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Making a list, checking it twice for the minister

A fireside chat is in the works for mid-December between Canada’s agricultural media and Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal minister of agriculture and agri-food.

This is not usual by any means. But it is more in keeping with the relatively cordial relationship this government has with the media compared to the last one. Kudos to the minister.

She says she wants to talk about Canada’s first-ever food policy. That’s good. The agri-food industry had been clamouring for such a policy for ages, to protect its own interests and those of Canadians who could be threatened by food insecurity.

Back in 2017, public consultations took place across Canada to garner opinion about what should be in a food policy.

Many voices were heard. A year later, Ottawa issued a report summarizing what was said. Bureaucrats then went to work on the policy, which was finally released this fall in an easily understandable 13-page electronic format.

With the world turned upside down, the policy hasn’t received the attention it deserves. A fireside chat could be an imaginative, effective and seasonal way to turn on the spotlight.

I’m hopeful. Policy discussions can be dreadfully dull, even though they are hugely important. Policies help give legislation teeth, and at the heart of, that’s what the agri-food sector wants Canada’s food policy to have, some kind of a barrier between it and more globally influential trading nations.

However, these days, a nation can’t come out and say it’s going to protect its own food system or it will face allegations of unfair trade practices, as well as repercussions.

So for these and other pressing reasons, Ottawa is emphasizing Canadians’ health. It says the policy “aims to help Canada advance a healthier and more sustainable food system – one that incorporates diverse perspectives and builds on a robust agenda to support growth for farmers, producers, and food businesses in Canada. It will also help the food system continue to be resilient and innovative, sustain our environment and support our economy.”
According to the fireside chat organizers, Minister Bibeau will speak about the food policy and food in Canada, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This global mess has certainly sped up the licence a nation needs to protect its own food security.

The question is, how far will it go to do so?

As the feds point out, the 2019 budget announced more than $134 million in initial investments to support the food policy. They say this money reflects what was heard during consultations on the food issues that matter most to those living in Canada.

However, if the policy is to be as wide ranging as needed – and most lately, support the agri-food sector and the health of Canadians in the face of the pandemic – that sum is just a start. Consider that for the past four years outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump poured billions of dollars into farm relief for American producers, to shore them up for his trade battle with China. Ontario farmers who compete with U.S. producers asked for more help, but didn’t get anywhere near as much as they hoped for.

So should aid be part of the food policy?

Ottawa itself points to where issues exist in Canada’s food system, outside of the farm. For example, it says, about one million Canadian households don’t have access healthy food. Almost two in three Canadian adults are overweight or obese. And about one third of food produced in Canada is wasted.

“These important societal challenges require multi-faceted solutions,” it says.

That’s for sure. Minister, please pull up a chair. Let’s chat.

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