Conference Board Food Strategy Consultation a Smokescreen
by Ann Slater
Guelph - For those of us who care deeply about locally based food systems and who recognize the role food can play in strengthening our communities, ecosystems and economies, it can be tempting to jump at each and every opportunity to get a piece of our vision mentioned in larger discussions about food and agriculture. As part of its Canadian Food Strategy project, the Conference Board of Canada is inviting organizations and individuals to public consultations across Canada this winter. The National Farmers Union received such an invitation. Some local food activists have suggested it is important to attend. Others have turned down invitations, citing concerns that the strategy is a Canadian Food Industry Strategy, not a strategy to provide sufficient, healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food to all Canadians.
The Conference Board of Canada's food strategy work is funded by private companies and government bodies. The Board describes itself as an applied research organization. The Canadian Food Strategy it is developing is really just another private-public partnership project whereby private interests benefit from public research dollars. Given that the project is being funded by companies such as Loblaw (Canada's largest food retailer), Maple Leaf Foods (one of Canada’s largest food processors and agri-business companies), Nestlé (the world’s largest food processing company) and Heinz (a US-based multinational food processing giant), it is not a surprise that the focus of the strategy is to create more profit opportunities for these research 'investors'.
Calls for the Canadian government to adopt a national food strategy are coming from a variety of places including Olivier De Schutter, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and the Peoples Food Policy, a project led by urban and rural food and farming advocates. No doubt the Conference Board of Canada hopes that by including public consultation in its research project it will build support for its own vision for our food system. Instead of harnessing the widening public energy and interest in food to create a food strategy for the public good, the government has invested in the Conference Board of Canada's project, once again putting the interests of corporate Canada ahead of the interests of Canadian citizens advocating for a just and ecologically sound food system.
Nutritionists and food activists would be happy to see Canadians eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, which is one of the desired outcomes under the Healthy Foods section of the consultation. Those five servings could easily come from unprocessed or minimally processed fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers and distributed directly to eaters through local food co-ops, farmers' markets or small retailers. However, other “desired outcomes” listed under the Healthy Foods section include industry-developed healthier food choices, quicker approvals for foods with health benefits and food product innovations. Unprocessed food is both healthier and more affordable, but encouraging its consumption limits opportunities for food processors and manufacturers to make money by breaking fresh produce into components and rearranging the components into innovative but healthy edible products.
Adding a few local and healthy food references to the list of desired outcomes in this food strategy does not alter its overall focus. As a farmer committed to providing food to my local community, my whole farm -- not just a small piece of it -- is geared towards working with nature to grow food for local people. Those of us committed to a food system that gives citizens a say in how our food is produced and where it comes from need to continue to work together to bring our vision forward. We also need to consider whether providing our input at each and every discussion of food and food strategies will help bring about a real shift in thinking about food.
The Conference Board of Canada's food strategy consultation should be understood as a sophisticated and expensive “push poll”. Under the guise of seeking our opinions, its true purpose is the promotion of the vision of its corporate investors. It is not a genuine opportunity to advocate for an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable food system.
Ann Slater is an Ontario farmer and National Farmers Union board member.