Policy advocates

Understanding food policy advocacy in Canada

Confronting the many ways the dominant food system says "no".

Cases of food policy advocacy in Canada

The inner transition to enable change

Understanding food policy advocacy in Canada

How will food policy change come about?  We've written extensively on this, so see our book, MacRae, R.J. and E. Abergel (eds). 2012. Health and Sustainability in the Canadian Food System: advocacy and opportunity for civil society. UBC Press, Vancouver, BC.

and article, MacRae, R.J. and M. Winfield. 2016. A little regulatory pluralism with your counter-hegemonic advocacy? An approach to joined up food policy change in Canada.  Canadian Food Studies 3(1).

It must first be acknowledged that there are contested interpretations about whether governments are actually interested in deep sustainability, health and equity. A related question is whether the state supports a more pluralistic approach to decision making (see Goal 7 Participation).  This contestation arises because of the historical role of many states in defending the interests of capital and the social and economic elites that benefit from capital accumulation.  Many governments have appeared to embrace change in order to retain legitimacy and maintain social cohesion so that the key dimensions of capitalism can be sustained.  Within these tensions lie many of the opportunities for policy advocacy.  And states are not monolithic and uniform in their approaches and functions which means opportunities arise, but often unevenly across spaces and time (for more on these themes, see Roman-Alcalá, 2017).  A key presumption of this site is that states will not completely give up their sovereignty to other actors, but will over time share power with a more diverse group of actors.

Civil society actors, although looking for alternative approaches to government advocacy that might have greater chance of solving problems, have been slow to realize that shifts are underway within the state and have not necessarily recognized the opportunities and challenges inherent to government efforts to find “next generation” policy and regulatory instruments. In Canada, the slow response time by non-governmental actors has been blamed on a weak civil society sector lacking strong institutional and organizational capacity.

A normative approach requires drivers of change and, in the Canadian food system, these normative drivers take different forms:

  • Farm and commodity groups and agri-food firms, the traditional policy community (Skogstad, 2012), advocate for specific or broad changes to a wide range of processes that affect their membership. These are typically about removing specific obstacles or constructing new types of supports.  Interventions can also be defensive, fending off changes that government or social movement groups propose.
  • Social movements apply pressures that the state feels compelled to respond to, usually articulated around specific food system practices or products (e.g., factory farming, genetically engineered organisms, specific pesticides to be banned). Most food movement actors are oriented to this approach. Elzen et al. (2011) call this normative contestation from outsiders.
  • Strange bed-fellow alliances are constructed that typically involve social movement actors and the traditional agricultural/food processing policy community. Such alliances are increasingly part of the Canadian food system landscape because so many organizations across the advocacy spectrum are dismayed with the course of food policy (for a case study on pesticides, see MacRae et al., 2012).
  • Civil service actors no longer necessarily follow directives from political bodies. The demise of the traditional relationship between elected and unelected officials (see Savoie, 2003)  means that the civil service can overtly or covertly push for change, somewhat independent of political directives.  Canada’s first Agricultural Policy Framework in 2002 was largely a civil service construction, as is the basic architecture of genetically engineered food regulation (see Abergel and Barrett, 2002).
  • State mediated advisory processes created to manage policy change, in part a response to Treasury Board directives in the early 2000s to open up participation beyond traditional policy networks
  • Researchers and health professionals trigger reviews of existing regulation, typically regarding suitable levels of exposure to, or consumption of, substances.

Sandwell (2012) believes that although the term “food movement” has increasing currency, it remains contentious. Some social movement literature suggests that the “food movement” is more a series of related or networked movements working semi-independently. Alliances have formed across thematic areas as: 1) collectively negotiated frameworks of analysis and action;  2)  diverse and growing networks; or  3)  shared repertoires of action. Sandwell (2012) states: “The Food Movement has gradually emerged out of a variety of different critiques that are now seen as related and interpenetrating. Though total consensus has definitely not been achieved and may never emerge, the last decade has seen an increasing number of actors and groups espousing frameworks that view many different problems as importantly interrelated.”

Koc et al., (2008) provide a history of the Canadian food movement’s activities within several of the above modes, focusing on normative contestation and participation in state mediated advisory processes. Through both successes and failures, it is clear from this history that the much of the food movement still operates on punctuated equilibrium, coalition framework and power elite approaches (see Stackowiak, 2013). Following Kingdon’s (1995) typology, the tendency is to focus on the formal policy windows, rather than the unpredictable and less formal ones.  Extrapolating from Day (2005), other food movement actors practice activities beyond the traditional conception of counter-hegemony. A broader understanding of social resistance is required, one that includes the construction of alternative approaches that lie outside the dominant system and work with the state on evolutionary change (also known as regulatory pluralism). Unfortunately, practicing regulatory pluralism remains an ongoing challenge (Koc et al., 2008; MacRae and Abergel, 2012).  Thus, a wide range of activities are undertaken, but food organizations display varying degrees of skill and resourcing, depending on the approach taken to policy change.

The food movement in Canada is not as evolved as the environmental movement. In reviewing 40 years of ENGO advocacy, Winfield (2012) cautions that:

  • Institutionalization of an agenda doesn’t necessarily mean a paradigm shift has taken place (in other words, critical reflections on what appear to be successes are always required);
  • Sophisticated strategic analysis and execution is required to ensure the most effective interventions for the long term at the least cost to civil society;
  • Creative and entrepreneurial approaches are especially required when the dominant paradigm is deeply embedded in institutions. Hill (1994:372-3) elaborates on two pertinent elements of this embeddedness: that the standard of proof for many bureaucratic organizations is the criminal law standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, and that often deeply embedded commitments to ministerial regulation are the norm.  Consequently, the prospects of a state directed policy community or regulatory pluralism are limited;
  • Constructing alliances representing broad sectors of support for policy change has been very important.

The general policy change literature suggests a set of guiding questions for food policy analysts, typically not well examined by social movement actors (in particular, understanding the governing policy paradigms, the jurisdictions and structures of governance and loci of decision making, and the range of potentially applicable instruments). The questions are as follows:

Governing and Policy Paradigms/Regime and Landscape conditions

  • How firmly embedded is the status quo? What is the role of the state in supporting the status quo or is it more deeply cultural and economic with minimal current state intervention?  What is the role of ideas/discourses? To what extent are the environmental and technological contexts important to understanding the change process?  Geels (2011) refers to this as regime rules: “regime rules are cognitive routines and shared beliefs, capabilities and competences, lifestyles and user practices, favourable institutional arrangements and regulations, and legally binding contracts. Because existing regimes are characterized by lock-in, innovation occurs incrementally, with small adjustments accumulating into stable trajectories. These trajectories occur not only in technology, but also in cultural, political, scientific, market and industrial dimensions. While science, technology, politics, markets, user preferences and cultural meanings have their own dynamics, coordinated by different sub-regimes, they also interpenetrate and co-evolve with each other” Tactically, this affects how advocates might push for  new policies/tools vs. modifications to existing ones and the extent to which the strategies engage the state vs. wider socio-cultural and economic phenomena.

Institutional Context/Loci of Decision-making

  • What level of government has lead jurisdiction? Are other levels of government competing for leadership on the file? Or is the issue one that everyone wants to avoid?
  • Where within the decision making structures are decisions being made?  Particularly, is the issue a Parliamentary discussion?  Or are decisions largely being made at a sub-parliamentary level (see Savoie, 1999, 2003)
  • What unit of analysis is appropriate? Multiple departments across one level?  Multiple departments across multiple levels, a sub-unit within one department?

Roles of Non-State Actors

  • Where do the issues fit traditionally on the private sector – NGO – public sector spectrum of activity?
  • How skillful and resourced are CSOs on the issue?

Potential for Niche to Regime/Landscape Transitions

  • Are there niches or on-the-ground exemplars that show how practice can guide better policy, and how policy improvements can lead to more on-the-ground activity ? What instruments are suitable?

Sean Moore of  Advocacy School and Innoweave provides detailed information on how NGOs can improve their policy advocacy  skills through  a process he calls constructive engagement.

For many issues, mobilizing the public acceptance will be important.  It is important, however, to distinguish an agenda built on what the citizens appear willing to accept, and an agenda that is designed to move public opinion as part of an advocacy campaign.  This site is focused on the latter approach, that as part of a constructive engagement strategy, advocates will need to employ sophisticated tactics to encourage the public to support change.  Much has been written and practised on this topic. An example from Ontario's energy sector, the shutdown of coal - fired plants, is useful for elaborating how advocates for change influenced the public narrative (Rosenbloom, 2018). Food advocates will need to draw on those, and other, experiences for food system change.

Certainly, media play an important role in food policy advocacy, but not necessarily in the way advocates have traditional worked media relations.  The traditional approach assumed that most decisions were taken by elected officials who had to be convinced to change with public pressure generated by negative media coverage.  But a more nuanced understanding of where decisions are made requires a more nuanced approach to media campaigns. The scale of agenda, and its stage of evolution, are also important considerations. When decisions are largely within the civil service, media exposure can cause unelected officials to clam up and dive deep, limiting engagement with non-state actors.  Other issues, for example, sustainable diet transition will require campaigns that target the public, with the intention to encourage individual and community change that in turn can push policy makers to support such shifts. There is evidence that such campaigns have had some impact on health related behaviour such as tobacco consumption and impaired driving, and lessons can be drawn from those experiences (cf. Elder et al., 2004; Bala et al., 2013).  Finally, campaigns can help build unexpected alliances.  Groups normally in opposition can discover through public discourses that their views are not so disparate, helping to build "strange bedfellow" alliances.

Public participation and engagement is enhanced by improved citizenship skills.  Effective collaborative participation is a skill that is significantly lacking in Canadian culture. Many who are good at it have a natural instinct for effective collaboration, but for most of us, such skills do not come automatically but must be cultivated.  However, there are few effective places where this happens.  Basic skills such as setting, organizing and facilitating discussions, negotiation and conflict resolution, and implementation planning are under developed. Civics classes in many provincial high school curricula create the opportunity, but are typically under-resourced and under-delivered.  Voluntary organizations can provide on the ground training, but they  typically do not have the time or resources to invest sufficiently in skills development. Improving all this is critically important, though beyond the scope of this site since it affects all aspects of Canadian society.  A comprehensive plan from provincial and federal governments is required.