Canada is moving towards a National Food Policy. However, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada officials are preparing a draft National Food Policy pursuant to the mandate letter from the Prime Minister of November 13, 2015, to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Specifically Minister MacAulay was tasked to:

“Develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.”

The Prime Minister is not alone in seeking a comprehensive policy, or strategy, that would guide the federal government as it makes decisions pertaining to the many regulations, programs and investments that help to shape Canadian production, distribution and consumption of food in Canada. Business, academia, and the public-at-large have all expressed the need for a NFP. Notable efforts at proposing a NFP include efforts by the Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute, Food Secure Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Indeed these groups have been working on their own individual proposals for much of the past decade, as have more local organizations, for example the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance. They are now working together.

Previous attempts at comprehensive, whole-of-government, NFP have failed, in part because the political will was not there to bring competing interests, both within government and between other stakeholeders, to a unified vision. Why is the attempt today any different?

First of all the Advisory Council on Economic Growth (the Barton Report) to the minister of finance identified agri-food as a key economic growth sector, with the vision that “Canada will become the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious and sustainable food for the 21st century.” This speaks to three national objectives which in the past have been viewed as in conflict: competitiveness, food security, and the environment.

Secondly, issues driving interest groups within industry and the not-for-profit sector are becoming acute and beginning in some cases to converge and in others conflict. can be merged into a policy. For example:

  • climate change and bio system deterioration are forcing us to look at food production through a sustainability lens;
  • the economic need for producers and processors to not only be competitive but to rise to their true potential;
  • the reality of a food insecure population in a food surplus country;
  • recognition that food choices play a key role in wellness;
  • a new consumer food consciousness, with strong demand for authenticity, transparency and accountability;
  • the power of emerging science to transform the food system.

Third, different Federal Departments are working together on NFP through an interdepartmental working group at a senior (DG/ADM/DM level).

Fourth, representaive voices of primary producer, processors and others along the supply chain, food security, academe, health, and the environment, have recognized the benefit of working together to prioritize goals under the objective of a NFP. 

Why the need for a NFP? In part the need stems from a basic human condition: a desire to have a comprehensive road-map toward a set of priorities for government action. The establishment of what those priorities should be – the direction or goals to which to devote human and financial resources and the scope of such goals – is as important as an agreement on what step to take along the road.

Canadians are not alone in seeking a comprehensive agreement from their governments on a set of goals and steps to be taken toward those goals pertaining to primary agriculture and food. See for example the efforts of the governments of Ireland, Scotland and Australia.

Why the need now? I believe some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century include matters which are fundamental to the agri-food sector of Canadian society:

  • improving the health of Canadians through their choices of and accessibility to health promoting food
  • feeding a growing population in Canada and abroad
  • mitigation of and adaptation to climate change
  • improvement in environmental conservation including more efficient energy and water consumption
  • enhanced competitiveness of the businesses engaged in both primary and processed food production and sales
  • building upon Canada’s natural or comparative soil and water advantages
  • both rural and urban economic development
  • building upon Canada’s research and development expertise in the science and business of human, animal and environmental health, of crop and animal production, food processing and marketing.

From my perspective, the key to a useful National Food Policy, one that will help industry, governments, and the public at large is to recognize that a NFP must address challenges under five, albeit overlapping, headings:

  • food security
  • health
  • research
  • industry competitiveness and prosperity
  • conservation and efficient use of Canada’s soil, water, and energy resources.

That these five headings overlap should be clear. Secure access by consumers across income classes to a wide array of healthy food choices, for example, is as much a function of trade possibilities, continued research and development in primary and processed food production, financial investment in the food business and making the best use of our natural resources as possible as it is a function of consumer knowledge of the relationship between food choices and health, of government financial support through income support programs and overcoming “food deserts” in Canadian urban centres.

Another example: the conservation and efficient use of our natural advantages regarding soil, water and energy is as much a function of the profitability of farming and food processing businesses – among other business players in the agri-food sector upstream and downstream from seed providers to grocery retail and restaurant companies to waste management firms – as it is of research into conservation and of regulatory support of Canada’s reputation as a source of healthy and safe food inputs and products.

Profitability and competitiveness of primary agriculture and food processing business –- small, medium and large, those that serve just local markets to those that serve global ones – is as much a function of the labour, capital and technology available to the owners and workers in those businesses as it is a function of the regulations and policies of governments, multilateral and bilateral trade rules,and the support given by other national governments to their agri-food businesses.

On that latter point, any National Food Policy must include a commitment by government, with the support of Canadian business, academia, not-for-profits and the public at large, to “spread the word” on the critical importance of recognizing the depth and breadth of the pressing 21st century challenges for which the the agri-food sector is both a source of the problems and a source of the solutions. For example, a commitment to advocate and shape global rules preventing the misuse of water – the drawing down of this precious natural capital at a rate greater than its replenishment – or the inefficient use of energy reserves in the form of unsustainable application of petro-chemical based fertilizer – at market prices less than those which cover the true costs of the resource.