National food strategy will include aboriginal input, says Agriculture Minister

Rising cost of food, sinking dollar, has some calling for Canadian food sovereignty

By Sima Sahar Zerehi, CBC News Posted: Feb 05, 2016 8:00 AM CTLast Updated: Feb 05, 2016 8:00 AM CT

Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says he’s committed to developing a national food policy that includes input from aboriginal groups, but some experts say real investment is needed for food security to be achieved.

“Our Minister’s mandate letter includes many important commitments, including the development of a national food policy,” Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s office stated in an email.

“Canada has a solid reputation for producing safe and healthy food, and the Minister intends to build on that reputation, and consider the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, including aboriginal groups, in determining the potential shape and direction of the food policy.”

Lettuce with Nutrition North tag

‘I strongly support a Canadian strategy that supports aboriginal harvesting,’ said Leesee Papatsie. (John Van Dusen/CBC)

Iqaluit’s Leesee Papatsie, founder of the group Feeding My Family, said the price of food in the North has always been high, but with the California drought and the sinking loonie, grocery bills are getting out of hand.

She points to a cucumber in her fridge that cost over $5 and 4L of milk that cost more than $10.

“I strongly support a Canadian strategy that supports aboriginal harvesting,” said Papatsie.

She says remote fly-in communities in the North need a multi-pronged approach to food security that is not only reliant on food harvested and processed in the South.

Right time for strategy

The rising cost of food has some experts calling for a comprehensive national food strategy in Canada that includes investment and capital.

“Knowing that a lot of people have actually been sticker shocked for the last few weeks, I think it’s the right time to move on a strategy,” said Sylvain Charlebois, from the University of Guelph’s Food Institute.

“Canada is really at the cross-roads if we are to think about food security for example or food production, those are, I think, things that we need to think hard about and we need a vision for,” Charlebois said.

He said Canada needs to learn from other countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland, which already have national food strategies in place.

Sylvain Charlebois

‘Knowing that a lot of people have actually been sticker shocked for the last few weeks, I think it’s the right time to move on a strategy,’ said Sylvain Charlebois from the University of Guelph’s Food Institute. (CBC)

He said the minister of Agriculture’s mandate letter does not guarantee a comprehensive strategy.

“It is difficult to feel reassured by the content of that letter because the letter mentions ranchers and farmers and doesn’t necessarily address research and development, innovation, food security, northern communities — it doesn’t mention investments at all,” said Charlebois.

“It mentions healthy foods, local foods, and of course those aspects are important, but the vision prescribed in the mandate letter is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be.”

Charlebois says Canada is far too reliant on imported products and often fails to capitalize on local food supply.

“If we are to believe that food sovereignty is important in Canada, we need to couple food production with food processing.”

Canada gets a ‘B’

Food strategy poster

‘Overall I think Canada is a ‘B’ performer and we’d like to become an ‘A’ performer,’ said Michael Bloom, with the Conference Board of Canada. (Conference Board of Canada)

The Conference Board of Canada has been focusing on the need for a national food strategy since 2010, which it says should cover five key areas: food safety, healthy food, household food security, industry prosperity and environmental sustainability.

Last month the board released its first national report card, which assesses how Canada is doing in those areas compared to 17 leading economies in the world.

“Overall I think Canada is a ‘B’ performer and we’d like to become an ‘A’ performer,” said Michael Bloom, vice president of industry and business strategy at the Conference Board of Canada.

Bloom said Canada has issues with household food security, especially in the territories.

“The North has unusually high levels of household food security concerns,” said Bloom.

“Partly because there’s geography, many foods have to be imported, and it’s a long way to go.”

Incorporating country food

Bloom says food security is only part of the problem in the North, another major issue is access to healthy food.

“We need to think about what food is particularly good for folks from different cultural backgrounds and living in different environments, with their own particular genetic makeup,” said Bloom.

Incorporating country food harvested by indigenous communities is one solution to addressing Canada’s diversity when designing a food policy.

“It makes very good sense to look at framing a diet for healthy consumption that includes foods that have been part of a long-term pattern of healthy life,” Bloom said.

He hopes to see further collaboration between the various ministries to tackle food diversity in a national strategy.

“One of the things that I hope will happen is that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food working with his cabinet colleagues including the Minister of Indigenous Affairs to see where their mandates overlap.”