Substitution (DSC)

Designing and promoting the sustainable diet

New planning mechanisms

Supporting the fruit and vegetable sector

Reforming supply management (continued)

Targeted trade


Designing and promoting the sustainable diet

In a 2016, the FAO concluded that “if we are to address the multiple social, health and environmental challenges caused by, and affecting food systems, global populations need to move towards dietary patterns that are both healthy and also respectful of environmental limits.”[1]  Elsewhere the FAO has also suggested that collaboration across departments and jurisdictions is key to aligning agriculture and nutrition: “Food and agriculture policies can have a better impact on nutrition if multi-sectoral strategies to improve nutrition within national, regional, and local government structures.[2]

The negative environmental effects of the dominant Western diet have been extensively studied (Jungbluth et al., 2000; Munoz et al., 2010; Heller et al., 2013; Saxe et al., 2013;  Marlow et al., 2015; Vieux et al., 2015; Abeliotis et al., 2016; Mason and Lang, 2017).  The dimensions of a sustainable diet have also been known for years (Gussow and Clancy, 1986; Herrin and Gussow, 1989), and sustainable diets were an essential dimension of WWII food policy (Mosby, 2014; Boyle, in press). And there is emergent evidence that sustainable diets can be a major driver of  GHG reductions and that they can be designed to be affordable (Seed and Rocha, 2018). The challenge now is to shape the general concepts to the particular needs of each region while respecting health and cultural requirements (Hallstrom et al. 2015).  While this has been done elsewhere (Macdiarmid et al., 2012; Scarborough et al., 2012; Friel et al., 2013; Wilson et al., 2013; Saxe, 2014; Ribal et al., 2016; Tyszler et al., 2016; Van Dooren and Aiking, 2016), only limited work has been done on Canada and its regions.

In general, the literature suggests a diet with the following characteristics is more likely to be sustainable (for guidance on evidence, see Seed and Rocha, 2018; MacRae et al., 2013):

  • Primarily an ecologically - produced plant-based diet (certifications preferred) with a wide diversity of plants and plant varieties, that respects nutrition guidelines; meat and fish in small quantities, of diverse species and breeds and from sustainable production and fishing (with exceptions for particular cultural and biophysical contexts in which fish and meat are critical)
  • Eat less, many people consume more than they need for their activity level
  • Minimize what you waste, design menus around what you have
  • Minimally processed (and prudent reductions in problematic processing aids such as salt, sugar, fat and caffeine, and avoiding laboratory derived high protein diets derived from tissue culturing and plants)
  • Most food sourced within a few hundred km, distributed by rail, or through collaborative trucking mechanisms, with minimal packaging.
  • Breastfeeding
  • Imported food should be delivered by ship and rail, minimize truck; purchase certified fair trade goods where possible
  • Urban shoppers walk more; small shopping trips more frequently
  • In the off-season,  maximize dried and canned (but no aluminum) foods
  • Gradually adapt tastes to these realities

This is a challenging undertaking because of the complexities of optimizing resource, cultural and economic factors in dietary recommendations (see Mason and Lang, 2017). Lessons can be learned from other jurisdictions that have worked sustainability dimensions into their dietary guidelines, particularly Qatar (see Seed 2014) and Germany, Brazil and Sweden (Seed and Rocha, 2018).  At the substitution stage, Canada must put in place sustainable dietary guidelines for the different regions of the country.  Research has to be conducted to build on existing, but limited, studies (e.g., Kissinger, 2012: MacRae et al., 2013; Seed and Rocha, 2018).  From that work dietary guidelines can be developed.  This will involve a wide array of researchers and program analysts.  It would be led by Health Canada, but involve health departments and municipal health units from across the country, and officials from departments of agriculture, environment and natural resources, and Indigenous Affairs.  It needs to address agriculture, fisheries, self-provisioning and hunting issues, which requires extensive interaction with non-governmental organizations. And once the guidelines are developed they must be promoted since the ultimate objective is to shift dietary patterns. This will require sophisticated social marketing and strong institutional arrangements that integrate the dietary guidelines into the fabric of many organizations.  The investment in developing sustainable dietary guidelines will be in the tens of millions of dollars and is a multiyear undertaking.  It is worth noting that most food firms should not be stakeholders in this process.  The food industry, particularly the animal sectors, has historically had extensive influence on dietary guidelines (Ostry, 2006) and this should not continue.  Health Canada operationalized this in its recent round of revisions to dietary guidelines and it builds on existing evidence that food firms will mostly attempt to block incorporation of sustainability considerations into dietary guidelines (Seed and Rocha, 2018).

How processed foods fit with a sustainable diet is a particularly challenging question.  Processing is often divided into 3 stages: primary (e.g., cleaning, grading, hulling, packaging, dairy treatment); secondary (e.g., slaughter and butchering, grain milling, oil and juice pressing, fermentation, aging, cutting, peeling and shredding); and tertiary (e.g., ready to eat meals, baked goods, instant and snack foods, multi-ingredient beverages).  The tertiary processing is the most problematic for health (see Goal 4, Nutrients of Concern), although  transformation of some goods in this category is possible to improve their healthfulness.  But tertiary processing is also typically the most resource intensive, involving higher levels of energy use for heating and cooling, and more significant levels of packaging.  Their shelf stability may mean significant transport and long periods in storage.

In some cases, the proliferation of food ingredients created by food science research and specialized processing techniques, and increased demands for specific and specialized items make sustainability more challenging.  For example, supermarkets now focus on the most popular cuts of meat, especially those that are popular on the barbecue like steak and chops, or those suitable for small families like chicken breasts, and  ground meat.  Consumption of whole poultry and roasting and stewing cuts is down compared to earlier periods.  Butcher shops usually buy whole animals and do their own butchering, but butcher skills have been lost and there is a significant shortage of butchers (see Goal 8, Labour Force Development). This all means that it's hard for small and sustainable producers to make money because they can't always sell their entire animal.  This situation can also lead to underutlization of food and waste.

In the dairy sector, most processors now use milk ingredients (sometimes called milk solids) rather than just whole milk. Commonly, combinations of milk, milk fat and milk proteins are mixed together as part of the processing (sometimes referred to as weight balancing).  Milk proteins have often been imported from the USA, based on a system of ultrafiltration that removes water and makes the product cheaper to ship over distances. A number of forces contribute to this, including the processor drive to lower costs and increase shelf time. In combination with the diversification of dairy products (especially multiple types of lower fat items), it is increasingly difficult to ensure proper utilization of all milk components and this means it is more difficult to undertake a well functioning supply managed system and ultimately transition to a demand - supply coordination approach.  While the use of milk ingredients makes it easier under current conditions for processors to create products with the profiles and consistency they prefer, questions have also been raised about the impacts of diafiltration and related processes on milk protein quality (Puhan,1992; Borad et al, 2017).  This reflects a key dilemma with some current secondary and tertiary processing, that the primary objective of the technology is to facilitate processing and shelf-life extension, not necessarily to be consistent with sustainable diet objectives (see Goal 3, Public Research for a discussion of the conceptual underpinnings of this approach).

Improving food literacy (see Goal 3 Integrating food into education processes) will apply more pressure on the market to limit tertiary processed goods. Other measures, discussed in multiple places on this site, will also be important for shifting the supply considerations.

New planning mechanisms

Other than supply management, some land use planning, and instruments used in the fishery, the food system does not have a planning culture and practice.  It is assumed that market forces will properly allocate resources, an assumption that does not reflect reality (see Resource Allocation Failures).  Despite the language used in some urban planning circles, there is no profession of food system planner in Canada, and no specific training to undertake the role.

Broadly speaking, we need better training in food system planning and new institutional mechanisms by which to conduct it. What is proposed here would build on the skills development proposals for planners under Goal 5, Agricultural Land Protection, Efficiency.  None of Canada's eight agricultural faculties offer food system planning programs. Urban planning programs, even if they have food streams, focus primarily on food system functions within an urban setting.  This is important, but only a small portion of what food system planning encompasses. Faculties with an interdisciplinary tradition that focus on rural, environmental, resource and community planning  are best placed to do food system planning.

The federal government must incentivize faculties to develop,   food system planning programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels by soliciting proposals from the main regions of Canada, one each from the North, BC, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.  The curriculum would have to address:

  • planning theory and principles, including participatory, critical and equity theory
  • food supply chains: stages along the chains, logistics, power dynamics, economics, nutrition, social and environmental impacts
  • resource management, traditional knowledge and ecology
  • culture and foodways
  • health promotion and food supply chains
  • import/export dynamics and trade agreements
  • policy and program design
  • food system governance

Federal funding would be used to start up the programs. Although education is provincial jurisdiction, the rationale is that a coordinated national approach to food system planning, rooted in regional realities, is required. Once established, the programs would be financed by the usual mechanisms in post-secondary institutions.

At this stage, new planning mechanisms should mirror what is happening in the fishery.  Some aquatic regions have Integrated Fishery Management Plans.  There are currently no terrestrial equivalents.  Many agricultural commodities have sectoral development plans, usually led by the main commodity groups with assistance from government.  These plans are typically related to export, food safety or limited environmental issues.  These are only marginally designed around the kinds of resource efficiencies described here and there is rarely any attention to optimal dietary requirements.  Better data collected from Efficiency strategies create the possibility of regional plans  to best optimize agricultural and related resources.

These terrestrial plans should be organized by ecozone.  WWF (2003) identified 7 key terrestrial ecozones for agriculture, somewhat re-organized as Land-based  Conservation Planning Regions:

  • Appalachian Mountains and Maritime Lowlands
  • Southern Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Lowlands
  • Mid-western Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna (includes the Red River Vallley)
  • Aspen Parkland
  • Short and Mixed Grass Prairie
  • Puget Sound Lowlands and Willamette Valley (includes the Fraser Valley of BC)
  • Southern Interior British Columbia Mountains (includes the Okanagan Valley)

Given the size of some of these zones, they would need to be divided into recognized subzones.  The WWF study was an early attempt to assemble pertinent data that could be used for conservation planning.  However. data sets were then very limited.  There have been improvements since, and when added to the data generated from Efficiency strategies, the report can serve as something of a template for regional planning.

Given jurisdictional issues, the institutional arrangements should be through the FPT process.  Each zone and subzone would have its own committee and committee chairs would serve as a coordinating body. A significant addition to these committees would be municipal representation from the major cities in each zone, since most of the domestic consumption is happening in them, and they also create many of the pressures on agricultural land (see Goal 5, Agricultural Land Protection).  Cities can also contribute in modest ways to food production (see MacRae et al., 2010).  The Region of Waterloo, Ontario has conducted studies that show how urban consumption can be linked to regional food production (Desjardins et al., 2010; Desjardins et al., 2011).

These FPT(+M) committees would gather information from multiple sources, including academics, NGOs, commodity organizations and First Nations and Metis communities. They would make recommendations to all levels of government on program design and other incentives needed to shift land use and practices, and consumption. The committees would be funded and administratively supported through existing FPT processes.

Supporting the fruit and vegetable sector

The horticultural sector is historically the weakest in Canada, especially when measured against optimal consumption requirements.  Existing studies have established that significantly more attention must be given to production, storage, processing and distribution in this sector  (Van Bers and Robinson, 1993; Desjardins et al., 2010).  In the EU, producer organizations receive support for improving the sustainable production and marketing of fruits and vegetables.  The support takes different forms depending on the region, but includes cost reimbursements, per area payments and compensation for foregone income during the transition (Sanders et al., 2011).  The measures proposed under Goal 5 must be applied.

Reforming supply management (continued)

The process of decapitalizing quota will likely need acceleration beyond efficiency stage strategies.  Governments can accelerate the pooling of quota described in Efficiency with money for purchase from all farmers at market rates in exchange for conversion to environmental protocols.  Payments would be progressive, timed with adoption of new environmental systems.  Farmers participating in these programs would not also be eligible for transition payments outlined under Goal 5. This approach potentially avoids challenges under the trade agreements by being structured as an environmental transition program (see Goal 10, Trade Agreements).  When the producer retires, the quota is transferred to the Board's quota pool.  As demand for some animal product is reduced, the quota pool also shrinks.

Targeted trade

As the data, mechanisms and institutions are put in place to make DSC operational, governments will need to rethink the role of trade agreements and how they are structured (see Goal 10, Trade agreements).  DSC results in more efficient use of resources to optimize production for domestic consumption. Trade is still required but is more targeted to imports of goods produced insufficiently and exports of goods produced in excessive of domestic requirements. The EU is moving somewhat in this direction with its new Trade for All policy. 


[1] Plates, Pyramids, Planet. FAO.

[2] Key Recommendations for Improving Nutrition through Agriculture and Food Systems. 2015.