Canada is moving towards a National Food Policy. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada officials, along with those in other Departments, 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.”

Policy and Programme Coherence: Whole-of-government Approach

As well, the Federal Minister of Health has been mandated to:

“Work closely with the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food to align these regulatory initiatives with food policy. All of these initiatives should be based on high-quality scientific evidence and meaningful consultation with Canadians.”

Among the Federal government departments engaged in the analysis and development of a possible NFP are:

  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Health Canada
  • Global Affairs Canada
  • Finance Canada
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs (Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs)
  • Innovation, Science and Economic Development
  • Employment and Social Development Canada
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Finance, of course, would be involved: a major impetus for an NFP within the Federal government flows from the “Barton Report,” the recommendations of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, members of which were appointed y the Minister of Finance. That Council identified the Canadian agri-food sector with the potential for substantial growth and export improvement; or, in other words, to significantly contribute to the challenge of meeting the needs of a growing global population.  As the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter, Canada has the opportunity to become the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious, and sustainable food in the 21st century. Policy, programme and regulatory coherence at the Federally — and provincially as well — would be a necessary foundation from which to rise to this challenge.

Shared Leadership by Industry and Not-for-profit sectors

The Federal government 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 an NFP. Notable efforts, among others, in this regard include collaboration, consultations and proposed road-maps by:

As a next step in this collaborative journey towards a meaningful and effective NFP, many leading companies and not-for-profits have proposed a NFP Council.

A window of opportunity

Previous attempts at comprehensive, whole-of-government, NFP have failed, in part because of the lack of will of some players (both within governments and outside) in the agri-food system and/or the inability, including lack of resources, to bring competing interests, both within government and between other stakeholders, to a unified vision. Why is the attempt today any different?

First of all, as noted above, the Prime Minister’s mandate letters, Minister of FInance’s Advisory Council and the collaboration among diverse interests are promoting some form of NFP.  To be “the trusted global leader in safe, nutritious and sustainable food for the 21st century,” calls for action to meet at least three national objectives which in the past have been viewed by some as in conflict. They are: competitiveness, food security, and the environment.

Secondly, issues driving interest groups within industry and the not-for-profit sectors are becoming acute. 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;
  • the realization that the reduction of food waste has an important role to play in the reduction of food insecurity and environmental degradation, as well as the enhancement of competitiveness and profitability across the supply chain;
  • 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, representative 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 possible NFP and Council?

In part, the need stems from a basic human condition: a desire to have a comprehensive road-map toward prioritized challenges. Agreement on what those priorities are – 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.

An overarching strategy provides a direction against which proposals for agri-food related policies and programs can be assessed. Is the policy or program consistent with the strategy? Is its performance, its impact, aiding or hindering attainment of the goals of the strategy?

Self-interest plays a role. 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.

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.

Possible Themes

Possible themes to facilitate the discovery of a meaningful and effective NFP — one that will help industry, governments, and the public at large — is to meet the 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 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 petrochemical-based fertilizer – at market prices less than those which cover the true costs of the resource.