Suppose you were about to be placed, or thrust, into a position of being able to co-create a new food policy for Canada. What would it include?
Liberal MPs Wayne Easter and Carolyn Bennett led a national electronic fact-finding exercise on this issue recently, taking the pulse of Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Easter is the Liberal's agriculture critic and Bennett is the party's health critic, and the author a book aimed at changing policy, Kill or Cure? How Canadians Can Remake Their Health Care System.
In Guelph, MP Frank Valeriote took the lead, assembling at the University of Guelph a dozen area experts in disciplines such as food processing, production, nutrition, nutraceuticals, communications and animal care.
It didn't take long to reach consensus in the room, and across the country.
In Guelph, participants said engaging the public in a deeper understanding of the food system was vital for any major policy's success.
Ontario has a long and successful history of diverse agriculture and food production. But the continuum of agriculture to food –all the steps required to get food from the field to Canadians' plates — is poorly understood.
Expecting urban Canadians to have even a remote understanding of farming and its complexities, let alone policies that support them, is no longer a given.
But what constitutes that continuum? It's what Professor Vern Osborne calls "the transition of tradition," what Prof. David Waltner-Toews describes as a series of intertwined systems that includes many features Canadians say are important — the environment, air, water and land, and of course the economy.
The economy is aided by a healthier population that spends as little time as possible in the doctor's office or the hospital, or taking costly prescriptions. The less pressure on the health care system, the more money there is for other imperatives, such as infrastructure.
To a significant extent, health can be influenced by food choices and the way food is processed. For policy purposes, healthy food production, processing and consumption must be considered as a group.
And there must be policy to support research intended to cover that continuum. Consumers are driven by food safety, and many believe local food — an old tradition that's new again — is the way to go. It seems ironic to think national (and provincial) policies are needed to determine the development of something as local as food grown by your neighbour.
But that's where the regulatory process comes in.
Regulations and the people who enforce them are what helps keeps food as safe as possible, no matter where you are in Canada, and keeps us from turning food concerns into food fears on a daily basis. Local food has to undergo the same scrutiny for safety and quality as imports. Research is needed to figure out not only how to make it as good as possible but also as safe as possible, and restore confidence in the processing system in particular.
Amid all this, farmers have to make a profit. Consumer-focused policies that support affordable, quality food to stave off chronic disease need to be grounded with policies that support farmers' ability to grow crops or raise animals the way we want them to.
This has a price, and we can either pay it at the cash register, which Canadians resist, or through new or updated policies that give farmers a break on production costs such as fuel tax, wildlife compensation and environmental management.
With an anticipated greater degree of co-operation among political parties in this federal government, food policy development by any of them is timely and has the potential to be utilized at least in part.
Imagine a wide-sweeping policy supported by all parties.
What an unselfish way to show co-operation on a matter that affects all Canadians every day.