Current government actions (the middle)

The primary focus of food system infrastructure support is conventional production agriculture and export markets. Despite what officials say - that they don't selectively favour firms and communities - they are clearly picking winners and losers in economic development and infrastructure supports. A representative response is the federal 2017 Economic Strategy Table on agriculture and agri-food that made recommendations on how to best pursue growth. Their 2018 report set targets of $140 billion in domestic agriculture and food processing by 2025 (a 27% increase from a 2017 baseline) and $85 billion in exports of agriculture, agri-food, and seafood over the same period. It recommended policy and regulatory changes and key infrastructure and talent investments to achieve the targets, including identification of anchor firms, investing in advanced digital manufacturing technologies, the Internet of Things, and increasing foreign direct investment. SMEs are only mentioned in regard to "hypergrowth" strategies to pull them into global trade. The federal Strategic Innovation Fund essentially flows from the Economic Strategy Tables, focusing on technology development and, long-term growth, with somewhat emblematic funding provided to Maple Leaf Foods for a hitech chicken processing plant. Also related is the Superclusters program. The Protein Supercluster was launched in 2018 to increase the value of canola, wheat, and pulses by supporting projects in plant genomics, novel processing technology, and digital solutions.

The recently created federal Canada Infrastructure Bank, part of the 2016 Investing in Canada Plan, invests in infrastructure projects with a range of public and private sector partners. It focuses on 5 areas: green infrastructure, clean power, public transit, broadband, and trade and infrastructure. Although it can be argued that all 5 areas provide at least indirect food system benefits, the only direct impacts are in the trade and transport portfolio, especially investments in irrigation for agricultural production, and in infrastructure primarily for international trade. Transportation infrastructure support, as demonstrated in the  Infrastructure Bank priorities and the National Trade Corridors Fund, is about assuring timely movement to ports for international trade, not about internal movement for domestic goods. A lot of infrastructure of the middle transport has different volumes and routes compared to international ones. It appears the assumption is that addressing international bottlenecks will also facilitate domestic movement for domestic markets, but given the differences in bulk commodity vs processed and niche products, changes to rail lines, and existing trucking patterns, this is inaccurate. Consequently, little of this is of benefit to infrastructure of the middle, in fact, it exacerbates the current problems. Although the Investing in Canada Plan has social infrastructure as a priority, food does not appear to qualify in that funding envelope.

The Canadian Food Innovation Network, supported by the federal government, is designed "to help Canada’s food sector to compete, thrive and lead in a changing world. CFIN will fund projects that lead to robust and meaningful business-led collaborations that promise to enhance Canada's food innovation community and bring all participating partners financial opportunity and benefit". Its priorities include AI, robotics and innovative food constituents, and technological approaches to food waste reduction. Although it names the need for SMEs in projects, its funding focuses on conventional interpretations of food science, innovation, economic development, and trade and is of no value to infrastructure of the middle challenges.

Canada has 7 regional development agencies, and they have a mandate for building regional ecosystem capacity, but the focus of that capacity building isn't necessarily on the region but often instead building up the regional capacity for export. There are a few infrastructures of the middle projects being funded, e.g., FedNor (Northern Ontario), and these have helped some SME food companies, including a co-operative abattoir and other processing facilities, though the food system is not the program focus. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency also has food initiatives of a mid-scale, and Western Economic Diversification supports non-profit driven clusters for value-added agriculture, but a focus on a conventional concept of value-added does not necessarily align with needs for foundational infrastructure to support regional food supply chains.

The irony is that Canada's regional development agencies help SMEs in less populous areas because there are few large enterprises, but it also either assumes that market forces are sufficient to address any comparable challenges in more populous areas or food is not seen to be a priority investment compared to other sectors. These agencies represent institutional structures from which to build, but they need to be modified for a coordinated focus on infrastructure of the middle (see Solutions this section).

The Local Food Infrastructure Fund is not designed to address these challenges, in part because grants are too small, in part because success requires integrated supports beyond capital which the program does not provide. Much of the current funding allocation is going to emergency food infrastructure that does not serve the needs of infrastructure of the middle.

Provinces are typically taking a similar approach, focusing on a few firms that they believe have major growth potential to participate in international markets while advancing employment and regional economic investment. Investissement Québec is something of an exception in that in addition to funding capital expansion for export, it also supports the social economy (including co-operatives), SMEs, and green investments, and has a mandate from the current government to help build domestic self-reliance in food as protection against future disruptions. The government in 2019 increased significantly its investment budget and approved a doubling of staffing to ramp up capacity in strategic domains (Van Praet, 2022). Whether it can effectively balance all these requirements is an open question.

Ontario announced in late 2022 funding for Ontario production and processing as part of a plan to build stability, resilience and adaptability in provincial food supply chains. The plan appears to assume (once again) that building supply chain infrastructure can serve both provincial and international export growth, but there is grant money for hard infrastructure.  Given the early stage of the funds, it is not clear what will get supported and whether a balance between domestic and export requirements can be met. Historically, such arrangements have favoured export infrastructure. Since the cost share arrangements are not favourable, it also is not clear if applicants will really address system wide issues and it is entirely feasible that funding will serve the interests of individual firms already best placed to make changes without system wide benefits (see the problems of instrument design in Instruments).

There is some funding for meat processors capacity improvement through the Canadian Agricultural Partnerships (CAP), though it appears that only Ontario has created such a programme ($7 million total fund, 60% cost share up to $150,000, but on a claim reimbursement basis only). That programme seems to be designed for expansion of existing operations (both provincial and federally inspected) and improved productivity as opposed to assuring more strategic regional coverage with start-ups, a process that is more expensive. On the positive side, some of the upgrades are related to improved energy efficiency, animal welfare, and better composting of deadstock. Many small to medium size meat slaughter, cutting, and processing operations have received funding and a few very large operations. BC has been modifying its provincial licensing system in the hope of expanding capacity through that mechanism though there is some debate about its effectiveness (see Small Scale Meat Processors Association, BC licensing system).

BC and Quebec have legislation that facilitates regional food designations which can contribute to rural vitality (see Goal 5, Protecting genetic resources).  Europe has hundreds of these (for an overview, see  EU geographical indications and quality schemes). However, such regional designations are much more difficult to justify in Canada because of our weak history of regional culinary uniqueness and the destruction of many unique local cuisines in the eras of international trade and food export.

So, government positions are contradictory. On the one hand, there is some recognition post-pandemic that food system resilience will be built with greater domestic capacity and shorter supply lines, yet most of the attention and investment goes too long supply lines, growing more international participants, and global trade (see discussion in Finnigan, 2021). A related key fallacy among decision makers and firms is that much of our processing output has to be exported, particularly to the US, because of inter-provincial trade barriers (cf. Advisory Council on Economic Growth, 2017:9). The reality is that firms export because of historical policy, patterns of trade and economic relations and the limited support for a self-reliant domestic marketplace. This again misdirects our focus to export rather than import minimization. We will always export, but we don't need to do so to current degrees and then import to compensate (including redundant trade) which is the current strategy.