The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food announced two pieces of the national food policy on June 17 in Montreal (see press release and backgrounder).
The federal government has now made public its overarching goal, based the Minister says on what emerged from the consultations undertaken since 2016: “All people in Canada are able to access a sufficient amount of safe, nutritious and culturally diverse food. Canada’s food system is resilient and innovative, sustains our environment, and supports our economy.” (Press release, June 17, 2019)
The Minister also announced a new body for food system governance, a Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council: “The Council will bring together the expertise and diversity needed beyond government to address the challenges of today, as well as the future of Canada’s food system. An open and transparent process, that includes letters of nomination, will begin over the summer.” (Press release, June 17, 2019)
The announcement also summarizes the 2019 budget measures already put before the House of Commons in March (see blog post on this).
There are a few things to be happy about, and many things that provoke concern.
- The new overarching goal statement goes beyond agriculture and food processing, the traditional domains of AAFC. It’s a step forward from earlier goal statements, for example the one from AAFC’s 2014-15 Sustainable Development Strategy, which expressed that a "commitment to sustainable development flows from its mandate of helping the agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products industries compete in domestic and international markets, deriving economic returns to the sector and the Canadian economy as a whole. Sustainable management of natural resources is a core requirement for an economically successful agricultural sector." Notable in the new food policy is the place of economy relative to earlier statements like this one from 2014-15. AAFC appears to have finally recognized that the food economy should be a servant of other objectives, rather than a prime objective in itself. Relatedly encouraging is the absence of trade from the new goal. Importantly, cultural diverse food is highlighted as is a focus on the resilience of the food system.
- The creation of a multi-stakeholder Council creates new opportunities to interact with the federal government on food issues. Although many municipalities have Food Policy Councils linked directly to government (see MacRae and Donahue, 2013), such entities have not previously been established at a national level.
- The overarching goal begins with “sufficient food” and “safety”. These are the traditional domains of agriculture departments. It is not clear that AAFC has any real sense of the need to manage food demand at the same time as supply (see Goal 2 on this site).
- There is no mention of food being affordable. This suggests that the federal government doesn’t want to deal with the fundamental issues surrounding food access for low income people. The backgrounder does mention the Poverty Reduction strategy and existing benefit programs, and clearly income is a big part of access, but these issues are not directly connected to the overarching goal. We already have a cheap food policy at the farm gate but some 85% of the average consumer dollar goes to everyone in between the farmer and the eater. We have not designed our food system to be affordable (well, really, we haven’t designed it all since its structure and function is primarily left to flawed market forces). If some accounts are accurate, that the average food item changes hands 30 times and all those actors have to get paid, then the system is overly complex. The existence of long distance transport and multiple transport modes (the average food molecule in Canada is estimated to travel 4000 km), distribution delays, over-packaging, food waste, infrastructure deficiencies, ultra-processed food and the research establishment that supports it, inefficient land use and energy inefficiency all speak to unnecessary complexity and added costs. The “cheapness” of the current system is also based on cost externalization which we ultimately pay for in the degradation of our environment and health. It appears these matters will not be addressed in any significant way.
- There is no mention of health. The overarching goal doesn’t say “sustains our environment and health”. This suggests that the focus is more narrowly on food quality and safety rather than on how food can be integrated with preventative health care to address many problems in our publicly funded health care system.
- The Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council will be controlled by the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister’s staff since they approve the appointments. The budget will very likely have to come from within the Department since specific allocations were not named in the budget. With “Advisory” in the title and given the description in the backgrounder, it is likely that the government doesn’t want to allow the Council too much influence over policy and program design which government officials consider their domain. The history of municipal Food Policy Councils in North America suggests that limiting the role to an advisory one makes these bodies less effective. The research of Sasha McNicoll on the design of a national food policy council is particularly instructive, but will the federal government take account of any of that work?
- The programming named in the 2019 budget is woefully inadequate relative to the overarching goal. There is no way to accomplish it with the instruments being deployed so far.
To summarize what parts are missing (see Instruments this website for details), there is no mention of the legislative and regulatory agenda to be implemented to remove impediments to this overarching goal and to encourage changes among actors that will advance it quickly. There is no discussion about how regulatory protocols for staff will be altered to drive forward this agenda. How will existing programs be modified to make them consistent with this new approach? What new and innovative instruments might be brought to bear on these challenges? How will government shift its internal decision-making to make a joined-up approach a reality? Finally, given that food is a divided jurisdiction in Canada, how will the federal government interact with the provinces and municipalities to assure coordinated execution across the country?
There are supposed to be additional announcements coming soon in other locations across the country. I hope some of these pieces will be added. If they’re not, then the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council will have to encourage the government to do so. Otherwise, it’s not much of national food policy.