(Adapted from MacRae and Abergel, 2017)

Since the colonial period, agricultural production has been the primary driver of food policy, addressing particularly Canada’s obligations to Britain (Skogstad, 1987). Canada was also restricted by British colonial policy (later supported by Canadian leadership post independence) in its ability to produce industrial goods, a deliberate attempt to maintain reliance on British manufactured goods (Hedley, 2017).  Agriculture was also subservient to other interests, primarily immigration, national security, and economic development (Fowke, 1946:272; Britnell and Fowke, 1946). Western and Eastern agricultural development were also treated differently, with different policy instruments, for example, the Crow's Nest Pass Agreement that set a tariff for both moving grain east (and often then to export markets) and immigrants West. Such different approaches characterized much agricultural policy development until 1990 (Hedley, 2017).

The basic policy infrastructure of the food system was put in place in the late 19th and early 20th century, derived from powers of criminal law (e.g., the Inland Revenue Act (1875), the Adulteration Act (1884) which became  the Food and Drugs Act, early versions of what became the Pest Control Products Act) or trade and commerce (e.g., Canadian Agricultural Products Act and Meat Inspection Act) [1]. According to Hedley (2006), this approach is rooted in the thinking of John Stuart Mill (1965:800),

... governments ought to confine themselves to affording protection against force and fraud: that these two things apart, people should be free agents, able to take care of themselves and that so long as a person practices no violence or deception to the injury of others in person or property, legislatures and governments are in no way called upon to concern themselves about him.

Although Keynesian economic influences later shaped ideas on food supply, governments have remained very reluctant to intervene in food consumption issues (Hedley, 2006), a major impediment to creating a joined-up food policy.  The difficulty is also partly constitutional because there is limited legal foundation for marketing related or farm product commerce  interventions beyond the farmgate (Hedley, 2017).

The first food safety regulations were part of an 1875 amendment to the Inland Revenue Act, prohibiting the adulteration of food, drink and drugs, a significant focus of food system interventions at the time (McKinley, 1980). The link to food commerce has always complicated efforts to protect and ensure public health (for cases, see MacRae and Alden, 2002).

On the food production and distribution side, the historical and still dominant model is founded on positivist - reductionist traditions[2] in Western agricultural science and economics.  These fields have a long tradition of dividing scientific and economic problems into discrete, manageable pieces, essentially eliminating environmental context from the inquiry. The rise of industrial capitalism created a demand for tools for profit making, and scientists and industrialists collaborated to create them (Albury and Schwartz, 1982; Levins and Lewontin, 1985).  Many scientists, thus, were confining their interests to subjects of value to industrial capital.  With the successful development of sophisticated tools and technologies, it was easier to believe that nature could be endlessly managed and manipulated without negative consequences (Leiss, 1972).  Commitment to positivist-reductionist approaches was reinforced by the apparent effectiveness of the tools and technologies within a narrow frame of interpretation.  Powerful tools, however, invariably have multiple harmful side effects, although their significance is often not understood until significant damage has been done.

These philosophical roots remain central to most agricultural science, economics and policy today and many current problems are the secondary and tertiary negative effects of the productivist model. For example, most research devoted to reducing manure pollution is necessary because of earlier research and extension efforts that minimized the role of manure in creating soil fertility in favour of synthetic fertilizers.  The view of manure as a waste to be managed is now viewed as an error.

The Depression, that deeply affected many economic sectors, and Prairie drought during the 1930s had a major impact on farm and social policy as governments had to deal with hunger issues (rural as well as urban). Land management policies and programs were put in place (e.g., the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Agency (PFRA) and the authorities of the Canadian Wheat Board were expanded.  Poverty and rural outmigration[3] gave rise to social and political movements in the West, and all these processes contributed to the birth of social welfare. It also highlighted Canada’s vulnerability and dependence on commodity markets and reinforced Keynesian theories of state intervention in the economy.

The closest Canada has come to an integrated food policy was during WWII,  a period when the state could not rely on the wage and price system to properly allocate resources to the most important functions, and consequently chose to aggressively intervene in markets.  Following WWI, the federal government realized it had waited too long before intervening to correct market failures, with widespread food shortages and inflation the result. Essentially, the state realized that supply and demand would have to be coordinated in order to avoid the problems of WWI and that a range of legal and governing instruments and structures would have to be put in place. Governments wanted to allocate food and food resources so as to forestall malnutrition in the domestic population, feed the troops, meet agreed upon food exports to Britain and the USA, and avoid inflationary pressures.  Given the different foods being produced, distributed and consumed, the number of actors involved, and the regional characteristics of food production and distribution, such coordination required sophisticated intelligence gathering, cross-jurisdictional communication and some innovative instruments and governance mechanisms.  They would need still to depend on the expertise of the private sector, but create different rules and signals to move food and food production resources in the necessary ways.  All these changes were made under the auspices of the  War Measures Act (WMA), adopted quickly after war was declared (Mosby, 2014).

Unfortunately, this extensive array of new governance mechanisms (see Goal 2, DSC, Lessons from WWII for more), with extensive collaborations across government and the private sector, including NGOs, was largely dismantled right after the war ended (Britnell and Fowke, 1962; Mosby, 2014). However, in something of an exception to this general return to market confidence, the lack of domestic cooking oil gave rise to the development of canola, with significant state intervention producing what is now a major oilseed (Kneen, 1992).

There was, though, in the late 1970s a brief period in which food policy and the language of food systems were considered. The federal government was influenced by: Norway’s work on food policy (Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture 1975); the Nutrition Canada National Survey of 1970–1972 (Sabry, 1975); the Lalonde Report (1974) on health promotion; and the Report of the Committee on Diet and Cardiovascular Disease (Health Canada, 1976). Financial problems for farmers and dramatic food price increases also inspired some new discussions. A food strategy was consequently developed in 1977–8. Led by Agriculture Canada and Consumer and Corporate Affairs, the effort included a Deputy Ministers’ Committee on Food Policy and an Interdepartmental Steering Group on Food Policy. But their work did not significantly depart from earlier approaches to agricultural policy and was confined to seven major policy areas: income stabilization and support; trade policy and safeguards; research, information, and education; marketing and food aid; the processing, distribution, and retailing sectors; consumer concerns; and price stability, nutrition, and food safety. Notably absent were poverty and food insecurity, and corporate concentration in the food system was addressed in the discussion, but no interventions to correct it were proposed (Andree et al., 2018). “Government policies must continue to develop and expand Canada’s production and export strengths to ensure the adequacy of safe and nutritious food supplies for the domestic and export markets at reasonable prices which are responsive to competitive forces over time” (Interdepartmental Steering Group on Food Policy, 1978).  The strategy had no dedicated budget or monitoring, and limited directives (Andree et al., 2018).

Policy makers were concerned that national nutritional priorities should not be overridden by the economics of agriculture and asked that Nutrition Impact Statements be prepared for policy initiatives related to food. However, only one ever was, and a belief was retained that efficient operation of the marketplace was the best way to meet policy objectives. The initiative ultimately failed because of Agriculture Canada’s perceptions of negative impacts on its traditional clients, the food production, processing, and distribution sectors. The ministry was unwilling to entertain broader responsibilities. Some years later, Agriculture Canada did adopt a nutrition policy statement in support of Health Canada’s work on nutrition, but it reflected the primacy of production over nourishment of the population: “In order to support the Canadian agri-food industry, Agriculture Canada has a major responsibility with respect to nutrient composition and nutritional value of agri-food products” (Agriculture Canada, 1989).

In 1993, the agriculture department adopted a new name, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada (AAFC), and with it a resolutely more industrial and marketing approach that included food processors and distributors in the mix of clients. With it came a more export-oriented, productivity and competitive focus but this shift did little to encourage a joined-up food policy.  The agriculture mandate was more tightly tied to the innovation one, especially in the agricultural biotechnology sector. There were large investments in the 1990s to develop public/private research initiatives, and closer government-research industry relations led to commercialization of publicly-funded research as well as a series of changes to seed certification, new plant variety registration and ownership rules. The privatization of these formerly public processes continues to this day.

Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security (CAPFS), adopted on 16 October 1998, was another attempt at developing a national food policy. It was Canada’s response to the 1996 World Food Summit, at which Canada’s then agriculture minister, Ralph Goodale, was a star player. While the Plan used a multi-sectoral approach involving all levels of government, civil society organizations, and the private sector, and identified targets to achieve food security nationally and globally, it was a stillbirth, quickly forgotten with little public reaction to its implementation failures. CAPFS recognized that food security implied ”access to adequate food and sufficient food supplies and that poverty reduction, social justice and sustainable food systems are essential conditions” (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, 1998: 24). But, it was riddled with tensions and contradictions about social, economic, and environmental priorities, imbued as it was with Canada’s long-standing commitment to a productivist agricultural approach (Koç and Bas, 2012).

Separate from CAPFS, in 2002, the federal, provincial, and territorial governments agreed to a new agricultural policy framework with five ‘pillars’: business risk management, environmental protection, food safety, innovation, and rural renewal. Although an important attempt to make agricultural policy-making more coherent, it did not constitute a national food policy, being particularly weak on health, social, and cultural matters beyond those related to food safety. Renewed every 5 years or so since 2003[4], the framework reflects an awareness that significant environmental issues need to be addressed, especially in the face of threats to Canada’s international reputation on agri-environmental performance, but the impact of programs implemented to date has only been modest. Investments in ethanol biofuels and genetic engineering may actually cause more detrimental environmental and economic impacts over the long term (MacRae, Lynch and Martin, 2010; Abergel, 2012). However, the agreement created many new structures and lines of communication and thus provides a potential—though partial—template for a national food policy.

Midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC), Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) resumed discussions of a national food policy framework, but little information is publicly available on their motivation or progress. A 2005 draft document (National Food Policy Framework: Overview 2005) indicates that a central theme was policy coordination, that is, the need to create a system-wide approach to link agriculture, fisheries, health protection and promotion, and food inspection. However, the supply side of the food story, including food safety matters, appears to have remained the focus (Hedley 2006), with a narrow policy scope only modestly expanded from earlier food policy iterations. The commentary on the role of consumers focuses mostly on fraud prevention, building consumer confidence, and individual (rather than structural) commitments to healthy living, the historical approaches to consumer-related interventions. Interestingly, the draft refers to the CAPFS and its implementation. In fact, virtually all aspects of social development were proposed for implementation through CAPFS. On the surface, this appeared to be a way to revitalize the CAPFS, but little has transpired since 2005.

Health Canada’s involvement in food policy continues to be limited, its role confined to improving the nutritional quality of the food supply, defined primarily through dietary guidelines, monitoring nutrition labeling, and meeting the Food and Drugs Act regulations, many of which define what a food is (e.g., ice cream must contain a minimum specified level of dairy fat) including novel foods (i.e. biotech foods), rather than its role in a healthy diet or how its nutritional value might be optimized[5]. The healthy eating guidelines are not mandatory in any sense and they have been only minimally integrated into other policy arenas. They break down foods as nutrients, focusing on minimum requirements and fail to consider complex diets and whole foods as the basis of healthy eating. Most Canadians have little idea how to implement them in their meals. The federal Health Minister appears to recognize this problem and has proposed changes to address it as part of current government interest in a joined up food policy (see Actors, Federal Government, Prime Minster for more on the current initiative).


[1] This section is adapted from MacRae and Alden (2002).

[2] These scientific traditions "are based on several unprovable assumptions: (1) that the essential characteristics of any phenomenon are captured best by analyzing its parts: (2) that there is a sharp distinction between facts and values; (3) that only those facts that are measurable are indeed facts; and (4) that these measurable facts are more valid than other types of information or knowledge" (Dahlberg, 1993:294).

[3] For a quick overview, see Siamandas, G. Prairie Farmers and the Great Depression. http://timemachine.siamandas.com/PAGES/institutions/Prairie_farmers_great%20depression.htm

[4] The fourth round of negotiations is now underway, known as Growing Forward 3.

[5] Arguably, this is a problem of the Canadian constitution, that foods must be defined in order to be regulated, as per the criminal law powers assigned to the federal government.