After more than two years of work and hearing from almost 45,000 Canadians, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released its first food policy this week.
A total of $134 million will be spent to support this five-year plan that centres around food security, health, environment, and the sustainable growth of the agriculture and food sector.
These are noble goals but the policy is an affront to anyone who considers our agri-food sector to be the cornerstone of our economy.
The budget itself is underwhelming. It’s less than $4 per capita and is expected to cover an endless wish list.
A new food strategy was introduced in Quebec last year with the premier and several ministers all present at the unveiling, and $349 million was set aside to support the province’s ambitions. That’s $40 per capita, 10 times more than budgeted by the federal government. Quebec’s approach was very strategic, systematic and engaging; it offered specifics in terms of goals and benchmarks.
Even though the federal government opted to go with a policy and not a strategy, the framework presented was incredibly short on details.
While Agriculture and Agri-Food is the lead department for the federal initiative, Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said that up to 12 other departments are engaged with the file. However, the only person with her during the announcement was her parliamentary secretary.
Besides, those who know how things work in Ottawa know that Agriculture and Agri-Food is not a central department within the federal government. Far from it. Expecting the department to take precedence over Health or Finance would be purely naïve, especially with only $134 million to spend over five years.
The policy doesn’t provide a vision or focus for our agri-food sector and it avoids addressing major issues in the sector, like genetically modified organism (GMO) labelling, the use of pesticides and the future of our supply management scheme.
It doesn’t suggest that Canada should focus on certain commodities more than others, given what lies ahead with produce and vegetable proteins. The new Canada’s Food Guide recommends a dietary regimen that’s out of reach for the country’s agriculture. So growth is essential in some areas like horticulture and pulses, particularly, and no specific provisions are made for these sectors.
The new policy offers no support for the development of impactful value chains in Canada. Food processing appears to hardly be on the radar.
Value chains are used to guide high-impact and sustainable initiatives focused on improving productivity, competitiveness, entrepreneurship, and the growth of small and medium food processors. That’s where most innovation and economic growth is typically generated. Processing is also relevant in relation to the modernization of systems to reach a higher level of food security.
Any nation should aspire to control its food value chains, but Canada doesn’t. Maple Leaf Foods is building a $300-million facility in the U.S. for its plant-based protein manufacturing, using Canadian ingredients, and will likely sell its products back to Canada. This is simply shameful. A strong food policy would at least give Canada a shot as a viable option for a respectable company like Maple Leaf Foods.
The fact that this policy was influenced and inspired by non-governmental organizations like Food Secure Canada is obvious. The policy’s social justice undertone makes it look like a wish list for small-scale community groups. Community freezers, gardens galore … these are cute ideas but won’t help Canada become an agri-food powerhouse.
There’s no downside to supporting these groups but Canada needs much more. As a strong advocate for a national food policy council, Food Secure Canada got its wish. But nobody really knows what this council will do, what authority it will have or what the scope of its membership will be.
This policy is very much about checking a box of an election promise made, just for the sake of it. Our agri-food sector deserves better than that.
The policy does outline some important initiatives. A comprehensive Feeding the North program, along with the development of a Made in Canada brand for Canadians, is long overdue.
Food security in northern communities has been a challenge for decades and this policy should pave the way for more investments in localized production facilities in that region.
Labelling products that are made in Canada will also be critical. But with the success of several provincially-based programs like Foodland Ontario and Aliments du Québec, Ottawa is coming late to the game.
In the end, this is a policy hardly any Canadian will care about, not necessarily for its lack of relevancy but rather for its lack of potential reach and impact.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.