Food Policy for Canada

Joined up food policy to create a healthy, just, and sustainable food system

The Canadian government announced (June 2019) pieces of a national food policy (see news posts, right hand column). As currently presented, it is substantially incomplete. How are we going to create a Canadian food system that promotes health, justice, and sustainability? It will require many changes to all aspects of the food system from farm inputs to food retailing to the design of our kitchens and bathrooms. And many kinds of interventions will be required to solve the current problems. The COVID-19 emergency is accentuating many of these problems, and many decision makers are recognizing food system vulnerabilities, but will they act to create more resilience?

Why focus on government policy? This website has a primary emphasis on government policies and instruments as significant ways to bring about change. This approach rests on the idea that the state has a significant role in ensuring the health of the population, equitable access to resources, and the long-term sustainability of our society.  It contradicts the view of many that the market can be the primary provider of such services, and significant literature on this site will document the failings of the market. Others believe that mobilizing from outside the state is more viable, with a focus on oppositional politics and the construction of alternative food systems and economies. This is sometimes referred to as the "pre-figurative" approach in contrast to the strategic approach of changing the rules of the system, including government policy (cf. Rosol et al., 2022). From my experiences and reading of the literature, a blended approach is required, in part because sustainability, population health, and equity cannot be achieved by individuals and small groups alone, in part because the process of shifting sustainability from a niche activity to a societal norm - sometimes referred to as the leap of public scale -  is unlikely to be achieved with any urgency without support from the state (cf. Parenti, 2015; Clément, 2016; González de Molina et al., 2019). The policy change components to achieve this shift have received less attention than social mobilization and construction of alternatives, so I’ve chosen to focus on government policy.  Well designed and co-ordinated policies, programs, and other implementation instruments have power to influence, encourage and confront institutions, individuals and market actors (see Buchan et al., 2019) and reshape the rules, trajectory and activities of the food system. Many progressive market actors are looking to the state to shift the underlying rules so as to make their interventions more viable. In other words, the state can do a much better job than it does currently to create a more desirable food system, but it will need to be encouraged to do so since as many have highlighted the state can often be an instrument of status quo domination. While many focus on government norms and the beliefs and values of government actors, the focus here is more on the regulative elements (policies, work rules, other instruments) of government, in part because according to some (cf. Palthe, 2014), regulative elements (though obviously affected by other elements) can be changed more rapidly than norms, values, and beliefs. But the process of changing these elements can also help to transform the state. As Parenti (2015:843) articulated in reference to the challenges of accelerating action on climate change, "[t]he state is a crucial ecology making institution within the metabolism of capitalism" and ‘[f]or Left politics to be effective movements, especially in the face of the climate crisis, they must come up with strategies that engage and attempt to transform the state".

My other motivation is the circumstances of alternative and community food initiatives in Canada. Many have demonstrated positive impacts, but for relatively small numbers of people. The organizations running such initiatives struggle to scale them up and out to have a wider transformative impact. There are several elements to this struggle (eg., competitive pressures from the dominant firms, skills, resources, consumer demand), but a significant one is the policy system. Typically, initiatives at a certain point run into government policies and rules that block their evolution or they recognize how government incentives could advance what they're doing. Many organizations do not have the skills and resources to properly engage in policy advocacy and this impedes their development. As discussed under Get Started, Policy advocates, even organizations focusing on government policy are struggling to be effective for a wide range of reasons addressed on this site (admittedly, it is a difficult undertaking that requires considerable skill). All this slows down the change process, wastes limited resources, and creates frustration for those working in the alternative sectors and this can lead to individual burnout and organizational failures. But to ignore the state, because of its frequent complicity in current problems, is to dismiss the potential of policy advocacy to succeed and there are too many examples of success for me to hold that view.

On this site, we present the detailed changes that will be required to create a better food system, the pathways from our current situation to a more desirable future. As food system redesign unfolds, there must be similar transformations in other domains of society - e.g., housing, energy, finance, transport, urban design - and these transition plans are in development from multiple sources. These cannot be fully elaborated here but the intersections are explored. Given the detail provided on this site, it is written primarily for people already interested or involved in food system change, and decision makers with responsibility for food system functions. You choose how to pursue your interests by clicking on the buttons above or below.  For those interested in a very condensed version of this site, it can be found here.

How is this site organized?

The site is a work in progress (many sections have not yet been written, many links have yet to be connected), but there are four different ways to access solutions on the site (see the menu titles at the top). You can start with the goals of a joined up food policy and then following the links in the change areas under each goal.  You can also access the solutions according to their stage of transition (general observations on the transition process can be accessed by clicking on the Solutions button, and the rest available through the drop-down menu is under construction). The core government instruments are a third avenue, as this section provides information on existing instruments and the proposed changes to them. The fourth entry point is through the policy actors.

There are navigation buttons at the top and bottom of the pages. Most of the buttons at the top can be both clicked on directly to provide some introductory material, and you can use the drop-down menu to pursue specific elements.

Provide feedback on site content to Your feedback can help improve the site and the content. Please suggest additional material that should be added to the site.

We will regularly update the content to fill gaps in our understanding. When you come across a section in development, feel free to make suggestions on sources, ideas and strategies pertinent to that section and we’ll work them into our research or identify others that might undertake the inquiry. You'll see 3 symbols when segments are still in development:

Yet to be fully researched but there may be some preliminary material and/or an outline. This content should be treated with caution since it will change

Some preliminary ideas are presented but have yet to be expanded or certain subsections have been written, but others are still outstanding

Segment needs updating

Sections without any of these symbols have been completed for the moment.  Because of the constantly changing state of food policy issues, keeping all sections up to date is a challenge.

Text in blue will have a link at a later stage. Citations can be found on the Works Cited page, see footer.

See the footer for guidance on how to cite material on this website.

A note on the research approach: normative inquiry

This site represents a normative research approach, or "what could be" research. It is different from research on "what is", the dominant focus of most inquiry rooted in European social and physical sciences (sometimes referred to as the positivist, reductionist tradition). Normative inquiry still uses "what is" research, however, to set the stage for examining "what could be". I look for patterns, using Diesing's (1972) pattern method, a variant of grounded theory (see Buchan et al., 2019). Having developed theories of change in the food system over many years of inquiry, I then apply them to existing phenomena and future possibilities. That process of applying theory to phenomena invariably results in modifications to the theory. This type of research remains rare, though there is some movement towards normative inquiry consistent with the approach taken here, for example, ex-ante integrated policy mix assessments to solve resource consumption problems (cf. Ekvall et al., 2016).

A key challenge of normative work is validity, since the traditional methods of validation used in positive inquiry, statistics, and mathematics, are not usually pertinent. There are sometimes normative modelling studies for single policy interventions, but no agreed upon approach to policy evaluation when the focus is on joined up instrument mixes that have yet to be implemented. I also extensively use studies that attempt to summarize the existing literature assessing interventions that are likely to move us toward sustainability, equity, and health. In this sense, normative research requires an ex-ante (before the event) assessment rather than an ex-post (after the event) one. It is not possible to prove something in the traditional sense or to know necessarily in advance that a transition approach will work. I rely on triangulation from different conceptual frameworks and sources (see Foran et al., 2014) and face validity, convergent or discriminant validity, catalytic validity, and whether the work is useful and illuminating (Reason and Rowan, 1981). Face validity is whether it looks right to the discriminating observer. Convergent or discriminant validity is defined by Reason and Rowan [1981:240] as .. “when a number of measures which purport to measure the same thing all point in the same direction". Contextual validity addresses how any piece of data fits in with the whole picture. Catalytic validity identifies whether individuals or groups can take action based on the study results. Finally, the work should be useful and illuminating, providing some clarity on a topic that was not previously apparent. As a transition unfolds, there must be a continuous process of assessment and adjustment.

Three things are critical, I find, to this kind of inquiry:

  1. I have to identify the conceptual frameworks for any given subject that bring explanatory power to the inquiry;
  2. I have to be disciplined about linking my research to those frameworks. For example, are the solutions I'm reading about consistent with the theory, and if not, how must they be modified? And if many solutions reveal weaknesses in the theory, how must it be adapted?
  3. Time with the material.

This approach runs overtly counter to the status quo and the rationalist model of policy development that relies extensively on neo-liberal economic analysis. It also challenges the view that policy change is largely a product of external forces, that decision makers are always resistant, and only shift when these forces are overwhelming. A normative approach is rooted in a belief that what we are doing currently is wholly insufficient and, while these other interpretations are part of the story,  that collectively we can mobilize the skills and resources to create something better.  It builds on the idea "that collective actors can come together around a common policy change program" (Hassenteufal and Zittoun, 2014).

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