Canada Needs a Food Policy

On January 23, 2009, Liberal Members of Parliament across Canada hosted community meetings to discuss the need for a comprehensive food policy for Canada. Wayne read the following statement to launch the nation-wide roundtable broadcast on the net…

Thanks to Members of Parliament Dr. Carolyn Bennett and Wayne Easter for  their initiative in launching this much-needed public discussion. It’s my belief that a comprehensive food policy will contribute to an epochal improvement in government services for human and environmental well-being, and that it will come to be regarded as this generation’s gift to the future, much as Canadian medicare came to be the legacy of the last
generation of politics.

For those Canadians who suffer from Obama-envy this week, it’s worth noting that a comprehensive food policy is an idea that Canada can provide world leadership for, and a key to such notable international goals as eliminating hunger, reducing obesity and protecting the climate and the environment generally. The idea is so good and will extend so many benefits to so many people that I look forward to it becoming a project that all political parties join cause in, whatever their differences.

Because food touches so many aspects of our lives in so many ways, a government that does not have a comprehensive food policy cannot, by definition, have a comprehensive health policy, energy policy, job creation policy, environment policy, global warming policy, anti-poverty policy, immigration and settlement policy, trade policy, industrial policy or – last but not least - agricultural policy. When food is torn apart, with bits stored in silos of health, energy, environment, immigration, trade and agriculture departments, it becomes like the patient who is treated by doctors as a liver, pancreas, heart, spine, ear, nose and throat, not a whole person. No patient responds well to this medical treatment, and no dynamic element of life responds well to this political treatment.

It’s been said that our problems with healthcare and food begin with the fact that the people in charge of food know and care little about health, while the people in charge of healthcare know and care little about food.

When two of Canada’s major food groups are donuts and pop, and when our medical system is overburdened with alarming rates of heart disease and diabetes, the way we keep food and health in different sectors of the economy is no longer economical and the way we divide government responsibility is no longer politic. While various governments around the world flail their arms with various efforts to protect the climate from global warming, even the justly-praised Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fails to identify food as an area for corrective action, and we all miss the opportunity to deal with a food sector that is responsible for a third of global warming emissions, most of which can be reduced while also reducing world poverty and disease and improving farm incomes. While various governments around the world work at stimulating the economy and job creation, and almost none of them look at food and agriculture, the traditional sectors relied on to generate the multiplier effect; this just shows how thinking inside the box has gone to ridiculous lengths.

A comprehensive food Policy will have a Plan to link all the People involved with food (from producers to consumers), all the Places where food is acted on (from homes to workplace cafeterias), all the Purposes that food serves (from communion with traditions and spiritualities to community development and personal health) and all the Projects that bring us food (from Agriculture departments to hospital cafeterias) so these elements can be connected and synchronized with Policies that optimize the multiple positive public outcomes of food.

In the absence of a comprehensive and rational food policy, Canadians suffer needlessly from four problems. There is no good reason why these problems persist.

As many as ten per cent of the people of Canada, including a disproportionate number of children, cannot afford nutritious foods throughout the year, and have to throw themselves on the mercy of food charities or do without – this in a land where farmers produce more than enough food for all to eat, and where we spend billions more managing food waste than on under-nutrition of kids from low-income families.

Second, obesity, particularly childhood obesity, means many will live shorter and more painful lives than their parents; we can prevent this problem for far less money than we will spend on medical care for the diabetes and heart disease and related problems that flow inevitably from obesity. Canada can, for instance, join other industrially advanced countries in providing national school lunch programs featuring nutritious, local and sustainably produced foods that introduce youth to the basics of healthy, balanced and delicious meals.

Third, at a time when the world faces likely food shortages as a result of challenges likely to be imposed by global warming, we are losing our best farm lands and young people are refusing to enter careers in food production that guarantee only poverty-level wages.

Lastly, though many want to do something positive for farmers and for global warming, we are missing the opportunity of paying farmers a fee to become stewards of clean air and water, beginning with incentives to reduce their own energy use and fees to store more carbon in their soil — the best and most beneficial carbon sequestration program ever designed.

How exactly a comprehensive plan will look is a matter for serious deliberation and dialogue. What’s so important about today is that the efforts to develop such a plan have now been joined, and we can at last start to turn the mess of disjointed food policies into the productive problem-solving of a comprehensive food policy.