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

The sustainable diet is broadly part of the transition to a post-consumerist society (cf. O'Rourke and Lollo, 2015), the 1.5°C lifestyle (Lorek et al., 2021; Creutzig et al., 2021) and related to "ecological citizenship" (Dobson, 2006; Winson et al., 2021). 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 IPCC (2022) has also highlighted the essential requirements for demand - side policy change to address climate change. It is important to note that the argument that human population is the main cause of biodiversity loss is overly simplistic, and often serves as cover for unsustainable and exploitive consumption practices of industrial nations (cf. Hughes et al., 2023).

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,2022). More recently, the EAT-Lancet report (Willett et al., 2019) elaborated the broad parameters of sustainable healthy eating, in theory applicable to all regions, though criticized by sustainable diet proponents on a number of methodological and ethical fronts (cf.Kaiser et al., 2021).

And there is emergent evidence that sustainable diets can be a major driver of  GHG reductions (IPCC, 2022), in part because of reductions in synthetic nitrogen fertilizer requirements (cf. Harvey, 2023), and that they can be designed to be affordable (Seed and Rocha, 2018). Given that about 30% of all GHG emissions are linked to the food system, the failure to implement sustainable diets would mean, it is argued, that carbon emission targets for a 1.5ºC planet can not be met (Loken et al., 2020). The challenge now is to shape the general concepts to the particular needs of each region while respecting health and cultural requirements within multicultural societies (Hallstrom et al. 2015). It is likely, however, that most cultural diets will have to shift for reasons of health and sustainability, and each culture may face different challenges with that shift (cf. Brons et al., 2020). While this research 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, other animal products and fish in small quantities, of diverse species and breeds from sustainable production and fishing (with exceptions for particular cultural and biophysical contexts in which fish and meat are critical) (see Goal 5, Sustainable Food). Some recent studies conceive of this as a flexitarian diet framed as a meat consumption corridor (cf. Kanerva, 2022).
  • Eat less, many people consume more than they need for their activity level, especially carbohydrates, fat, and protein
  • Minimize what you waste, design menus around what you have (see Goal 5, Reducing Food Waste)
  • Minimally processed (and prudent reductions in problematic ingredients, food additives, processing aids, and packaging material, including salt, sugar, fat,  caffeine, and avoiding laboratory derived high protein diets derived from tissue culturing and plants) (see Goal 4 Food Additives)
  • Most food sourced within a few hundred km (on the challenges and opportunities of this for many ethnocultural diets, see Goal 5 World Crops), distributed by rail, or through collaborative trucking mechanisms, with minimal packaging.
  • Breastfeeding (see Goal 1)
  • 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, bottled, 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; Cué Rio et al., 2022; see also Goal 9). 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, as well as 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).

What level of animal production and consumption in each region is emblematic of the challenges. Studied to some degree in other jurisdictions such as the US and Sweden (see for a review Rõōs et al., 2020) and the Netherlands (see Aiking and de Boer, 2020), Canadian analysis is lacking (see also Goal 5, Sustainable Food, Redesign). What populations of animals on the landscape are appropriate to minimize environmental degradation yet sustain ecological function and meet core dietary requirements without surplus? Animals play important ecological roles in many farms and landscapes. They are important sources of protein and fats which may be a more significant challenge since there are many plant - based protein sources (see analysis in Rõōs et al., 2020). Animals offer a certain efficiency since they are net fat producers (produce more than they get from feed), but the type of feed is an important consideration, as is the overall metabolic efficiency (more than just feed efficiency) of the animal type. While higher in saturated fat than most plant fats, a more nuanced interpretation of the role of saturated fats in the diet is emerging, based on the more specific fatty acids in the fat source. A global analysis of fat in sustainable diets, with 27.5% of calories from fat as a target, suggests that regions like Canada should halve their consumption of animal fat (and also production) to optimize dietary and environmental needs (Bajzelj et al., 2021). A key question for Canada is whether such reductions in animal consumption would align with domestic fat consumption targets (since Canadians in general consumer too much fat). We would want to avoid a scenario where increases in canola and soy production were required to meet fat consumption targets, since both those crops are not currently produced in ways and at levels that are optimal for sustainability. Since both those crops are also used for industrial applications (e.g., fuels), and their crush from oil production is used as animal feed (see also Get Started, Problems, Complex Supply Chains), there is a need in sustainability terms to optimize production across multiple uses. Similarly, we would want to avoid putting more pressure on fish stocks to meet requirements for certain fatty acids. On the other side of the ledger, reductions in waste (see Goal 5 Reducing Food Waste) will result in more fat being available which also has to be part of the modelling. Some of the global modelling of these kinds of shifts is encouraging, suggesting that healthy diets and reduced food waste scenarios will reduce area devoted to cropland, animal populations, and GHG emissions (Bajzelj et al., 2014; see also Smith et al., 2014; IPCC, 2022; Sun et al., 2022; and Goal 5, Sustainable Food, Redesign). Population decline, changes to immigration, and shifting population demographics also need to accounted for in this kind of modelling.

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 underutilization 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 (now codified in the USMCA trade deal, see Goal 10 and Instruments, International Agreements, Trade Deals), 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).

Highly processed plant proteins, particularly those used in meat substitutes, are very popular now but should be viewed as transitional products. They are often highly manipulated, with significant energy expenditure in the processing phases. They help many meat consumers reduce their consumption, but in the longer run are not consistent with a diet of minimally processed goods. The CFIA ran a consultation on meat substitutes in 2020-21 but has yet to propose changes to its guidance first developed in the 1980s (Jameson, 2021). Whether this will affect regulations is unclear at this point, but this would potentially be an opportunity to position such products as transitional. As well, a diet with substantial organic processed foods is unlikely to be viable for many of the same reasons as conventional processed foods (though lower in certain forbidden additives, see Goal 4, Food additives), and with only limited nutritional benefits since processing appears to reduce some of the nutritional advantages of organic production (cf. de Souza et al. 2022).

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.

Once designed, promoting sustainable diets that may contradict the many spiritual, cultural, food environment, and personal factors that determine food choice will be the biggest challenge. "Many (food) decisions are automatic or subconscious ....intuitively understood .....or embedded in food routines and habits....." (Monterossa et al., 2020:S68). Policy makers must attempt to realign values and lifestyles with food choices that support sustainable diets. Promotional campaigns that align emotions with new approaches to fulfilling health and sustainability values are key (see studies of consumer attitudes cited in Aiking and de Boer, 2020; Eker et al., 2019), in concert with the many supply-side changes outlined on this site. Fortunately, there are many existing "new" sustainable lifestyles and diets, and associated research projects and campaigns, that have occurred without significant policy drivers, so it is critical that decision makers extract the lessons from these phenomena and apply them to the design of new promotional instruments (cf. McKenzie-Mohr; 2011; Carins and Rundle-Thiele, 2014; Bogueva et al., 2017; Schwantes, 2018; Dagevos and Reinders, 2018).  There is some evidence that 10-30% of the population changing to sustainable lifestyles can create new societal norms (IPCC, 2022).

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.

Consequently, there are few mechanisms of landscape-level coordination. Canada does have some regional land use planning (see Land Use Planning Hub), mostly about sorting out conflicting interests related to managing growth and resources, and this is only part of what's required.  For example, agricultural development applications may be denied on the grounds that they are not appropriate land uses because they are not consistent with local and regional municipal land use plans, and while important, this is not per se landscape level planning for food systems.  Many provinces have watershed planning, which also touches on agricultural matters (see Goal 5 Water and the food system). In these provincial initiatives is the recognition that local level planning can not adequately address wider landscape issues, and this is equally true for the food system.  It could be argued that in its early days BC's Agricultural Land Commission had some regional planning functions that extended beyond exclusionary zoning because of the way it intervened in certain land use disputes, bought and leased land, and attempted to expand food production, but many of these functions were curtailed by subsequent governments (see Curtis, 2023).

The deteriorating state of grazing lands is emblematic of the weaknesses of relying on the market to allocate land use.  Conversion of grasslands to annual crops is extensive (though only now being better documented), as is conversion to industrial and urban uses (see Goal 5, Protecting Agricultural Land). The Canadian Cattle Association estimates annual grassland loses at 150,000 acres, and some blame in part government policies that favour grain production over grass (Arnason, 2024). Given their importance for many ecological processes and for metabolically efficient ruminant production, these conversions must be significantly reduced.  The situation is sufficiently dire that cattle associations and governments are considering implementing grassland protection programs that reward farmers financially for maintaining them, akin to what exists in the US.

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, food flow and foodshed (Shreiber et al., 2021), and city region food system analysis (see Blay-Palmer et al., 2018)
  • ecosystem and 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 and with ecological feature protection. Some aquatic regions have Integrated Fishery Management Plans and many sensitive water bodies and ecological features have management plans based on ecosystem planning organized and implemented by management boards. There are currently no terrestrial food system 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 food system resources.

These terrestrial plans and their implementation should be organized by ecozone.  WWF (2003) identified 7 key terrestrial ecozones in which most of Canada's agricultural production occurs (and the population resides), 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.

Within the subzones are city regions. City regions are a key challenge because they consume much more than they produce. The regional landscape needs to produce what is ecologically appropriate but also as much as possible provide nourishment to the city region. 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). But because of their significance, the subzones should in part be organized around the foodsheds of major cities in the zones.   Foodsheds are not easy to define, given our lack of data, but food system characterization and food flow studies are slowly improving our ability to identify them (see Desjardins et al., 2010; Miller and Blay-Palmer, 2018; Boulianne et al., 2019; Moschitz and Frick, 2021; Shreiber et al., 2021), and in some cases articulate the relationship between the foodshed and shifts to a sustainable diet. There are also significant methodological hurdles, but Moschitz and Frick (2021) have articulated an approach that could be viable across many modestly sized city regions, although much depends on the willingness of private firms to share data that are often considered confidential business information. Likely candidates for further study and implementation, in part because of existing food policy organizations in these city regions, in part because of existing data and analysis, include Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Fredericton, Halifax, Charlottetown, St. John's.

Each ecozone needs a management board. Given that these ecozones cross many jurisdictional boundaries, federal legislation is required to create them, albeit with significant cooperation from the provinces. This has been done in the past with watersheds under federal direction that cross boundaries. There is a also certain parallel with the creation of supply management bodies and processes, which needed federal and provincial legislation to bring into effect because of overlapping jurisdictions. A related challenge is that while the boundaries require federal participation, much of the implementation would be delivered through the provinces because they are responsible for land use and much of the economic activity within their borders, and local and regional municipalities. Most of the ecozones also cross the US border, so some interaction with US organizations may also be required, at least informally. At the Redesign stage, it might be necessary and feasible for bilateral commissions, such as the Great Lakes Commission, to be created.

The legislation would both create the organizations and empower ministers, particularly the ministers of agriculture, to act on plans and recommendations created by the boards. The boards would report to the ministers of agriculture until such time as ministries of food were created (see Goal 7 Structures for Participation, Redesign).

Key functions of a management board:

  • food flows analysis - current capacity and future potential.
  • supply chain structures analysis, including gaps in infrastructure of the middle (see Goal 2, Rebuilding local and regional food infrastructure)
  • ecological features assessment as it relates to sustainable production, building on existing analysis through a food system lens
  • plans and recommendations to other bodies with decision making authority - supply management, federal and provincial departments of agriculture, municipal and regional governments
  • coordinates across organizations that have authorities
  • roundtables with stakeholders on thematic issues
  • resolving conflicts among different actors
  • facilitating commercial arrangements that rejig supply chains

The management boards would make recommendations to appropriate levels of government regarding plan implementation.

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). Deficits (production compared to consumption) are significant. From 2016 to 2020, national imports of fruits and vegetables increased by 12% by value and more modestly by volume (AAFC, 2021). JRG Consulting (2020) estimated for Ontario, that provincial production only met 14-16% of the consumption of fresh strawberries, less than 2% of fresh grapes, 6-11% of fresh garlic, 12% of fresh pears, and 16% of fresh eggplant. Although there is debate about what level of increased production would be feasible in the near term, any way you look at it, given land and climate conditions in Ontario, these numbers are artificially low, a product of dysfunctional markets and weak policy.

Also to be remembered is that the fruit and vegetable sector, because of its weaker position relative to the dominant commodities, is low on the priority list for inputs and services when these are in restricted supply, with the associated cost increases,  shipment delays and food waste.  Production inputs, access to transportation and transportation related goods and services (e.g., pallets, storage containers, inspection and safety measures, refrigeration) can all be compromised beyond what other sectors experience (cf. Global Coalition of Fresh Produce, 2023).  Strategies to improve these myriad problems are addressed on many parts of this site.

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, Sustainable Food must be applied.

Reforming supply management (continued)

In most cases, quota was given away free and then capitalized in quota trading. This has proven to be a significant error. In a few cases, quota is always owned by the marketing board (e.g., Quebec egg producers) and loaned to producers, but that also has a loan value. The ideal scenario is that all quota is loaned at a base fee and only increases in value relative to inflation. 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 and then is only subsequently loaned rather than sold. As demand for some animal product is reduced, the quota pool also shrinks.

It is important to note that the Dutch experience of reducing meat production (in their case associated with EU regulatory requirements to reduce N pollution) suggests that voluntary financial incentives alone, even when substantial, will not be sufficient for orderly downsizing (Salliou, 2023), hence the need for a combination of regulatory and financial measures.

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.