Someone dropped the ball last week when Canada’s new food guide was unveiled. They forgot about farmers.
The guide, which tells you what to eat to be healthy, was rolled out at two grocery stores, not far from Ottawa. There, Health Minister Tony Clement unveiled the 2007 version of the document, which, for the first time, offers the opportunity to find detailed information on the amount and types of food recommended for your age and gender. You can find it at http://hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index_e.html
The bottom line is that the guide encourages Canadians to focus on vegetables, fruit and whole grains, to include milk, meat and their alternatives, and to limit foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar and salt.
Oh yes, the guide encourages exercise, too, saying food and exercise are inexorably linked.
Dietitians, doctors and researchers have been preaching this gospel for the past 20 years. The food guide makes it official. And that means the messages in it get relayed everywhere, including schools. Increasingly, that’s where nutrition is taught and learned, because there’s so little time to teach it — or anything else — at home, despite its significance.
Health Canada developed the new guide. It says “widespread consultation” took place, with about 7,000 stakeholders. In a news release trumpeting the new guide, Health Canada lists those consulted as dietitians, scientists, physicians and public health personnel with an interest in health and chronic disease prevention.
Farmers aren’t the list. Nor were they in the news release. And they were invisible at the minister’s announcement. How come?
Given the celebratory nature of the event, it would have made sense to see those who grow food get some credit for it, particularly from the image-conscious federal government. At the very least, including farmers among those who gave canned reactions to the food guide would have added to the announcement’s credibility, and shown that Ottawa understands the connection between agriculture, food and health.
That’s too bad. It was a missed opportunity all around.
But farmers need to share some responsibility here, too. Their leaders knew the announcement was coming. Despite not being named by the feds, they’d certainly been part of the “widespread consultation,” and were aware of the guide’s contents.
That awareness was part of the problem. Some farm groups that produce conventional commodities are livid that alternatives to meat and milk get what they say is a high profile in the new version of the guide. They believe there’s an implication that traditional diets with traditional ingredients are inferior.
So, they’re pooh-poohing the new guide. And as politics go, that likely cost them their moment of glory.
I can see farmers’ point. But the reality is that demographics have changed. For example, different cultures have different tastes. And an older population needs to eat differently than a growing one.
But rather than letting this fester into another us-versus-them situation, how about taking advantage of the situation with a new emphasis on research?
To its credit, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has been pounding the table for additional research support to help farmers be competitive. Its pre-budget presentation to the provincial government recently did just that. It wasn’t tied to the food guide, but the ripple effect is the same. The farm community needs to get the message to researchers to develop varieties of “new” foods, which can be grown by Canadian farmers and are aligned with food guide suggestions.
Ottawa made the suggestions. So it makes sense that Ottawa step up to the plate with some new research money to support the new food guide. The federation wants the province to do the same, to support the breadth of agricultural research that makes Ontario Canada’s leading food producer.
The good news is that neither farmers nor researchers have to start from scratch. For example, we already have a vibrant and productive fruit and vegetable sector, and an active research community supported in a major way by the federal and provincial governments.
We’ve been leaders in “alternatives” for ages. In soy, for example, we’ve been way out in front of other countries, developing food varieties and early maturing varieties for Ontario conditions.
And there’s all kinds of work underway to fine tune conventional commodities, while maintaining their inherent attributes, and to show one of the reasons we’re living longer as a society is because our food is already very good.
The food guide serves up an opportunity to make Canadian food even better, and to include farmers, the research community and governments in the effort. Now, let’s find a way to introduce consumers into the mix, and the circle will be complete.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.