Look Who’s Leading the Drive for a National Food Policy

To its peril, Canada’s agri-food industry – and indeed, all of Canada — has chugged along for more than a century without a comprehensive agri-food strategy.

You’d think whoever is running Ottawa would have made it a priority, given we are active internationally exporting food and so dependent on imports.

Consider the consequences if the food system goes awry, if the supply chain or export pipeline changes significantly – which could very well happen for political reasons, let alone agronomic ones – or worse, starts drying up.

What provisions do we have to make sure our nation is fed, other than to fall on the good graces of Canadian farmers?

None, really. Agriculture always delivers. Everyone takes it for granted, so no wonder they also assume agriculture doesn’t really need the likes of inputs or land to make a go of it. Somehow, farmers will figure it out.

And those are among the reasons why a strategy that truly protects farmers and helps manage our supply of food is more vital than ever.

Interestingly, it seems like it’s always an opposition party, rather than the governing party of the day, trying to move a national food strategy along.

Agriculture always delivers. Everyone takes it for granted, so no wonder they also assume agriculture doesn’t really need the likes of inputs or land to make a go of it. Somehow, farmers will figure it out.

For example, Guelph MP Frank Valeriote gave it an excellent try a few years ago. His commitment was unwavering.
He travelled across the country with other concerned party members to garner expert advice.

He brought then-party leader Michael Ignatieff to Guelph to hear everyone from grassroots growers to University of Guelph researchers give input into creating a system based on research and sustainability.

He was his party’s agriculture critic, a role he embraced and immersed himself in. And had his party risen to power, I suspect Canadian agriculture would be working to implement a Valeriote-orchestrated system now.

Lately, another federal politician has embraced the need for a Canadian food strategy. But he’s not from Guelph, or from some other riding with rural sensitivities.

He’s from downtown Toronto.

Back in June, MP Matt Kellway (NDP, Beaches-East York) took two petitions to Ottawa. The first was in support of a pan-Canadian food strategy. It noted Canada “stands out among its industrialized comparators for our absence of a comprehensive food policy.” It went on to call on the federal government to implement a Canadian food strategy “to support farmers, improve access to healthy and local food, and to market Canadian food at home and abroad.” Not bad!

His second petition called for a national strategy on local food. It would require the Department of Public Works to develop a policy for purchasing local food for all federal institutions.

Farmers should visit him in the Beaches once the Pan Am Games are over and Toronto is accessible once again. Later, invite him out to a modern farm. Take him through some agri-food research facilities so he understands the value of technology in agriculture and evidence-based policy for food production.

Because based on some of his other positions on modern agricultural tools and practices, I’m not sure he appreciates farming is a highly advanced sector fueled by advancements in research.

At the very least, proactively reach out to him and others from urban Canada who have taken it upon themselves to represent agriculture’s interests. Because although these advocates for agriculture are not in power now, in some circles they are leading opinion about farming and food. Their opinions are urban-based, and may fall short of supporting modern agriculture.

But what more can be expected, if agriculture dismisses these people because they’re “from the city”?

I get a feeling that urban people speaking for rural Canada and agriculture is the shape of things to come. Look what’s happened provincially, with basically no one in the legislature from rural Ontario. Once the last ballot is cast and the polls close, it doesn’t matter how much rural people complain about the lack of representation. If it’s not there, nothing but another election is going to change it.

You can wait five years. But a lot of water can pass under the bridge during that time, a lot of damage can be done.

A national food strategy would take some of the anxiety out of the political equation for the agri-food sector. In theory, no matter who was in power, the strategy would be followed. It would be non-political, or at least, as non-political as possible.

But who is going implement it? Likely, it will be the domain of urban politicians people such as Matt Kellway. Should the agri-food sector be getting to know him and other urban leaders better, those who could be destined to be decision makers for a sector they are at arm’s-length from, those whose knowledge of the sector is not much deeper than what they glean from headlines and grocery stores?

Absolutely. The future of modern agriculture depends on better communication, and getting to know one another is an important step.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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