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Why is a  food system that promotes health, equity and sustainability important?

A food system  is a “chain of activities connecting food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management, as well as all of the associated regulatory institutions and activities” (Pothukuchi and Kaufmann, 2000:113).  Understanding food systems then requires "food system thinking". “Food systems thinking reflects an awareness of how actions by one group in the system affect other groups, as well as affecting the environment, the economy, the fabric of society, and the health of the population, and ultimately consumers.” (MacRae and Donahue, 2013: 2)

Five key concepts:
  1. Food, air and water are the 3 biological requirements of life for most organisms.  Air and water we still treat as a common resource (though not always well).  For the most part, you don't have to reach into your pocket to pay to breathe or drink water.  But most of us have to buy food.
  2. So why have a food system except to make sure  the population is properly nourished?  Nourishment is, thus, the ultimate purpose of a food system and to make sure that everyone is well nourished, there must be equitable distribution of food and social cohesion.  The food system cannot exist just to make sure that some people are well nourished and others are not.
  3. Nourishment creates health. Canada has publicly-funded health insurance, so we are all paying for each other's diseases and conditions associated with poor diet.  This gives us a fundamental rationale for government intervention to ensure our food system allows all to be well fed.
  4.  Let's organize the food systems as if we intend to stay.  It must be profoundly sustainable in perpetuity.
  5. The food system is also organized to create economic opportunities for participants, but this is not its highest purpose.  The food economy is a tool to achieve the higher purposes of health, sustainability and equity.

What is good about our current food system?

Sources: AAFC, 2016, Fisheries and Oceans 2016

  1.  There is enough food produced for everyone and the stores are usually full. About 70% of the food we consume is produced within the country.  And 50% of what we produce, we export.
  2. Many people are employed.  The food system is responsible for 1 job in 8, probably the largest employer in the country. The majority of those jobs are in food service.  Over 45000 people are employed in commercial fishing (2015) and another 26000 in seafood processing.
  3. It's a significant contributor to our GDP (6.7%). The fisheries generate $6.6 billion annually in exports and aquaculture $1 billion in GDP.  If we add up all the economic components of all the parts of the food system, it's a top 5 sub sector of the Canadian economy.
  4. Starvation is not a major issue.
  5. Our food goes around the world. Distribution and packaging  logistics are very sophisticated. We have an international reputation for quality food.
  6. Compared to many other countries, we have a good food safety system.
  7. We're productive, efficient and innovative.  We produce more per acre and more per animal than ever before.
  8. Food is relatively affordable and prices relatively stable.  The average person is only spending around 10% of household income on food in the home.
  9. Newcomers to Canada have always brought their home food. All of us eat better because a wide variety of foods from around the world are available.
  10. Canadians enjoy food celebrations, from birthday parties to religious and cultural events. Breaking bread together is a major part of our socializing and cultures.

Why joined up food policy?

There are many negative side effects associated with our food system successes. The dominant food system survives in part because of some mythological narratives that drive (or excuse) the behaviour of many of its actors.  Lappé and Collins (1986) were early articulators of this problem at an international level. Particularly pertinent to Canada are the following myths  and this site provides details on how to challenge them.

  1. Constantly increasing yield is critical to keeping the world fed. A corollary is that Canada must be a breadbasket to the world.  In reality, food access is primarily a product of the intersecting forces of inequitable distribution, economic power, food waste and inefficiency.  The models that estimate global food supply and demand, providing "evidence" for the mythology, are criticized for concluding the planet faces looming scarcity because they are based on unsupportable assumptions about the way the global food system functions.  They underestimate supply and overestimate demand which drives a conclusion that greater yields are required (Latham, 2021). Crying scarcity in the face of surplus allows the dominant economic actors to keep supply costs low while charging higher prices. This focus on yield creates numerous equity, sustainability and food quality problems.
  2. We are highly efficient and innovative.  We are, but often for the wrong purposes and with the wrong measures of success.  Little of our efficiency and innovative is focused on sustainability, health promotion, and equity.
  3. The food access problem is only an income problem.  Income is certainly critical for ensuring everyone can access a nourishing diet.  But the structure of the food system is also a significant part of the problem.
  4. The market can solve our environmental problems.  If that were true, our many problems would already be solved.  The market has proven itself incapable of adequately responding to the destruction of the resource base on which the food system depends.
  5. The food system is over-regulated by governments.  In reality, the food system is riddled with market failures created by market rules, functions and actors.  Only governments have the authority to reshape how markets work to meet  purposes.

Because of our disjointed approach to food, the  many problems  receive limited attention from governments, perhaps because they are the types of "wicked problems: that many governments struggle to address (Chalifour and McLeod-Kilmurray, 2016)..  Although the grocery stores are usually full, which creates an image of success and stability, Canada also has:

  • Hunger in a land of plenty: some 10% of Canadians cannot afford a nourishing diet even though there is lots of food to go round (Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, 2012). The system has created inequitable food access by geography (north-south and east-west), demography (first nation peoples, racialized minorities, the elderly) and income. Charities are the most visible response to hunger (food banks, other caring community responses), and their existence is often named as a reason for inadequate government responses.
  • A focus on export when regional economy experts tell us that import substitution produces more economic activity and jobs than does exports (Bendavid-Val, 1991). Canada imports 30% of what we consume (AAFC, 2015) and probably half of that is foods we can produce and store here (ERL, HCA, and MacRae, 2015).  Global movement of food is actually a relatively small percentage of global food consumption (less than 12%, see Oosterveer and Sonnenfeld, 2012), so the dominant narrative regarding the importance of international food trade (and Canada's role in it) is somewhat inaccurate.
  • Many farms only survive because of off-farm income; the boom and bust cycles of most farming sectors mean farm income is highly variable and farms continue to go under (AAFC, 2015).
  • Many diseases and conditions have diet as a major risk factor (e.g., many cancers, heart disease, type II diabetes, obesity, low birth weight births, hypertension) but very little attention is paid to food as a health promotion strategy. Over half of the foods available in supermarkets are not fully coherent with the Canada Food Guide (Franco-Arellano et al., 2019). Children are particularly vulnerable, with long term consequences. Disjointed food policy is compounded by the perverse combination of doctors who understand little about food and food companies that only provide unhealthy products (TFPC, 1996).
  • Farms and food companies are major contributors to soil, air and water pollution (Eilers, MacKay, Graham et al, 2005; Clearwater, Martin and Hoppe,  2016) when they can be substantial mitigators of these problems. Governments know where the environmental hotspots are but are doing little to help farms and firms become great environmental stewards, despite a stated commitment to sustainable development.

A joined up food policy creates the framework, mandate and implementation plan for solving these, and other problems. Joined up food policy means a coherent, consistent, substantial and comprehensive policy environment that links food system function and behaviour to the higher order goals of health promotion, equity and environmental sustainability. In particular, this means making certain goals of the current system, such as high yield, high volume, high levels of export, and narrow economic conceptions of efficiency and productivity subservient to these higher-order purposes. These current goals are important obviously, but they their achievement must be modified so that they support the achievement of the higher order goals.

Although there are different ways to view and act on food policy (see Candel and Daugbjerg, 2019), what is  presented here is aligned with an  outputs approach that helps move the food system in a specific direction.  A joined up food policy must address Howlett (2009)'s three levels: abstract  aims, operationalizable objectives, and specific targets. A key additional dimension, beyond Howlett's typology, is the integration with a solutions transition framework (see Solutions). IPES-Food has created a short animated video that summarizes the need for an integrated approach.

Indigenous-settler relations: land, water, food, and justice 

Canada's food system is built on a colonial history.

International efforts to join up food policy (adapted from Ad hoc Working Group on Food Policy Governance, 2017Andree et al., 2018)

Many jurisdictions have been working on creating joined up food policy, some for many decades. Finland set up a National Nutrition Council in 1936 and restructured it in the early 1980s to better facilitate policy discussion and coordination. Norway's National Nutrition Council was established in 1975 to address  cardiovascular disease within Norway, domestic agricultural production and the global food crisis of the mid-1970s (Milio, 1988). Brazil's National Food and Nutrition Security Policy (1999) was designed to address poverty and improve the diet, nutrition, and health of the  population. Scotland (2009), the United Kingdom (2010), Wales (2010), Australia (2013), and Ireland (2015) all created national food plans and strategies primarily aimed at growing agricultural exports while concurrently addressing  issues such as climate change. To advance its food policy goals, each country has developed  substantive procedural and institutional policy tools and most have introduced some multi-stakeholder and intra/inter-governmental co-governance mechanisms to assist with implementation, stakeholder engagement and monitoring.

History of attempts to create food policy in Canada

Canada has experienced numerous moments when a national joined up food policy could have been created. Our history is checkered with near commitments to a coordinated, integrated approach, with one period during WWII when governments actively intervened in the food system.

The federal government has recently announced pieces of a national food policy (see News posts, right hand column). Several national and regional organizations have produced food policies or food strategy documents the past few years, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute, the Centre for Food in Canada (Conference Board of Canada), Food Secure Canada, the Ontario food and nutrition strategy, Food Matters Manitoba. Andree et al. (2019)  provide an analysis of their commonalities and differences.

Food supply chains are complex

There was a time when acquiring food was obvious.  Most people grew or raised some of their own food and traded for the rest. It was often difficult to acquire, process and store everything a family needed. Now less of us are producing our own food.  Some still hunt and fish, and harvest wild food. Some garden, can and freeze.  Most of us, however, are reliant on producers and processors, often far away, who provide our local stores with things we can buy. The average food molecule in Canada is now estimated to travel 4000 km along complex supply chains.

The federal government initiative (2016)

Just after being elected in 2015, the Prime Minister instructed many of his new cabinet ministers to develop a national food policy.

Overview scan of food policy development at the provincial level

Just as the situation federally, no provinces have a truly joined up food policy, although Quebec's Food Strategy is moving in the right direction.  NGOs have proposed some joined up policies for the provinces (e.g., Nfld, Ontario).  Provincial action to support food policy change is highly variable. FLEdGE and Food Secure Canada have reviewed provincial food policy development. See also the work of Food-EPI Canada 2017 on policy and program changes to support healthy food environments.

Overview scan of municipal food policy development

Many municipalities are leaders in food policy development. They are the closed jurisdiction to the citizenry, but they have limited jurisdiction over food system activities [see Constitutional Provisions], so this restricts what they are able to do. A 2013 report provides an overview of developments at the municipal level.

Conceptual images of complex food systems change

The IPES-Food report, Towards a common food policy for the European Union: the policy reform and realignment that is required to build sustainable food systems in Europe, has many very helpful conceptual graphics of the food systems change process.  See in particular Figure 3 (p. 29), Figure 5 (p. 39) and Figure 11 (p. 110).

What does an effective policy advocate do?

With increasingly complex food system problems (some refer to them as wicked problems, Raymer, 2006) has come the realization that traditional Canadian government policy goals, institutional arrangements and instruments are insufficient to solve them. But, food policy change is complex for policy makers, because (MacRae, 2011):

  • it’s about the intersections between a number of policy systems that are historically divided intellectually, constitutionally and departmentally
  • governments have no obvious institutional place from which to work, and the instruments of multi-departmental policy making are in their infancy; there is no department of food, nor any cabinet level food portfolio.
  • supporting new approaches means extensively confronting many existing and entrenched policy frameworks and traditions
  • it means new kinds of collaborations with non-state actors, particularly the community sector
  • it means having to address the externalized costs of conventional food, health, economic and social systems, and these externalized costs are only partially understood and quantified
  • it means understanding food as more than a marketable commodity, which creates problems for certain departments
  • it challenges many of the central tenets of current agricultural and economic development, and health care system that concentrates on cures rather than prevention.

Because of this complexity, there's a tendency among many actors to simplify, to focus on a few aspects of the problem, or a few solutions (for example, see Bancerz, 2019).  In my view, this just makes the problems more wicked.

It's also not enough just to identify what needs to be changed. Advocates for change have to do the research, design and implement a strategy to make their proposals a reality, confronting the institutional resistance to change ....