Industry voices dominate at Canadian Food Summit

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Fellow Canadians, have you eaten today?

If you did -- and even, or especially, if you didn't for lack of physical or economic access to food -- you should know that behind closed doors sits a group of industry leaders claiming to be non-partisan, objective, independent and representative. They are hammering out a national food strategy for Canada.

On April 9 and 10, the Conference Board of Canada hosted their 2nd Canadian Food Summit in Toronto, an event focusing on, in their own words, "constructive ways to make the most of our opportunities, resources and talent to achieve the great economic potential of the food sector and meet the full range of Canadians' food needs."

Industry interests get prominence 

 Conference participants included an interesting array of representatives from government, civil society and industry -- with industry interests most prominently featured in all of the presentations, panels, and plenaries.

Representatives and voices came from Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Weston Bakeries, Nestle Waters, Loblaw Companies Limited, McCain Foods Limited, H.J. Heinz Company of Canada, and several biotech companies including CropLife Canada, Cargill Limited, and Syngenta Canada Inc.

It's worth mentioning that April 9 was also the pan-Canadian Day of Action against genetically modified Alfalfa, as 38 communities rallied to protest its commercial release (one just down the road from the Food Summit at St. Lawrence Market).

The cost of a ticket to the Summit ranged between $695 for a non-profit or small business to $1,225 for a corporate or government representative, making the event inaccessible for some of the voices most needed at the table for consultation -- anyone who experiences hunger, those with small farm or food enterprises, students and youth, and those without disposable income for mid-week events that take them away from day jobs.

To increase the representation in the room, the J.W. McConnell Foundation funded 10 non-profit organizations to attend -- people who made full use of their entrance badges to ask the difficult questions in each and every plenary session, and were among the few to stay until the bitter end (by which point most of the industry players had long since gone home).

Average Canadians not setting the food agenda 

The Summit purported to be a platform to "engage delegates in refining the draft Canadian Food Strategy," which is being developed by the Centre for Food in Canada (CFIC). It costs $11,400 annually to join the Centre for Food in Canada's Steering Committee as a participant investor, which buys you passes to biannual meetings and special events, access to research findings, and the right to offer input on the choice of research and meeting topics.

If you hope to have more say, you can contribute $50,000 annually to become a Champion Investor, which grants you the right to define the research agenda for CFIC, access research results before public release, and advise CFIC in its planning and decision making.

So where does that leave the average Canadian in the Canadian Food Strategy? Clearly, you are not setting the agenda. The CFIC and Conference Board of Canada suggest you have the opportunity to offer feedback on what they are creating, proudly citing their 13 focus groups they held across the country, including one in the North! Yes, you are being offered a strategy that is akin to the pre-cooked, packaged and processed meals that many of these industry leaders derive their livelihoods from -- and a consultation process that feels like a difficult to locate customer feedback hotline number hidden on the back of the box.

The Food Summit was falsely billed as inclusive, as the front cover of the conference program proclaimed, "Help shape the Canadian Food Strategy by taking part in live consultations!" The "in depth discussion and dialogue" it claimed to be offering were, in reality, five minute question periods following hour-long presentations. One hour's worth of unmediated conversation in small self-directed groups on pre-cooked outcomes and actions falling out of the CFIC's five priorities and eight strategic goals, heavily weighted toward "industry prosperity," concluded the two-day event.

Neo-Malthusian fearmongering prefaced panels at the Food Summit, as speaker after speaker forewarned of burgeoning populations and the need for increasing yields and efficiencies through innovations.

Tim Brown, President and CEO of Nestle Waters North America assured the audience that "there is technology that is going to be solutions for this stuff." Meanwhile, co-panelists waxed poetic on the possibilities for monetizing Canada's excess -- including our land, food and water.

Little industry interest in household food security 

It may be that we are all afraid -- both industry and civil society -- but for very different reasons and of very different outcomes. Perhaps to appease the strident voices of citizen groups and non-profit participants, a session on Household Food Security was included on Day 2 of the Summit, at the beginning of which there was an exodus of nearly half the plenary's participants. An industry statement? Of the remaining audience, in an instant poll asking if they would consider including action in their business to further household food security, 18 per cent said no and 16 per cent said maybe.

Alarmingly, civil society and industry are at a point where the same language is being used to describe challenges and visions for the future of food; however, these matching vocabularies are underpinned by vastly different meanings. For an example of each, read the Centre for Food in Canada's report on Governing Food, as compared with Food Secure Canada's position paper on Food Democracy and Governance.

Opinion within the food industry on the relevance of the Centre for Food in Canada seems divided, as the attendance at the Summit was an estimated half of the 2012 Summit, and the Conference Board of Canada made personal phone calls to invite participants to attend.

Christie Young, Executive Director of FarmStart, remarked: "The idea that you can develop a national food strategy that ends supply management, gets 'government out of the way,' rationalizes and coordinates regulatory frameworks across provinces and builds a 'Canada brand' and all the quality assurance that goes with it without aiming it at government at all seems dependent on the unfathomable good will of industry players who are all very competitive."

It's hard not to question the legitimacy and purpose of the whole event, especially after scouring the CFIC's research reports in further detail. For a group that claims to recognize the value and importance of working with civil society and government to further a national food strategy, the Conference Board of Canada's actions speak loud and clear. Government is referred to as merely a 'stakeholder' in the CFIC research reports, while the olive branch extended by Food Secure Canada to co-host the 3rd Food Summit was sharply rejected.

Towards a people's food policy 

Food Secure Canada spent three years engaged in kitchen table talks with over 3,500 Canadians in order to listen to the needs of Canadians in the development of The People's Food Policy, which is deeply rooted in the concept of food sovereignty.

This internationally-recognized approach values food providers, localizes food systems, works with nature, and puts control into the hands of ordinary people at the local and grassroots level. Food Secure Canada is not the only organization working on national food policy, but it is the only group calling for a food policy in the context of food sovereignty, acknowledging the links between health, hunger and sustainability, and including ordinary Canadians as the primary policy reference points.

Lauren Baker, Vice Chair of Food Secure Canada and Coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, argues, "We need a whole of society approach to the development of a national food policy. One that sees food as a public good that generates health, environmental sustainability as well as economic opportunity." Baker asks: "How do we meaningfully engage a much broader group of food system players in this discussion?"

So let's continue the conversation, and call upon values-aligned members of industry to join the civil society movement for progressive food policy to support healthy food systems and communities. As an individual, consider discussing these issues with others with whom you may not normally engage on the topic of food or public policy. Forward this article to a friend who has not seen it, but who by virtue of their need to eat on a daily basis may have some ideas about what is needed to create a truly nourishing food system in our country.

We need to make sure this process is deep, deliberative, dialogic and truly democratic.


Hannah Renglich holds an MA in Natural Resources and Peace from the UN-mandated University for Peace and a bilingual BA in International Studies from Glendon College, York University. For the past seven years, Hannah has worked with food security organizations as well as on ecological farms and community gardens, feeding her interests in food sovereignty and environmental justice. Hannah is fascinated by the power of co-operation and the facilitation of social consciousness, and motivated by the potential of small differences to fuel impactful change. She sits on the boards of the Carrot Cache, the West End Food Co-op, and REAP-Canada, as well as the advisory councils of Urban Produce and Nourishing Ontario.  She writes and teaches about food justice and building a culture of peace through food through the PeaceMeal project. While getting acquainted with the world, Hannah is trying to find a way to apply her energy toward the development of hope and human agency, while gleefully coordinating the Ontario-wide network of Local Organic Food Co-operatives.

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