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Trevor Hancock: Voluntary agreements with food industry not good enough

The challenges we face are now so massive and occurring so rapidly that such leisurely approaches will be too little, too late
A shift to a low-meat diet needs to be a central ­component of Canada’s healthy food ­strategies if we are to get the large health and environmental ­benefits of such a shift, writes Trevor Hancock. DAVID STANLEY VIA FLICKR

My recent columns have looked at the many ways in which our food system harms both our health and the health of the planet.

So worrying is the extent of that harm that in­ ­September 2021, the UN held a Food Systems Summit to discuss the transformations in food systems that are needed.

At the summit, UN Secretary General ­Antonio Guterres said the focus had to be on “feeding ­growing populations in ways that contribute to ­people’s ­nutrition, health and well-being, restore and ­protect nature, are climate neutral, adapted to local ­circumstances, and provide decent jobs and inclusive economies.”

The summit called for every country to appoint a national food systems convenor to establish a pathway to a transformed food system.

Then in 2023, the World Health Organization ­convened a meeting to discuss food systems for people’s nutrition and health.

The resulting dialogue “emphasized the importance of aligning food systems with nutrition and health goals” and using a systems approach to “integrate nutritious food systems actions throughout government policies while protecting the environment.”

Here in Canada, the federal government launched its Food Policy for Canada in 2019, with the goal of ­creating a healthier and more sustainable food ­system in which “all people in Canada are able to access a ­sufficient amount of safe, nutritious, and culturally diverse food.” Canada also created the position of a national food systems convenor, who is a senior official in A­griculture and Agri-food Canada.

Then in 2021, Canada’s National Pathways report was published. The report looked at how to get to a healthier and more sustainable food system in the ­context of ­evidence that “one in 10 Canadian ­households ­experience moderate or severe food insecurity due to economic constraints; almost two in three Canadian adults are overweight or obese; and, over a third of Canada’s food supply is never eaten.”

Seven priority areas were identified in the ­document: eliminating hunger and reducing food ­insecurity; reducing food loss and waste; ­strengthening ­Indigenous food systems; advancing ­environmentally sustainable production; supporting local food ­economies and a strong workforce; improving human and animal health, and working towards a national school food policy and nutritious meal program.

But the Pathways report is quite weak on the health side. Glaringly, there is no reference anywhere to ­diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. The section on human and animal health focuses first on animal health, and the part on human health refers only to reducing sodium, fat and sugar through Canada’s 2016 Healthy Eating Strategy and the Canada Food Guide, both of which are voluntary and intended “to make it easier for Canadians to make the healthier choice.”

But what is missing, it seems to me, is a sense of urgency. Governments and industry are still employing 20th century approaches — risk management, tweaks here and there, voluntary agreements with the food industry — to 21st century problems.

Voluntary agreements to reduce sodium, for ­example, have clearly failed, while commitments to merely “monitor the extent and nature of advertising to children,” for example, are grossly inadequate.

The government’s failure to pass legislation to ­control this illustrates both the government’s ­pusillanimity and the industry’s power, as well as its disregard for the wellbeing of children.

But the challenges we face are now so massive and occurring so rapidly that such leisurely approaches will be too little, too late. Nowhere in the Pathways report, for example, is there any suggestion of the need to move to a low-meat diet, other than a passing reference to “changes in consumer demand.”

But a shift to a low-meat diet needs to be a central component of Canada’s healthy food and healthy ­eating strategies if we are to get the very large health and environmental benefits of such a shift.

Admittedly, that shift is embedded in the new Canada Food Guide, but that is just a guide.

Why not make it an urgent government priority to shift Canada’s agri-food industry toward ­producing a diet that is consistent with the Canada Food Guide, and to make the unhealthy choice the difficult choice by, for example, banning or restricting advertising of unhealthy foods, raising taxes on such foods, and/or reducing taxes on healthy foods?

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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