Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/8/2009 (2830 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Concluding that farmers' fortunes and public health are intrinsically linked, the report Building Convergence: Toward an Integrated Health and Agri-Food Strategy for Canada, makes a strong case for tying agriculture together with health policy in Canada.
"Canada is facing a diet-related health crisis and a farm income crisis driven by very different challenges," said Laurette Dubé, professor and founding chair and scientific director of the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence. "But a solution to both rests increasingly on the convergence of health and agriculture policy."
The report cites rising obesity rates and diet-related chronic diseases as well as higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes that are associated with diet. Health-care costs are skyrocketing.
Chronic diseases consume up to two-thirds of the direct costs of the health system.
Meanwhile, government support to farmers routinely exceeds the incomes generated by their farms.
The report's authors say that by collaborating, both sectors can "simultaneously improve the health of Canadians, reduce health care budgets, stimulate agri-food innovation and improve the economic viability of the agri-food industry."
One of the key recommendations is to adopt regional cuisine as a model for healthy living. You've heard of the Meditteranean Diet, rich in the monosaturated olive oil, vegetables and fish. Well, how about the Canadian Diet, rich in canola oil, legumes, flaxseed, whole grains, grass-fed beef and antioxidant-rich blueberries? The idea is to promote the nutritional quality of locally produced foods while pushing greater consumption of seasonal fruits and vegetables, many of which are also produced on Canadian farms. It notes that the Canadian diet could be exported, under a strategy similar to the Mediterranean diet.
Not surprisingly, the discussion paper calls for increased public investment in food-related research and development, in recognition of the increasingly globalized and homogenized nature of private-sector research programs. A made-in-Canada diet requires research tailored to local environmental conditions.
It also calls for more traceability, an improved regulatory environment and greater emphasis on advancing health claims on foods.
There is one point underpinning this whole idea, however, and it is one to which the agricultural sector in general routinely pays lip service. The discussion paper calls it a "Whole-of-Society" approach.
"However, this whole-of-society solution needs to place the consumer at the centre, and must consider the conditions and dynamics of local and global markets from a systems perspective," it says.
One of the propositions in this report is to reduce the amount of fat, starch, salt and sugar in peoples' diets, which implies a movement away from highly processed foods. If this happens, it would tend to shorten the supply chain and make what farmers produce less of a commodity and closer to food.
But this is where farmers must overcome a mental stumbling block.
Farmers see themselves first and foremost as producers. After all, they are paid by the bushel, not for the nutritional content of what they produce or for the environmental quality they maintain. Their focus is on production efficiency, which is not always in tune with consumer preferences or health objectives.
Another recent study, this one from the George Morris Centre on value chains, highlights the hurdle this presents. "To put it bluntly, farming has been in the tonnage business, not in the value generation business," says the report Characterizing the Ideal Model of Value Chain Management and Barriers to its Implementation.
"Changing industry mindsets toward creating value through innovation rather than simply 'producing more' is extremely challenging."
The "producer" mentality is nurtured by industry through its mantra that farmers must feed the world and by government support programs.
Sometimes the linkages are clear, however. While claims that organic foods are more nutritious remain controversial, there is scientific evidence to suggest healthy soil produces healthier food. Healthy soil also requires less fertilizer, which saves on production costs.
The CAPI document is only the latest of a series of reports lately to underscore how the business environment for food is changing. The challenge will be developing market signals to get back to the farm.
While farmers aren't to blame for this disconnect with their changing business environment, they can ill afford to ignore it, either. This growing interest in farming as it relates to health and the environment can't be discounted as an irritant or intrusion on their business. Increasingly, it is their business.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: