Change is in the Air this Food Day

I hope you have time to take a look around at the agricultural landscape this holiday weekend, and celebrate Food Day Canada as we’ve known it over the past decade or so. Because in another 12 months, our nation’s agri-food culture could feel much different.

Food Day Canada is described by its founder, culinary pioneer Anita Stewart of Elora, as “a chance for all Canadians to join hands in one massive celebration in praise of our farmers and fishers, our chefs and researchers…and, above all, our home cooks.” Before she started this in 2003, (originally, as The World’s Longest Barbeque, to support the beleaguered beef sector), there really wasn’t much public recognition of farmers. Thank you, Anita Stewart.

As the years went on, Food Day Canada’s roots grew at the University of Guelph, Canada’s food university. Stewart worked hard to show how crops and livestock developed by Guelph researchers contributed so significantly to our nation’s food supply. These were products such as Yukon Gold potatoes and many varieties of field crops and orchard crops that were uniquely Canadian. A collection of them are listed on the fooddaycanada.ca website; more opportunities exist to describe research advances in livestock that have led to better and healthier animals, too.

Food Day Canada is not political. It respects regional cuisine and doesn’t draw lines between provinces. It isn’t bound by ridiculous and outdated laws like the one being challenged right now by a New Brunswicker who has been charged for illegally transporting a few cases of beer from Quebec to his home province. It’s led to a campaign called Free Beer, as in it’s time to free beer from bureaucratic wrangling so it’s not a crime to take it between provinces, fuelled by a grassroots organization called the Canadian Constitution Foundation.

Canada’s agri-food sector, on the other hand, has had well more than a century to develop and harbour the kind of harmful politics that Food Day Canada has so far managed to avoid. The way the sector looks in the future will have a lot to do with the way we participate, or don’t, in the much ballyhooed Trans Pacific Partnership. This pending initiative is supposed to give Canadian farmers new trade options with Pacific Rim countries. And it might give consumers here even more food choices than they have now.

But the risk is huge if Canada has to give up its supply management system to do it.

The US has taken a lead calling the shots on the partnership, and it hates Canadian supply management. It says the system is protectionist, and throws up unfair trade barriers to protect Canadian poultry and dairy farmers.

Thumbs up, Thumbs Down: If the cost of the TPP is supply management, is it worth it?

Some people, like me, think a reasonable level of protection for Canadian farmers in need isn’t so bad. But some level of compromise is needed if we’re going to send commodities and finished foods into the US and abroad, and expect our trading partners to accept them with open arms

Within the last couple of weeks, both sides on the matter have issued reports and retorts. The one that’s stuck with me arrived in my inbox Wednesday from a powerful coalition of supply managed commodities, kicking back at free traders.

“Farmers are growing increasingly concerned about having their industries misrepresented in certain media,” it said, from its perspective. “It’s time that people had the facts – or at the very least, the other side of the story.”

The whole matter is reaching a crescendo now that the gamesmanship has started with the federal election. Between now and next year’s Food Day Canada, supply management will either be figured out by us, or for us. I hope it’s the former, not the latter. But whatever happens, the country’s food landscape is going to change.

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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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