The end of the milk doc­trine?

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - NEWS | OPINION - SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS

Ru­moured changes to the food guide will have last­ing ef­fects on the dairy in­dus­try as we know it

Pro­fes­sor in food dis­tri­bu­tion and pol­icy at Dal­housie Univer­sity

The four food group cat­e­gories that most Cana­di­ans know by heart seem to be on their way out. Health Canada has an­nounced it will fi­nally re­lease its long-awaited new food guide in the spring of this year. But, the new guide will likely chal­lenge many of our pre­con­cep­tions about food it­self. In­for­ma­tion leaked re­cently sug­gests that dairy prod­ucts will no longer have their own cat­e­gory. In fact, milk and other dairy prod­ucts will now be only one of more than 28 dif­fer­ent food items that Health Canada in­tends to en­cour­age Cana­di­ans to eat more of. In do­ing so, Health Canada will not only show au­dac­ity, but for the first time in decades, it will give the food guide a new pur­pose.

The first food guide in Canada came out in 1942, in the mid­dle of the Sec­ond World War. At the time, food se­cu­rity was a much more sig­nif­i­cant is­sue than it is to­day. The food guide was more of a tool to show­case Cana­dian agri­cul­ture and stim­u­late the ru­ral econ­omy. And why not? Our farm­ers needed the sup­port and food sovereignty at the time had a dif­fer­ent mean­ing. The ini­tial guide had six food groups in­stead of four.

How­ever, not much else has changed since 1942. Other than merg­ing fruits with veg­eta­bles and eggs with meat prod­ucts, and not­with­stand­ing the ad­di­tion of some nice colours and a few il­lus­tra­tions, the food guide we have to­day is sim­i­lar to the one from decades ago.

While Canada has idled in up­dat­ing its food guide, other coun­tries have made sig­nif­i­cant progress. The United States sys­tem­at­i­cally re­vises its food pyra­mid ev­ery five years. The coun­try went from a Ba­sic 7 model in 1943 to a more adapt­able ver­sion now called MyPlate. Ba­sic 7 and MyPlate are in­her­ently dif­fer­ent, and the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) has an­nounced more changes com­ing in 2019. In Canada, our cur­rent food guide is al­ready more than 12 years old. Re­vi­sion cy­cles are longer, and changes over­time have been mod­est at best. Along with sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries, oth­ers such as Ja­pan, Brazil and China have mod­ern­ized their food poli­cies. Most food guides around the world, un­like Canada’s, pro­mote nu­tri­ents rather than spe­cific food prod­ucts.

But Canada, ap­par­ently, now in­tends to catch up with there st of the world. Based on some in­for­ma­tion com­ing from Health Canada, the food guide will most likely de­part from its hum­ble ini­tial pur­pose of spon­sor­ing agri­cul­ture and will fi­nally serve our quest for a bet­ter qual­ity of life. Let’s face it, things have changed since 1942. Cana­dian agri­cul­ture is much more di­verse, and much more trade fo­cused. Food de­mand in Canada is more frag­mented than ever, as a re­sult of more im­mi­gra­tion, by dif­fer­ent life­styles and val­ues af­fect­ing food choices.

Changes to our food habits won’t come eas­ily, though. A new ap­proach will likely chal­lenge en­trenched con­ven­tions that have been pro­tected and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized for decades. If Health Canada does go ahead with the ru­moured changes, pro­teins are cer­tainly one area which will see sig­nif­i­cant shifts over time.

Dairy is rep­re­sented by what most con­sider to be the most in­flu­en­tial lobby group in Cana­dian agri­cul­ture, per­haps even in our en­tire econ­omy. The group spends more than $80-mil­lion ev­ery year to en­cour­age Cana­di­ans to drink milk and eat more dairy prod­ucts. That’s al­most $3 for ev­ery Cana­dian. The cur­rent food guide gives dairy a vi­tal place in our diet at four serv­ings a day. Sup­ported by our sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem for decades, dairy farm­ers have re­lied on long­stand­ing, pol­icy-driven sup­port to make a liv­ing, from milk served in schools to see­ing dairy prod­ucts pro­moted at key events across the coun­try. Ev­ery­thing made sense, as the syn­chronic­ity be­tween trade and do­mes­tic food poli­cies was flaw­less.

But with three new trade deals open­ing our mar­ket to more dairy prod­ucts com­ing from abroad, a new food guide with­out a dairy cat­e­gory or a pre­scribed num­ber of serv­ings is the last thing the Cana­dian dairy sec­tor wants. On the other hand, it is ex­actly what Cana­di­ans need more than ever. Nutri­tional se­cu­rity seems to be the new fo­cus, and all Cana­di­ans de­serve a food guide that can help them bet­ter un­der­stand how to lead health­ier lives.

Obe­sity, es­pe­cially among chil­dren, is at un­ac­cept­able lev­els in Canada. As well, food se­cu­rity re­mains a lin­ger­ing is­sue in­flu­enc­ing our nutri­tional choices, even in 2019. Wel­come ad­di­tions to the new guide en­cour­age Cana­di­ans to value nu­tri­tion, to drink wa­ter, to con­sider where and how we eat, and with whom. Just set­ting stan­dards on por­tions and food prod­ucts is fruit­less.

Re­gard­less of what hap­pens next, dairy­farm­ers, while pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity prod­ucts for Cana­di­ans, will need to ac­cept that their com­modi­ties are now part of a much larger port­fo­lio of good, nat­u­ral food in­gre­di­ents. Milk and other dairy prod­ucts will co-ex­ist with sev­eral other com­mod­ity groups, which de­serve as much at­ten­tion, if not more.

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