Producers need to make their voices heard now, as Ottawa proceeds with public consultations about the first-of-its-kind national food policy.
Ottawa says a food policy is a way to address issues related to the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food. It says such a policy “will set a long-term vision for the health, environmental, social, and economic goals related to food, while identifying actions we can take in the short-term.”
Although the consultations were just announced last week, a national food policy summit is already scheduled for Ottawa on June 22-23. And the whole consultation exercise comes to an end in four months, which will quickly disappear with summer around the corner.
Provided you have access to the Internet, you can state your opinion online, through a survey designed to help inform the policy. The survey focuses on the four distinct areas of action Ottawa is gathering input and views on: increasing access to affordable food, improving health and food safety, growing more high quality food, and conserving soil, water, and air.
That wording is direct from the survey. Notice the action words — increasing, improving, growing and conserving. You’ll recognize them as producer activities…activities that urban Canada is about to express an opinion on, probably in unprecedented numbers, and with hugely varying degrees of understanding about farming.
Words I’ve heard associated with the policy include trust and integrity, transparency, fairness, inclusive, diversity and in sync. Expectations are high. And the reach will be huge.
For example, consider all the areas agriculture touches, including the economy, the environment and rural communities.
And consider agriculture’s reliance on research and technology. Agriculture has long benefitted from research for, among other things, improved animal health and new crop varieties. In fact, agri-food research – particularly fundamental research, the kind that happens over longer periods of time and often isn’t focussed on single commodities or species — influences all four of the areas Ottawa wants Canadian to comment on. However, that’s the kind of research support that’s been slipping over the years, the kind that a new report says is needed to strengthen Canada’s very foundation and future. Should support for research be part of a national food policy? Absolutely.
To sum it up, here are five reasons producers need to make their voices heard and help shape the budding national food policy.
- This is not a trivial pursuit. Canada needs a national food policy that takes the guesswork out of what direction we’re headed, where the government stands, and where it will put much of its resources. This is an opportunity to have a say in the way the future unfolds in Canadian agriculture. Can it get much more important than that?
- Farm associations and commodity groups are onside. They are making their positions publicly known. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, for example, issued a commentary on Friday stating a unified food policy dedicated to food security, accessibility and sustainability is long overdue.
- Ottawa wants individual input. The online survey is for all Canadians, not groups. Even if you think your opinions are exactly the same as your farm group or commodity association, state them anyway. Remember, a survey is a numbers game. And when it comes to numbers, farmers are by far a minority. If majority rules, which it’s supposed to do in a democracy…well, the results may not be farmers friendly.
- Urban Canada is wasting no time making its concerns known. Well-connected urban interest organizations are already out in front on this. A Montreal-based group called Food Secure Canada has issued a well-crafted 24-page discussion paper to help drive thinking. Its platform is this: “We need a policy that is coherent, democratic, integrated and created to benefit all people.” Where do you see yourself as a farmer in that equation?
- The clock is ticking. I’ve heard Ottawa criticized for such a small consultation window. But as Toronto MP and federal ag caucus member Julie Dabrusin told me last week at a session about the national food policy, sponsored by the Canadian Association of Food Science, the feds set a relatively short timeframe to send a message that they are serious about driving the policy forward. At that same session, Beth MacNeil, director general of AAFC’s strategic policy branch, underlined the government’s commitment, and federal minister Lawrence MacAulay’s position: “The minister understands the issue, and he cares,” she says. “We can’t afford to fail on this.”
Completing the online survey is kind of like voting – if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the results. And as recently as the federal Conservative leadership race, we’ve seen what a difference a few votes can make. Agriculture and food will need all the support from farmers that it can get.
More on the Canadian government’s plan for a national food policy: