Food system governance

Constitutional obstacles

The constitutional divisions, first imposed by the British North America Act of 1867, are major impediments to a unified approach.  Generally, the federal government has a lead policy role on matters related to cross-border commerce, farm financial safety nets, agricultural research and technology development, food and phytosanitary safety, food standards, packaging and labeling, and nutritional health (narrowly defined).  The provinces (and sometimes territories) also have supporting roles in these areas, and take the lead on matters related to commerce and food safety within their boundary, land use and agricultural land protection, property taxation, many areas of environmental protection, public health and agricultural extension. The two jurisdictions often negotiate on program design, with the federal government offering guidelines or rules to establish national coherence and equivalency, but the provinces often taking a lead role in program delivery.  The traditional funding formula in agriculture is 60% federal / 40% provincial and territorial.  Municipal involvement depends largely on the location of the municipality, and its province.  Urban municipalities generally have little direct role in food production and supply but because many have responsibilities for public health delivery (under the authority of the province), do engage in food inspection activities and nutritional health promotion.  Urban municipalities also affect food distribution through zoning policies that may determine food store and food company locations and their associated economic activity. Some actively promote urban agriculture. Rural municipalities can have more direct impacts on agriculture through zoning, and property and education tax decisions.  Municipalities often have a lead responsibility for household and commercial waste management, typically under rules promulgated by provinces.  Since a large part of the waste stream is food and food packaging, their policies and programs (or lack thereof) may indirectly impact food system behaviour.  Given such complex divisions of authority, the system can only work well with high levels of collaboration across jurisdictions, a situation often lacking as the different levels compete for authority or attempt to avoid responsibility for problematic files.

Similar jurisdictional complications exist in related policy areas with significant food system implications, such as transportation, social policy and health care. Stated Koc et al. (2008:126): “Over the years, the federal government has expanded its jurisdiction over income tax, unemployment insurance, social welfare programs, and a national health care plan. Yet, the administration of many food-related levers, such as education, labor, health care, agriculture, and social legislation, have remained under provincial jurisdiction. Municipal governments were left to fund and govern their own public health (including food inspection and health education), water supply, urban and regional planning, housing, recreation, transportation, and social services—all of which were directly or indirectly relevant to food system sustainability.”  As it relates to food security, they stated (Koc et al., 2008:131): “One underlying reason for federal inactivity on issues such as those identified in the Action Plan for Food Security is the broad and uncoordinated distribution of agriculture and food-related responsibilities among various branches of government. At the federal level, issues dealing with food production and processing are under the jurisdiction of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Industry Canada. Environment Canada often has a lead on sustainability files. When trade and foreign aid are involved, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Export Development Canada, and the Canadian International Development Agency are added to the mix. A similar complexity appears for nutrition-related matters, involving Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Yet hunger, poverty, local development, and equity concerns are handled by Human Resources and Social Development, Indian and Northern Affairs, Status of Women Canada, plus a variety of regional agencies. Since many of these portfolios are also the domain of provincial or municipal governments, the political system makes action on complex issues such as food security unmanageable. As well, it is very difficult for CSOs to stay abreast of developments at all these levels.”  Koc et al. (2008) referenced the somewhat paradoxical jurisdictional shifts that have occurred.  On the one hand, there has been the dispersion of some federal function to global institutions (see below). On the other, decentralizing tendencies, often associated with perceived budgetary pressures, has shifted many federal responsibilities to provincial or municipal governments. In this bifurcated environment, the ability of national/federal governments to create joined up food policy is hampered.

Since at least the 1930s, Canadian legislation and inter-governmental agreements have normally been broad and enabling, with the details provided partly in the regulations, but especially in directives, protocols, programmes, and codes of practice promulgated under the statute or agreement. This approach is designed, in part, to facilitate adjustments without the need for new parliamentary debate.  Major amendments to legislation occur infrequently (e.g., the Pest Control Products Act has typically only been significantly updated every 25-30 years, see MacRae et al., 2012), and require many years of discussion and consultation. However, the regulatory details are changed more frequently. This allows legislatures and Cabinets to provide broad direction and oversight, and for civil servants to implement the details, consistent with the political direction. To be effective, the civil service must be skilled, properly resourced and accountable to the political process. This contrasts with other jurisdictions, for example the European Union, which has a more prescriptive approach whereby legislation sets out more specific performance requirements and is less reliant on instruments created by the civil service to give force to the legislation.

The flexibility of the Canadian approach can be compromised by its reliance on instruments and staffing strategies affected by budgetary pressures, competing authority between agencies, efforts to prevent political oversight of bureaucratic activity, bureaucratic difficulties sorting through conflicting policy directives (for example, facilitating commerce versus minimizing risk), the overall competence of the civil service, and the related reliance on third party actors for execution, particularly the private sector (for pertinent food safety examples, see MacRae and Alden, 2002). This legislative approach also makes it more difficult for legislatures to determine and ensure programmatic, regulatory and administrative compliance with legislation and policy directives. If non-government parliamentarians (carrying out their traditional oversight functions) have the capacity and skills to identify non-congruence between an Act and its regulatory instruments, there are no practical measures at hand to correct the discrepancies[1].   This explains, in part, why the Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer and Access to Information processes have become so pertinent.

Consolidation of decision making (adapted from MacRae and Abergel, 2012)

The Canadian approach often allows decision-making to stay out of view because legislation is broadly enabling and regulations, regulatory protocols and policy directives are used to drive the implementation, and often carried out at the bureaucratic level.   The difficulty in identifying where the power lies is compounded by a certain obfuscation from the bureaucratic side about where and what the policy terrain is.  Issues run across departmental responsibilities or are not distinct, caught in other policy areas. In parallel to this process (and sometimes seemingly a contradiction of it), there has been some consolidation of political authority within Prime Minister's Office, making it more difficult to execute department level decision making without central approval (Savoie, 1999).

Consequently, advocates have frequently overestimating what the political level could accomplish on complex food system files, a phenomenon likely tied to larger structural transitions in governance and the shifting terrain between politicians and the civil service.  Equally, CSOs have often underestimated how much authority the bureaucratic level essentially had to implement, presuming that legislative or regulatory instruments were required.