By Meredith Davis
Canada has much to learn from other countries when it comes to developing a national food strategy. During February’s Canadian Food Summit, put on by the Conference Board of Canada and various partners, the subject of a Canadian national food strategy was the main item on the menu. Food ambassadors from England, Scotland and Australia shared their respective countries’ experiences in developing national food strategies. There are many lessons we can learn here in Canada from various strategies around the world.
Lesson 1: Any long-term national food strategy must lay out clear priorities and actionable items and be designed to withstand the changing tides of different government administrations.
Sarah Church from the UK’s Food Policy Unit discussed Food 2030, an integrated food strategy for England aimed at addressing all aspects of the food chain and driven by major challenges facing the current food system such as climate change and obesity. Church praised Food 2030 for presenting a sweeping vision that all food stakeholders could support, but admitted that it fell short on identifying clear priorities and easily actionable items. This was exacerbated by an election, which ushered in a new government with its own priorities and a desire to tailor the national food strategy to reflect these.
Lesson 2: The process of creating a national food strategy must be guided by a genuine commitment to listening to and incorporating ideas and priorities of all food stakeholders.
Richard Souness from Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry described the comprehensive consultation process that Australia is undertaking to inform the development of its own National Food Plan. Canada could learn a great deal and build widespread support from having an open and transparent consultation process.
Lesson 3: Tensions are unavoidable in a multi-sectoral initiative such as a national food strategy but can be softened by fostering strong relationships and a mutual sense of trust.
James Withers, who came decked out in a tartan kilt, highlighted Scotland’s attempt to position itself as ‘A Land of Food and Drink’ with success stories such as Scotch whisky, Innis & Gunn beer and salmon. The Scottish food and drink strategy is largely corporate led, with government playing a supporting role. Withers emphasized the power of food to evoke strong feelings on all sides and the importance of having regular face-to-face meetings to build mutual trust between stakeholders and ensure all groups have a say in the process.
Two prominent figures on Canada’s food scene were asked to respond to the international panel and provide their own thoughts on a Canadian food policy. Ralph Martin, who holds the Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph, emphasized the need for Canada to remain globally competitive in areas such as pulses, to adopt solutions to food waste and to move towards full-cost accounting when it comes to food and its associated externalities. Martin also stressed preventative solutions to diet-related illness such as increasing access to Ontario-grown fruits and vegetables for low-income Canadians, as well as the importance of an income solution to food insecurity.
Nick Saul, Executive Director of Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre, echoed Martin’s concerns around addressing the root causes of food insecurity, describing Canada’s current food system as two-tiered. He referenced another international food story, that of Brazil, which has been addressing food insecurity at a systemic level through land use, income and other structural policies. Saul also stressed that bigger is not always better and advocated for a role for local grassroots solutions. He also reminded us that Food Secure Canada has already done extensive consultations for the People’s Food Policy Project and that this on-the-ground conversation needs to carry on because food is an issue that we are all experts in.
The time is right for Canada to be taking food seriously and we need a Made In Canada solution. Food touches everyone within our national boundaries, but it crosses borders as well. We have a great deal to learn from other countries that have been through similar exercises when it comes to good ideas around food.
Meredith Davis is a member of Slow Food Toronto and works as the Research & Evaluation Coordinator at The Stop Community Food Centre.