Down a mul­ti­cul­tural food path, with con­se­quences

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - BY SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS Syl­vain Charlebois is ae­nior fel­low with the At­lantic In­sti­tute for Mar­ket Stud­ies, dean of the fac­ulty of man­age­ment and a pro­fes­sor in the fac­ulty of agri­cul­ture at Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity.

The new prin­ci­ples Health Canada will use for its next food guide sig­nal a com­plete re­vamp of our rain­bow of food groups.

It ap­pears a plant-based diet will be strongly en­cour­aged. We might even see a fo­cus on more plant-based pro­teins like beans, lentils, nuts and tofu in the next Canada’s Food Guide. This would rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from what we’ve seen in the guide since its es­tab­lish­ment in the 1940s.

Health Canada also sug­gests other sig­nif­i­cant changes, mak­ing many tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture sec­tors anx­ious.

While the guide’s cur­rent for­mat of groups and colours has proven con­ve­nient and sim­ple, the pro­posed changes aim for a nu­tri­tion-based ap­proach. That will likely group pro­teins and ap­ply to all di­etary needs, ve­gan or veg­e­tar­ian life­styles in­cluded.

It prob­a­bly won’t aban­don out­right the main sta­ples that Cana­dian con­sumers have em­braced for decades, but the food guide will look and feel dif­fer­ent. The next ver­sion will ac­knowl­edge, at last, that Canada has a dy­namic, het­eroge­nous food mar­ket. It will also en­cour­age Cana­di­ans to drink more wa­ter, and en­tice them to cook more and eat to­gether. That’s all good news.

The cur­rent food guide clearly has bag­gage. The first guide, in 1942, was in­tended to build de­mand for Cana­dian com­modi­ties dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Con­cerns about food se­cu­rity were acute and Canada sought to be a food-sov­er­eign na­tion. Agri­cul­tural em­bar­goes were fre­quent.

But things have changed and we have a more open food econ­omy. The shift in food geopol­i­tics means con­sumers have dif­fer­ent choices and ex­pec­ta­tions.

In the past, things went too far when com­mod­ity-driven rec­om­men­da­tions were in­cor­po­rated into the guide, sup­ported by ques­tion­able science. For ex­am­ple, en­cour­ag­ing adult Cana­di­ans to have two cups of milk a day is just ab­surd. We’re one of few coun­tries still ad­vo­cat­ing this.

The Dairy Farm­ers of Canada may not like this but Canada in 2017 is a dif­fer­ent place. Many im­mi­grants don’t drink milk. Many con­sumers suf­fer from in­tol­er­ances and al­ler­gies. And we have many more choices than Cana­di­ans had in 1942.

This time, Health Canada did the right thing: it lis­tened to Cana­di­ans. More than 20,000 Cana­di­ans have re­sponded to re­quests for food guide sug­ges­tions, mak­ing the process more open and demo­cratic than ever. Par­ents, teach­ers, phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als and fit­ness en­thu­si­asts, culi­nary ex­perts, and many more com­mu­ni­ty­based groups, in­clud­ing food banks, got in­volved. This is ex­actly what was needed.

The prin­ci­ples sug­gested by Health Canada show they want a food guide pri­mar­ily for Cana­di­ans. How­ever, that guide may be at odds with some agri­cul­tural poli­cies.

Canada’s pro­tec­tion­ist sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem of quo­tas and tar­iffs shows that our dairy sec­tor, for ex­am­ple, is vi­tal to the agri­cul­tural econ­omy and must be pro­tected. The dairy sec­tor’s eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tion over the years has been un­par­al­leled. How­ever, Cana­dian per capita milk con­sump­tion has dropped sig­nif­i­cantly over the last few decades. The new food guide could lead Cana­di­ans even fur­ther from milk, com­pro­mis­ing the wel­fare of many farms. The same ef­fects will be felt in the cat­tle in­dus­try.

As we nec­es­sar­ily put con­sumers first, we also need to re­flect on what will hap­pen to Cana­dian farm­ing. The next food guide will make the dis­con­nect be­tween Cana­dian agri­cul­tural poli­cies and food con­sump­tion much more ob­vi­ous. The new food pol­icy frame­work, be­ing con­sid­ered by Agri­cul­ture Canada, must ad­dress this gap.

In the end, though, what mat­ters most is how the guide res­onates with cit­i­zens and how it can be used. This won’t be easy. The cur­rent ver­sion is re­ally a tool for el­e­men­tary schools, not for con­sumers look­ing for an­swers.

Per­haps we’ll need two guides: one for health pro­fes­sion­als and one for reg­u­lar con­sumers. Both would be de­signed to achieve sim­i­lar out­comes, with mes­sages ar­tic­u­lated dif­fer­ently.

For con­sumers, the eco­nom­ics of food should also be rec­og­nized. Food is ex­pen­sive, and all con­sumers must be made aware of their op­tions.

Re­vamp­ing our rain­bow of food groups is ob­vi­ously a mul­ti­fac­eted un­der­tak­ing.

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