April 3rd, 2017

The agriculture and agri-food sector is enjoying a moment of exceptional attention. First, Canada’s Economic Growth Advisory Committee pinpointed the sector as a promising area of growth in the so-called Barton Report. Then, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and the Public Policy Forum organized a series of meetings across the country, bringing together food-industry leaders and a handful of others to discuss what the report meant for Canada and what could be done to seize the opportunity. Finally, in a no-news budget, Finance Minister Bill Morneau identified agriculture and agri-food as key areas for growth and innovation.

What do we mean by innovation?

Central to all these conversations is the question of innovation and what we mean by it. In the budget and the Barton report, innovation is quite narrowly defined as the development of technologies that will give large corporate entities a competitive edge on the international marketplace. There is often talk of “climate smart agriculture”, for example, which can be interpreted as market intensification of fertilizers and pesticides, rather than any reference to more agroecological and sustainable farming methods. Ignored in such limited views is the kind of innovation that farmers and small businesses are piloting right across the country.

Innovation was a central theme of Food Secure Canada’s 2016 Assembly. An entire plenary was devoted to the topic, during which we looked not only at technological novelties but also at social innovation, and at which we profiled farmers demonstrating low-tech, high-yield, strong-livelihood techniques.

Shaun Loney, author of An Army of Problem Solvers, spoke eloquently about this topic at a recent session in Toronto convened by the Lawson Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada. In the Garden Hill First Nation of Manitoba, a thriving vegetable farm provides healthy food to the community, as well as jobs and training. Despite this, it receives no support from the government program intended to make food more affordable in the north. Instead, all public dollars are flowing through small retailers selling mostly unhealthy food or the Northern Store, which has a virtual monopoly in many northern communities and is anything but innovative when it comes to supporting Indigenous food security and food sovereignty.

While the Economic Advisory Council has rightly taken note of food as an economic sector – it provides one in eight jobs in this country – Food Secure Canada has also been holding various meetings on national food policy. We have been in discussions with federal government officials from several departments, academic allies and our organizational membership to outline our public engagement plan and seek the support and involvement of our members, funders and all those who think that citizens have something to contribute to make our food system more healthy, equitable and resilient. Recently, we brought businesses, government officials and policy experts together at Guelph University to look for common ground on national food policy.

We have also been circulating a draft discussion paper among our membership that aims to frame the debate around national food policy as something that puts health, food insecurity and environmental protection on equal footing with concerns around economic growth. (Not a member? The paper will be available soon, but if you wish to see it now while it is still in draft form, you can join here.)

An innovative national food policy

Let’s make sure that, in thinking about innovation, we do not forget some of the people who really hold the keys to a more sustainable food system.

Over the coming months, there will be many opportunities to discuss these issues and the policy options before us. National food policy can marry issues of growth and innovation with health, equity and sustainability. Food Secure Canada is hopeful that the federal government will support an innovative public engagement exercise around national food policy in which the full spectrum of ideas can be heard. We have submitted a proposal to offer our collaboration.