clear message. Change course, it says, before it's too late.

Over 2.5 million Canadians are moderately or severely food-insecure. A quarter of Canadians are overweight or obese. One quarter of our family farms have gone out of business in the past two decades.

Calls for a national food policy that would bring together concerns around health, hunger and sustainability are growing louder. The voices are quite varied. There is the People's Food Policy Project, a popular initiative in which thousands of citizens participated. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food has made recommendations. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture's now has a National Food Strategy; all five political parties in the House of Commons have stated we need such a policy. And then there is perhaps the most well-resourced and vocal player of them all, the Conference Board of Canada.

The Conference Board launched a new institute in 2011 called the Centre for Food in Canada. It is running electronic and in-person "consultations" on the goals and actions it has defined regarding a Canadian food strategy.

The Centre for Food in Canada's mission is to create "a shared vision for the future of food in Canada." The Conference Board claims to be "objective" and "non-partisan," proudly stating that it does not lobby government. Take one look at its members' list and you'll see why it doesn't need to.

In fact, it doesn't so much have members as investors. The list of companies around the table is impressive: Loblaws, McCain Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, Cargill, Maple Leaf, Nestlé, to name just a few. These companies boast billions of dollars in sales and make hundreds of millions in annual profits.

Joining them at the table are government departments and agencies such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and even some provincial departments.

The Conference Board has invited the public sector to invest in this process as "they are responsible for the policy and regulatory environment within which the private sector corporations will operate." This conveniently omits the fact that the public sector has much bigger responsibilities: ensuring that private corporations do not undermine the public good, for one.

The food industry is now the biggest manufacturing sector in Canada. It employs the largest number of workers and generates $80 billion in annual sales. This is more than textile, paper, machinery and aerospace combined. Obviously, food companies will have a lot of say in any national food policy -- but we should not make the mistake of thinking that what is good for Loblaws is necessarily good for Canada.

No surprise, "industry prosperity" is the primary goal of the Conference Board process. While there are nods here and there to issues like healthy and safe food and sustainability, there is little that is new, innovative or substantive on these critical issues. Basically, the goals and actions contemplated in the documents released thus far are only those that can be easily accommodated by the food industry without damaging its current business model.

Furthermore, the Conference Board's documents scarcely mention hunger (which affects over two million Canadians), food insecurity in aboriginal communities or in the North (where the cost of food puts a healthy meal out of reach for many families), or the crisis of family farming (where export goals are trumping more local and sustainable markets despite the increased consumer interest in supporting them).

Canadians need a national food policy. Many of us were involved in drafting a blueprint for one, known as the People's Food Policy. What we don't need is yet another streamlined, fast-tracked, industry-led process that excludes the very voices that most need to be heard.

Is the federal government able to meet that challenge? Or has it been so downsized that it delegates critical government policy to privately-run think tanks? Can we really afford to leave the task of defining the future of food to some of the most profitable corporations in the country and expect the crumbs to trickle down to the hungry?

If so, cue that ghost.

Diana Bronson is executive director of Food Secure Canada, a Canada-wide membership-based organization with three inter-locking commitments: zero hunger, healthy and safe food and sustainable food systems. This article was first published in iPolitics.

Photo: Kathy Cassidy/Flickr

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