In late May, Canada’s agriculture minister launched consultations to inform a national food policy for Canada. This initiative built on a mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau 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.”
While a national food policy has immense potential to address some of the long-standing challenges in the Canadian food system, evidence demonstrates that to be effective, it must approach food issues as interconnected and be rooted in health, equity and sustainability.
What is a national food policy?
Food policy is a collection of decisions that influence food, from production and harvesting to processing, distribution, retail, consumption and waste management. Policies shape the broader context in which these activities take place, creating an enabling or constraining environment to apply different objectives. This includes various laws, regulations, rules and guidelines that affect different parts of the food chain.
A national food policy would offer the federal government an opportunity to review the existing policies and programs scattered throughout a variety of offices and ministries and consider ways to coordinate, integrate and fill gaps in the existing landscape. Currently, many of these different policies work in isolation and in contradiction to each other, contributing to dysfunction in the food system.
The stated intention of a national food policy is to bring together a whole-of-government approach, one that will set long-term food-related goals for society, the economy and the environment, while also prioritizing initiatives to address immediate challenges.
A dysfunctional food system
While many Canadians enjoy a bounty of delicious foods, more than four million people suffer from food insecurity. This is not a temporary crisis, but a constant reality for the many people living in poverty and especially those in northern and remote regions of the country. For many Indigenous peoples, malnutrition and limited access to clean water and traditional foods have reached extreme levels.
In addition to these pressing issues, many communities have limited access to foods that meet their cultural needs. What’s more, damaging environmental practices are extensive in industrial agriculture while many food workers face difficult and precarious working conditions. At the same time, harvesters and farmers are confronted with increasing pressures from climate change.
To date, governments have not adequately supported those most in need, nor enabled opportunities for communities to play an active role in determining and developing solutions.
While the Canadian government has now taken a leading role, the idea of a national food policy for Canada has long been on the agenda of many attempting to address food system dysfunction. In 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food led an official country mission to Canada and recommended the formulation of “a comprehensive rights-based national food strategy” that included clear jurisdictional responsibilities, achievable measures and adequate support with associated time frames.
In 2011, a coalition of academics and grassroots non-profit organizations developed Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada, a detailed food system analysis and comprehensive set of policy proposals. Recommendations have also been put forward by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Conference Board of Canada.
A national food policy process
Initiating the national food policy consultation process, the federal government has identified four key themes:
Increasing access to affordable food.
Improving health and food safety.
Conserving soil, water and air.
Growing more high-quality food.
While these are good starting points, they’re not enough. Canada needs a coordinated national food policy that takes the whole food system into account — one that acknowledges the future of our food system as deeply rooted in healthy and sustainable ecosystems, resilient regional economies and diverse cultural practices.
A “systems lens” considers how the different parts fit together and the implications of those interactions. A national food policy that adopts a food systems lens has the potential to articulate a core set of values and principles that can guide policy-making and demand action.
The food systems approach
A recent research report, Food Counts: A Pan-Canadian Sustainable Food Systems Report Card, brought together existing measures of social, environmental and economic well-being with the aim of helping policy-makers, communities and researchers examine food systems at the national level. In consultation with a range of food system actors, the report card uses a cross-cutting, multi-sectoral framework to assess how sustainable food systems function.
Through a food systems lens, it highlights gaps in available indicators, pointing towards new information needed to help Ottawa guarantee the right to adequate food, protect water-based ecosystems, soil and forests and include all people living in Canada as part of democratic deliberation.
From this research, it is clear that food is a core aspect of social, cultural, historical and environmental realities, with a tremendous impact on the quality of our lives. Failure to acknowledge this within Canada’s national food policy would be a missed opportunity that will negatively affect the future of our food system.
These findings correspond to research and analysis from Food Secure Canada, a pan-Canadian alliance of organizations and individuals working toward a healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food system. In their aim to build consensus towards a national food policy for Canada, the organization has proposed five big ideas centred on a systems-based approach to:
Realize the human right to food.
Champion healthy and sustainable diets.
Support sustainable food systems.
Make food part of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Invite more voices to the table.
Our research suggests that compared to the government’s four objectives outlined above, these five provide a much richer and inclusive starting point.
While the consultation process is at an early stage and the development of a national food policy for Canada will likely have several iterations, this process requires evidence-based research, meaningful community engagement and integrated systems thinking. We hope that the federal government is up to the challenge and willing to work with the many community organizations, food harvesters and producers, practitioners and researchers that are paving the way.