A collaborative approach to developing a national food strategy could propel the agri-food industry forward and enable it to reach its potential.

When the idea of a national food strategy or policy is raised in Ottawa circles, it usually leads to more questions than answers. What is a national food strategy (or policy)? How will it work? More importantly, why does Canada need one?

While the first two questions are critically important, it’s the last question we need to explore first. Many of us in the agri-food sector have spent years advocating for a national food policy — or, as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture would prefer to call it, a national food strategy. (A strategy is inherently action-oriented, flexible and focused, whereas a policy suggests a more rigid direction.)

There are two primary reasons why a national food strategy is important: we need a longer-term vision, and the plan needs to be aligned among the many players in the agri-food sector.

Seeking a longer-term vision

Canadian farmers have grown accustomed to thinking about policy over five-year periods, as Canada’s agricultural programs and policies are laid out in this five-year framework. This model was initially introduced in 2003 through a federal, provincial and territorial agreement, and farm programs have taken this format since then. This is the case with latest Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada plan, titled Growing Forward 2. While over the years this five-year structure provided stability, farmers will tell you they feel considerable uncertainty as programs cycles approach their expiry dates, and they wonder what the next five years will bring in terms of priorities, policy and tools for managing their operations.

These policy frameworks are generally limited to agricultural programs, and this is one of the core reasons why Canada should have a national food strategy. We need a long-term vision that connects agriculture with food policy and ties in to all other relevant areas — trade, environment, health and transportation, to name a few.

Departmental alignment required

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the issue of sustainability. Policy-makers generally accept that programs linked to “sustainability” may impact all industries. However, the ease with which we discuss sustainability belies just how multifaceted a concept it really is. It incorporates many economic, environmental, social, health and cultural considerations that extend far beyond the mandate of any one department or industry segment. More importantly, all of these areas are connected, with interdependencies that further complicate the policy landscape, and this complexity can undermine governments’ ability to achieve specific outcomes.

The same is true of food policy. But unlike sustainability, food policy hasn’t clearly been recognized for its many facets. To demonstrate the need to acknowledge the sector’s interdependencies with other sectors, we need look no further than this year’s federal budget. Canada wants to increase annual agri-food exports to $75 billion by 2025 – an ambitious goal and one we in the industry believe is completely attainable, given the immense potential for growth, and provided the federal government implements policies that are coordinated among the departments involved.

While Canada’s farmers now produce more food with fewer resources, to increase our agri-food exports by nearly a half, we’ll need more than gains in productivity. Significant growth in value-added production will be required, as well as innovation in everything from primary production to food processing, biofuels and other industrial, nonfood uses of agricultural products. This will involve an array of industries, academic fields and government departments, at all levels.

Most of the players in the agri-food sector recognize that streamlined, science-based regulatory processes are essential if Canadian companies are to access and commercialize their products. However, policy-makers don’t always recognize how innovation can be stifled by seemingly unrelated policy or regulatory changes that in fact have an impact on the agri-food sector. Take food labelling as an example: proposed regulations that would require alarmist health warnings about saturated fat, sugar, and/or salt in food products could dampen growth prospects in our food processing sector. Not only could these warnings undermine the public’s trust in many Canadian food products, they could hinder efforts to capture emerging markets and make Canada a less attractive place to invest.

Another example is immigration pathways for agri-food workers. Although Employment and Social Development Canada has made efforts to help agricultural employers secure permanent residency for workers, other federal and provincial policies are simultaneously limiting those avenues. By taking a cross-cutting, comprehensive look at conflicting policies, Canada could develop a program to promote immigrant pathways into agriculture and other rural industries, and resolve the chronic issues farm operators face because many full-time, permanent agricultural positions remain unfilled.

Finally, carbon pricing policies also have an impact on the agricultural sector. Policies that differ from one province to the other may undermine competitiveness for agricultural producers due to higher costs and farmers’ position as price-takers in the market (meaning they aren’t able to pass on or recoup the higher costs of production). Unless policies reward carbon sequestration and offsets in agriculture, an imposed carbon pricing system could significantly increase production costs, making Canadian products less competitive on a global scale and reducing our export potential. Farmers have made great strides in reducing GHG emissions over the past 20 years, but policy hasn’t evolved to recognize these efficiencies.

These examples illustrate how policy decisions in one sector can confound the objectives of other sectors. When we consider the many ways that food touches our daily lives, we can see the complexity of the food policy landscape. This understanding is critical if we are to succeed in reaching the objective set in the 2017 federal budget: to increase agri-food exports by 2025.

So how can we coordinate all this more effectively? We must answer the first question I posed above: what is a national food policy? Put simply, it’s a long-term policy and program framework that would help build a more socially responsible, profitable and environmentally sustainable agri-food sector that contributes to the health of all Canadians; one that recognizes the multitude of stakeholders. How would it work? Or, more accurately, given that the government is currently developing a national food policy, how should it work?

According to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, to ensure lasting, meaningful change in how food policy is developed, the federal government focus on the following four key principles:

  • A whole-of-government approach: A national food strategy must be founded on a vision that is shared by all government departments and explicitly articulated in the mandates for all departments. Senior decision-makers across government departments must be brought together under a formal body that reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.
  • Achieving consensus: Senior governmental officials across all the government departments relevant to Canada’s agri-food system (agriculture, trade, environment, health, employment and others) must agree on the strategies they are expected to implement. Industry and other nongovernmental stakeholders must also play a leadership role in developing the strategy, together with the government. This leadership must be built through ongoing dialogue to ensure a common understanding, while remaining responsive to emerging science, consumer trends, and global market conditions. The best way to achieve this would be to focus early on areas of agreement, rather than to hold off because of areas of discord.
  • Shortand long-term actions: While it must be rooted in a long-term vision, the strategy must also identify achievable actions that in the short-term will kick-start Canada’s food system in moving toward that vision. There are many examples of ambitious policy efforts that stalled because they lost momentum, such as policies on child care, energy and other areas of shared jurisdiction.
  • Enabling change through all levels of government: A national food strategy must not be restricted to the federal government. The involvement of the provincial and municipal governments is critical if we are to realize the benefits of a holistic vision for Canada’s food system. The strategy must establish clear roles for provincial and municipal actors that consist of specific, coordinated actions by all parties. Federal-provincial relationships can be an area of tension and disconnect, but the framers of the strategy must commit to developing a common vision that also lays out the specific ways that all levels of government can contribute, thus optimizing resources by reducing duplication and counterproductive measures.

The agri-food industry’s potential has recently gained more prominence than we’ve seen in decades. This offers a rare opportunity for meaningful progress on these issues. A complete and collaborative approach to developing a national food strategy could serve as the vehicle that propels the agri-food industry forward, and this would bring value to all Canadians. In order for the agri-food industry to reach its potential, we need a unifying vision, which a national food strategy would provide.

This article is part of the Canadian Agriculture at the Cutting Edge special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock.com/Brianna Scott

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