Discussions on a National Food Policy for Canada

I wrote a blog post for the Food Law and Policy Conference, on the a lunch-time plenary discussing the relevance of a national food policy in Canada. Text below.

“Over a delicious meal of marinated tofu, mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables, I learned about some exciting projects going on across the country, some facts about the food production in Canada, and heard perspectives on food policy from a group of experts in the field. The panelists were comprehensive in highlighting the various elements that should be included in a food law policy.

Entitled “Is there a role for a national food policy in the 21st century?”, the panel was populated by four academics and practitioners from across the country, in varying fields, moderated by Elaine Gibson, an associate professor at the Schulich School of Law. The speakers included Peter Andree, from Carleton University, Peter Tyedmers, from Dalhousie University, Patricia Williams, from Mount St. Vincent University and Robert Strang, the Chief Medical Officer of Nova Scotia. Unsurprisingly at a conference on food policy, the general response to the question was affirmative, although self-identified contrarian Tyedmers gave a qualified dissent.

Nestled into a major time slot with no concurrent sessions to bother its attendance, I saw the lunchtime panel with its prominent title as a centrepiece of the [Food Law and Policy] conference.  In this light, I was troubled by some of the vagaries the panel put forward.

The panelists enumerated important components and laid out the reasoning for their beliefs, but I was left with an inarticulable feeling that some of the suggested ideas did not reflect the likely reality of a future food policy. It wasn’t until a provocative question from a Dalhousie student near the end of the event that some of the natural contradictions between ideal policy and gritty reality began to fissure the panel.

The plenary began by asking why we would need a national food policy. Williams began by suggesting that the policy would need to challenge historical and social structures, addressing food insecurity in a holistic way which included inequity. Strang introduced Nova Scotia’s vulnerability to major impact events, and echoed Williams’ comments on the connection between income and insecurity. Tyedners felt that a food policy would be irrelevant if it did not align with other national commitments and priorities, especially around environmental concerns. Andree emphasized the benefits of increased connectivity that a national policy would bring.

The next question focused on effective approaches. Williams argued for a living wage or a guaranteed annual income policy, and redefining healthy food as including “sustainability” in its definition. Strang told the attendees that ensuring Canadians had adequate income was a “fundamental cornerstone” of food policy. Andree focused on the importance of provincial buy-in. In discussing how the differing environments of municipal, provincial, federal and aboriginal jurisdictions could play out, there was agreement that smaller jurisdictions could have a laboratorial role, where projects could be experimented with before being scaled up across the country.

During this section, Robert Strang acknowledged that “[T]here are powerful vested interests, global corporations that may or may not be aligned with where we’re trying to go with a national food policy. I think that needs to be put explicitly out on the table.” While the panelists might have many valuable ideas about how to move forward, Strang was acknowledging that it wouldn’t happen in a political vacuum.

This theme arose again during the question-and-answer period. A student attendee brought up the challenging contradiction between the positive associations we have for “local food” and the fact that Canadian producers do not necessarily meet that standard. Another attendee later on asked how a policy could actually raise accountability, as opposed to simply being unenforceable words on a page. Both of these questions brought about some exciting contrast between the panelists. Some agreed with the cynical perspective that a policy’s unenforceable nature might make it little more than political cover, while another favoured the incrementalist approach of policy becoming guidelines becoming legislation “15 or 20 years from now.” These challenging questions helped draw out some further detail, but only near the end of the panel.

I appreciated the comprehensive approach the speakers took in looking beyond “health”  – particularly Williams and Strang in their insistence on social policy, inequity and income, while Tyedners made some intriguing comments on the crucial weight of environmental factors. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen the assembled experts push themselves and each other a little further.

In my mind, it is not enough to mention Guaranteed Annual Income and environmental factors without at least asking a few more questions. We have pilot projects both past (Dauphin, MB), and future (Ontario), yet it is not our current reality that GAI is immediately around the corner.  If GAI is crucial to an effective food policy (and Williams made a strong case that it was), what does that mean for us as a society? Or at the very least, as a conference? Is this something that food lawyers need to be pushing for? If so, what are its barriers and obstacles? If some panelists began using significant chunks of the panel time to discuss the details and relevance of GAI, would the other panelists begin to push back against its core relevance?

Scaling-up of successful projects was mentioned many times, with school food projects and hunter support programs highlighted as two possible beneficiaries. It was suggested that a national food strategy could help broaden the reach of these programs. Both were discussed as “win-win-win!” projects (although Williams wisely cautioned against seeing school food or other educational initiatives as panaceas without additional support for families). If the projects are so win-win, why haven’t we gone ahead and ticked the box for their funding? Is the bugaboo of the miserly federal government to blame? Are there legitimate concerns around the per-dollar efficiency value of these programs versus other beneficial food programs? Or are they being held back strictly by the lack of connectivity that a national policy would resolve?

I don’t doubt that the panelists do good work around the issues they raised. The key elements discussed were intriguing, but at the same time (I am grasping around to avoid using the world “realistic”) did not strike me as particularly probable in the near future. As many of the ideas I heard sounded quite wonderful to me, I would have appreciated going to the next step. Why aren’t these ideas being implemented? What is the first argument against these potential solutions? Further, what is the response to those arguments against them?

I recognize that I sound very critical of a group of individuals who raised some valuable ideas at their plenary panel. It is important to bring forth potential solutions, but it would be nice to leave a conference with more than a brainstorm. Perhaps that was the role of the panel and its position among the rest of the sessions. Undoubtedly, time constraints played a role. Yet without effective elaboration, our finished product was the very safe delivery of some idealistic solutions which may or may not stick in the heads of the attendees, but which hardly constitute meaningful momentum towards meaningful change. “

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