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Canadian agricultural policy still riddled with major contradictions

EAP staff have recently been looking through old and new Agriculture (and Agrifood) Canada (AAFC) policy documents. Three significant themes crop up again and again, either explicitly or implicitly, in those writings. These themes stand in stark contradiction to the department’s larger objectives of promoting health and the sustainability of the agrifood sector. For the purposes of this discussion we'll label these themes "you aren't what you eat", "trade globally to sustain locally", and "knowledge is too much power".

You aren't what you eat

It's hard to find substantial references to consumers and health in AAFC documents. It's as if they don't believe food production, diet and health are intimately related.

Yet, diet is a significant risk factor in 70% of diseases1. Many chronic diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stress, cancer, diabetes, low birth weight infants, anaemia, and some infections in children now pose major public health challenges. All of these chronic diseases and conditions are related to nutrition.

These conditions affect both the food-rich (those with sufficient income to acquire whatever foods they desire) and the food-poor (the hungry). High percentages of the North American population are at risk from these diseases because most people do not eat in a manner optimal for health. For example, according to the 1992 Ontario Health Survey, 75% of the population exceeds recommended dietary intake of fat. More than half the population does not consume recommended levels of vegetables, and over two-thirds fail to consume recommended levels of grains. Approximately 15% of the Canadian population does not have sufficient income to afford a nourishing diet. Statistics are no better in the USA.

In Canada, we all pay, through publicly-funded health insurance, for the costs of individual poor food choices or hunger. In the AAFC view, the food system bears no responsibility for the consequences of what is produced for the consuming public. Food companies are not obliged, except in particular cases, to provide consumers with information about the health-related dimensions of their product. The efforts of health agencies to promote healthy eating are ultimately overwhelmed by agribusiness advertising that encourages unhealthy eating patterns.

It seems that AAFC and the food industry believe it is up to each person to sort out what is nourishing and how to fit different food products into a healthy diet. Not only can this stance be considered dubious from moral and ethical perspectives, but it doesn't even make financial sense. We all pay for health care costs through the tax system. So, it makes sense to encourage some collective responsibility for diets, including making the food system act as if it believes we are what we eat.

Trade globally to sustain locally

According to AAFC, expansion of trade in agricultural products is entirely consistent with efforts to create environmental sustainability in Canada. This reflects a lack of understanding of the ecological principles underlying sustainability2.

Current Canadian agricultural trade policy and practice contravene most of those ecological principles. In part, this is because trade theory evolved in a period when no consideration was given to finite resources and ecological limits. As a result, the costs of possible future resource depletion were not accounted for. While this may have been understandable in the early 19th century when the basic assumptions of trade benefits were laid down, it is inexcusable that present-day trade theorists and policy makers should continue to use 200 year old assumptions to guide policy-making.

A key ecological principle is that nutrient and energy flows are cyclical, rather than linear, and that ecosystem integrity is sustained when resources are consumed close to where they are produced. Cyclical relations cannot be respected in a global trading environment because of the great distances goods travel. In North America, the average food item travels more than 2000 km between production and consumption.

Environmental limits are constantly exceeded in present trade practice because Canada is so dependent on agricultural (particularly grain) trade to preserve a positive balance of trade. This pressure results in a continuous overharvest. Similarly, trade pressures reinforce monocultural or simplified agroecosystem designs, thereby reducing functional diversity, and limiting the ability of producers to design self-maintaining and self-regulating systems.

In practice, all this means that farmers are encouraged to do fundamentally contradictory things. They are expected to invest in environmental stewardship, yet also produce for a global market place driven largely by low-cost considerations. In this global market, producers are forced to externalize their environmental costs, while domestic policy and the public ask them to internalize them. AAFC documents suggest that policy makers are either unaware of these contradictions or deliberately avoid addressing them.

Knowledge is too much power

Although health and sustainability are stated AAFC policy objectives, our food information system stands in the way of achieving them. No one has responsibility for determining the overall coherence of consumer food messages. As a result, consumers get information that is incomplete, contradictory and often misleading.

Individual consumers do not have the resources to determine the accuracy or completeness of any firm's messages. Government rules confound this problem because there is little coherence between the branches of government that have responsibility for advertising rules, labelling and grading systems.

Policy and regulations related to consumer information about food are divided amongst different levels of government, and different units within government departments. At the federal level, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is responsible for administering legislation on the packaging, labelling, composition, grading and advertising of foods. It's principal responsibility is to ensure that products are properly labelled and not misrepresented to consumers (enforcement authority). Health Canada is responsible for ensuring the safety of the Canadian food supply, and accordingly determines food labelling requirements regarding health, food safety and nutrition matters. The Consumer Policy Branch of Industry Canada has responsibility for food retail inspection and some advertising matters. The food regulatory and policy setting responsibilities were transferred in 1993 to AAFC.

The healthy eating messages of federal, provincial and municipal health departments are often competing with contradictory messages permitted by the regulatory framework of other arms of government. Although well intentioned, these efforts are dwarfed by a massive advertising apparatus that supports the launch of over 10,000 new "food" products in Canada every year.

These three contradictory positions result in the wasting of public dollars, as well as continued health and environmental problems. Investments in programs that successfully promote environmental stewardship in agriculture are undercut in the market because consumers cannot get the right information to support those efforts with their dollars.

It seems to us that government and business are unwilling to unleash the power of consumers to create a new food system.

1 US Surgeon General. 1988. Report on Nutrition and Health. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Washington, DC.

2 For a fuller discussion, order from the Toronto Food Policy Council their paper on free trade and food security. Toronto Food Policy Council, 277 Victoria St. Rm 203, Toronto, ON M5B 1W1.

Copyright 1997. Ecological Agriculture Projects.

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