Trevor Hancock: Agriculture policy should include health

Given that food is one of the fundamental determinants of health, one would think that health would be a cornerstone of food and agriculture policy. Think again.

About 20 years ago, I did some work with the Ontario government on the relationship between health, and food and agricultural policy. To my surprise, health was not one of the goals of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The focus was on economic development, farmers’ incomes and exports, with a nod toward sustainable development.

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Sadly, this lack of interest in and focus on the health of the population continues to this day. The two goals of the federal Department of Agriculture and Agri-food are: “A competitive and market-oriented agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products sector that proactively manages risk” and “An innovative and sustainable agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products sector.” Not a word about health, although sustainable agriculture does get a mention.

The minister’s message drives home the point that the focus is on the economic development aspects of food, and also, oddly, that the industry should provide “wholesome, safe, innovative food to consumers.” Why do we need “innovative” (read: more processed and artificial) food? Meanwhile, only once, and in passing, is there a suggestion that the products of this industry should be healthy.

Yet surely, the first and most important goal of any food and agricultural system should be to provide a healthy diet for the entire population. That we fail to do so in so many different ways is an indictment of a failed agri-food policy. Let us count the ways.

First, we produce too much of the wrong sorts of food, mainly in terms of an over-processed, high-meat diet that is high in sugar, salt and fat, and low in fruit, vegetables and fibre. Then we wonder why people have diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, not to mention constipation and bowel cancer.

Second, to support this diet, we have encouraged and supported industrial-style farming that is bad for the environment. Among the many benefits of a low-meat diet, it requires less intensive farming methods that are less energy- and resource-intensive, require fewer fertilizers and pesticides, and emit less carbon dioxide. What is not to like about that?

Third, we have allowed food processors to add excessive amounts of sugar and salt to processed foods, and have failed to regulate these practices, even though they exact a large toll on the health of the public. A simple solution is to tax salt and sugar, above a base amount. This would make unhealthy foods more expensive and reward those who create healthier foods.

Fourth, food is a basic need, so we really don’t need to be persuaded to buy it. In particular, we need to put a stop to the excessive marketing of unhealthy foods such as candy, pop and chips, especially to children. A 2011 study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that the ban on fast-food advertising to children in Quebec between 1984 and 1992 reduced fast-food expenditures by 13 per cent per week “which translates to approximately 3.4 billion fewer calories consumed.” At a time when childhood obesity is a major concern, this is good news.

To bring all this together, it might be useful to establish a Healthy and Sustainable Food System Council for Canada. It would make recommendations for the steps necessary to create a food system that delivered a high-quality, healthy diet for all in a way that is ecologically sustainable. The council would include but must not be dominated by the agri-food industry.

Within both federal and provincial governments, a parallel structure should be established, accountable to cabinet, bringing together all the ministries, agencies and programs that, between them, can deliver a healthy, safe and sustainable food system.

The establishment of such a policy, and mechanisms to implement it, would be a concrete example to Canadians that governments care more about our well-being than they care about the large corporations that back them.

 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

thancock@uvic.ca

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