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Food for thought: we can do better

A national strategy just common sense

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At first glance, getting people to agree that Canada needs a national food strategy is hardly an accomplishment that merits much fanfare.

You would think that goes without saying.

It's just common sense isn't it? Just as food purchase, preparation and management forms the base in every household with an interest in maintaining the health and wellbeing of its occupants, you would think a country that cares about the health and welfare of its citizens would place food at the centre of public policy planning, whether that is health, environment, social security, or economic growth.

It already defines our culture; some have called us a fast-food nation and we have the rising levels of obesity and disease related to poor eating habits to prove it.

But it's come to our collective attention lately that Canada's food and agriculture policy has evolved over the past century or so as a hodgepodge of reactionary programs essentially designed to put out fires -- stabilize or enhance farm incomes, protecting consumers from unsafe foods, quality control, turning our surpluses into export revenue.

We've done all right, all things considered. Canada is a major exporter, it has a reputation for quality and safety, and no one can say we suffer from a shortage of food in this country.

But the production end of things suffers from chronic unprofitability, despite the fact that nearly 60 per cent of government spending or about $3.8 billion annually on agriculture goes into direct supports to producers.

And even though Canadian consumers spend less of their disposable income on food than almost anywhere else in the world, poor nutrition is becoming a significant burden on our publicly funded health-care system.

Even more troubling is that growing stack of reports showing the foods we should be eating, like fruits and vegetables, often cost more than the foods we shouldn't.

For example, U.S. researchers have uncovered a clear correlation between children's body mass index and the price of food and drink.

"Lower prices for soda, starchy vegetables, and sweet snacks have likely led to increases in children's BMI.

"The reverse is true for some healthier foods such as low-fat milk and dark green vegetables.... The effect of subsidizing healthy food may be just as large as raising prices of less healthy foods," said the researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Despite the fact Canada is a major food exporter, its world market share is slipping. Basic food imports are rising. There is evidence the environment is suffering, too.

Surely we can do better.

Hence, a cacophony of voices has emerged lately staking out turf in the food policy debate, ranging from industry with a focus on production and trade, consumer groups zeroing in on food security and justice, to economic think tanks that want to be seen as the go-to experts on everything.

For $375 ($325 if you register online) you can tune in to a Conference Board of Canada webinar July 19 to hear the associate director of its industrial outlook service address such questions as the "implications of higher food prices for consumers" or "the key factors driving food prices higher".

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which has been in the food business somewhat longer, is trying to draw many of these discordant voices into a process that, theoretically at least, might get everyone singing from the same song sheet -- and perhaps even in harmony.

The goal is to come up with a more "holistic and strategic" approach to food and agriculture policy in Canada.

"The industry has taken the first step in moving towards finding broader solutions for the value chain, taking into account everything from promoting the Canadian brand and healthy lifestyles to sustaining economic growth and ecosystems," a CFA strategy document states.

That's no small feat when you consider the different viewpoints out there on meat, for example. There are those who make their living raising, processing and marketing meat. Then there are the nutritional and environmental groups who say our future health depends on eating less. Overlaying all of that is new science suggesting "test-tube meat" produced from cloned cattle cells is the answer to the world's growing appetite and limited resources. That option, apparently, is just around the corner.

Last week, the CFA presented its plan to federal, provincial and territorial ministers -- who seemed receptive. "The hope is that the National Food Strategy will help guide the development of Growing Forward 2, the next suite of agricultural policy and programs," said CFA president Ron Bonnett.

Canada's food strategy has a long way to go. But it's nice to see that process has begun.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2011 B7

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