Shortly after winning the 2015 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated his newly appointed agriculture minister with a rather strange task for a country approaching its 150th birthday.
He instructed Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lawrence MacAulay to develop a food policy.
Specifically, he wanted a local food policy, one 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."
In late May, MacAulay got started, launching a public consultation asking Canadians what food issues matter most to them.
Anyone can participate in an online survey found at canada.ca/food-policy to share their views on four general themes: increasing access to affordable food, improving health and food safety, conserving soil, water and air and growing more high-quality food.
"A Food Policy for Canada will be the first-of-its-kind for the Government of Canada, and is a new step in the government’s mandate of taking a collaborative and broad-based approach to addressing food-related issues in Canada," the federal documents say.
Canada has had lots of agricultural policy over the past 150 years. It originally was meant to look after the interests of farmers, but more recently has included the rest of the industry.
"Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada provides leadership in the growth and development of a competitive, innovative and sustainable Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector," according to the department’s mission statement.
But this latest initiative signals a move into an area which has traditionally has been the purview of other agencies — ensuring Canadians have nutritious food. While a strong agri-food sector may contribute to that, much of AAFC’s recent emphasis has been on increased food processing. It may be good for the economy but not so good for our girths. One of the biggest "food-related issues" in Canada today is consumption of too much processed food.
Canada is the fifth-largest agricultural exporter in the world, accounting for approximately 3.5 per cent of the total value of agriculture and agri-food exports.
The prime minister’s economic advisory council produced a report in February that said this country could — and should — become the second-largest within the next decade.
Less well-known is the fact that Canada is also the world’s fifth- or sixth-largest food importer, accounting for just under three per cent of total value of agriculture and agri-food imports.
Despite our immense productive capacity, more than half of our vegetables, nearly all of the fruit and an increasing proportion of our red meat products are imported. Increasingly we export the grain, oilseeds and livestock our farmers grow and import back the foods we buy in our grocery stores.
So our farmers are supporting job creation in other countries too.
Food Secure Canada points to other contradictions created by Canada’s patchwork approach to food policy.
Despite this country’s status as a global exporter, four million Canadians live with food insecurity.
Canada is known for producing safe and affordable food. But diet-related disease is the leading cause of death in this country.
The excess consumption of highly processed food contributes to chronic diseases that could overwhelm our health system.
While there is a concentrated effort to increase production, food waste is costing Canadians an estimated $31 billion annually, in addition to exacerbating environmental issues.
The sector is vital, contributing 6.7 per cent of Canada’s GDP and providing one in eight jobs.
Yet serious issues loom at the primary production level — namely a lack of policy around farm succession, supporting new farmers and meeting future farm labour needs.
This policy development promises to be inclusive.
In fact, there will be 16 federal departments or agencies involved.
Farm organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have been lobbying for a national food policy for years.
So have the Conference Board of Canada and Food Secure Canada.
Add in the voices of ordinary Canadians — which don’t always see issues the same as primary producers — and one thing is for sure: it’s going to get messy.
Laura Rance is editorial director for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 204-792-4382