Government responds to House Ag committee report on A Food Policy for Canada: we have reason to be worried

Commentary: Rod MacRae

The federal government has responded to the House of Commons Standing Committee on  Agriculture and Agri-food report on A Food Policy for Canada (see earlier post this site).  The House Committee held hearings in the fall of 2017 and reported in December with 21 recommendations.

Because the federal government has missed all its self-reported deadlines on the development of a national food policy, this response is our first indication of its thinking.  We have reason to be worried.    There is little in the government’s response to suggest it has absorbed what tens of thousands of Canadians have told it in public consultations.  We should now expect that the national food policy will primarily be a statement about the status quo, what the federal government is already doing, with only minimal policy and program changes and additions. It will be a far cry from what was promised.

There are only a few weakly positive signals in the response:

  • The Poverty Reduction Strategy will address food insecurity. The government acknowledges that Canadians believe food security is a major priority for federal action.
  • The right to food is recognized in principle, which provides a little glimmer of hope, but it can be argued that this does not represent any shift from Canada’s long-standing position. The response highlights existing programs that it believes demonstrates Canada’s commitment. Although a signatory to many UN declarations related to food rights, implementation has always been deficient and there is no indication of a change in strategy.  See Right to Food on this site for more on this dilemma.
  • They suggest that the new Healthy Eating Strategy will affect food system organization to provide healthier food choices. But the response also reiterates the economic significance of the food sector, as if to remind us that this is, in their view, more important than health.
  • They recognize that Canada is behind other jurisdictions on food waste interventions. Unfortunately, they are only at the preliminary stages of developing a coherent strategy to address the problem.  They continue to focus on consumers as the main culprits rather than taking a full supply chain approach.  This is important because waste in the home is often a result of actions by other supply chain actors (see Food Waste Reduction this site).
  • There is solid support for supply management but no recognition of the need to transition to a demand – supply coordination approach (see Goal 2 this site).
  • The need to support community-based initiatives is recognized, but it’s not clear the government has a good handle on how to do this. Many NGOs have provided advice to governments on the right kinds of supports, but this advice is not reflected in the response.

The worrisome signs include:

  • The language suggests that the next agricultural policy framework, the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, will be the extent of environmental programming (see Goal 5 this site for elements of a more robust approach).
  • The response implies that supporting the productivity of producers will result in greater availability and affordability of food. This is a very weak interpretation of how food availability and pricing works across supply chains.  In particular, it doesn’t account for the ability of oligopolies to affect prices and what gets sold beyond the farm gate. Canada has the most oligopolized food system in the Western World (see Corporate Concentration this site).
  • As is typically the case in such responses, the government fails to acknowledge the weaknesses of its existing programs and the widespread efforts of other actors to improve them. A national food policy should address why many existing federal initiatives don’t work very well.
  • There’s no real understanding of how to support local and regional agriculture. The response names many federal supports but these primarily assist farmers focussed on export markets.  The government doesn’t recognize the contradiction of increasing export targets. It also fails to acknowledge that Canada is also one of the world’s largest food importers and that the rate of increase in import growth exceeds the rate of export growth, meaning that Canada risks becoming a food debtor nation in the long term.  Our participation in free trade agreements is highly problematic, and the federal government fails to recognize how to properly support local food systems within the constraints imposed by the deals (see Trade Agreements, this site).
  • The response displays a warped view of public trust. It does not say that public trust is built by addressing food system problems, implying that there are no legitimate reasons for the public to be distrustful.
  • The government remains stuck in an individual responsibility health model rather than a social determinants of health approach. With that comes a narrow conception of food literacy (see Food Literacy this site).
  • Failure to recognize organic food as a significant solution to many food system problems (analysis under construction in Sustainable Food, this site).
  • No recognition of the problems of the genetic engineering regulatory system.
  • Platitudes around labour markets, as the federal government has no real strategy (see Labour Force Development).
  • Weak support for a national food policy council (see earlier post this site on the proposal from the Ad hoc Working Group on Food Policy Governance and Goal 7).

This is all very disappointing.  Government officials announced a new approach to food policy when consultations were launched.  There’s little sign of it so far.