Report ties improving farm income to improving foods

Canadians’ chronic health woes and their farmers’ slim incomes call for closer ties between health and agriculture policy and sharper focus on development of healthier food products, a new report urges.

The Ottawa-based Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) on Wednesday released a report that proposes an integrated health and agri-food strategy on a national scale.

The report paints a dire picture of rising rates of obesity, diet-related chronic ailments and health care costs, as well as a farm income picture in which tax-funded program payments to farmers at times surpass their net profits from ag production.

While recognizing governments’ responses and initiatives undertaken to date to deal with these issues, the report also urges changes such as an increase in public investment in food-related research and development (R+D), improving the regulatory environment, advancing health claims for foods, and promoting traceability.

CAPI’s report also touts the concept of a “Canadian diet” to promote awareness of health benefits from Canadian foods.

Farmers and the agri-food sector can benefit from responding to the health care challenge and shifts in consumer preferences, the report said, urging strategies that will “drive up exports and increase domestic consumption of healthier foods.”

“The message for policy-makers is clear,” CAPI CEO David McInnes said in a release Wednesday. “A co-ordinated and effective policy framework is required for health and agriculture and this is the basis to further engage producers, industry and researchers, among others, to bring about the benefits of convergence.”

CAPI is now considering further research required to “advance the concept” of an integrated agri-food and health strategy for Canada, the institute said in its release.

“Whole-of-society”

Such a strategy, the report said, would focus on the components of safe food, nutritious food, accessible food, healthy eating, innovation through R+D, and a “socially, economically and environmentally sustainable approach.”

Under such a strategy, the report’s authors wrote, changes apart from development of a “Canadian diet” would involve:

  • scaling up food traceability;
  • adopting a “whole-of-society” system approach to increase supply and demand for fruits and vegetables;
  • improving the supply and demand for foods with a healthier nutrient and caloric profile;
  • improving nutrition and streamlining regulation of “functional foods”;
  • promoting technology, innovations and entrepreneurship to improve links between small agricultural producers, local food businesses and communities;
  • streamlining foods’ health and nutrition information at points of purchase and consumption, to avoid confusing consumers with various labels and data;
  • improving education on nutrition in home, school and health-care settings;
  • fostering nutrition in both commercial and “social” marketing; and
  • innovation toward improved access to “bottom-of-pyramid” markets for safe and affordable produce and processed foods with a low carbon footprint. “Bottom-of-pyramid” refers to residents of developing countries where access to good and affordable food is often limited.

“By working together, the agri-food industry and the health care system can simultaneously improve the health of Canadians, reduce health care budgets, stimulate agri-food innovation and improve the economic viability of the agri-food industry,” said David Sparling, chair of agri-food innovation and regulation at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

Sparling, previously the executive director of the Institute for Agri-Food Policy Innovation (IAFPI), assembled an abridged version of the report for CAPI.

The CAPI report was prepared by Laurette Dube, Paul Thomassin and Janet Beauvais, all members of the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence, a “virtual” think-tank of researchers, policy experts and community groups.

The platform, meant to serve as a “global hub” for scientific and policy research on health and economic issues such as childhood obesity and food security, was launched last year at Montreal’s McGill University, stemming from the school’s annual Health Challenge Think Tank event.

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