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Conference Board of Canada Food Summit: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

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"One's basic nature eventually betrays itself..."

Although the 2nd Canadian Food Summit (April 9/10 Toronto) hasn't even started, the controversy has. In fact, the Canadian food policy world may have it's biggest dust up ever if the Conference Board of Canada (CBoC) continues its tone deaf, stack the deck maneuvering. Rejecting an entire food movement is not a recipe for inclusion and consensus, but the CBoC's myopia does have the elements required for a Food System Donnybrook.

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The CBoC's Board of Directors are almost exclusively corporate and the Food Strategy primer sent to potential collaborators is devoid of any reference to Food Justice, Hunger, Household Food Security, Agrarian Reform, Local Food, Food Liberty, Food Dignity, Food Sovereignty or the Right to Food (Article 25 of the UHRD).

The battle lines are drawn, or so it seems. Numerous organizations have attempted to address this issue with the CBoC, but Canada's "foremost independent, not-for-profit research organization" continues to cold-shoulder Canada's just, sustainable and local food movement. This is a common practice of the industrial, corporate food system. It's a "Don't Open the Barn Door" philosophy that is divisive and a significant impediment to true change in the Canadian food system as corporations protect their interests at the expense of Canadians and the future of food in our country. In a nutshell, it's tyrannical.

If you're going to call yourself the Centre for Food in Canada, it is incumbent on you to include all the voices involved in the Canadian food conversation, not just those that can afford to be at the table. The optics are skewed at times to create the illusion of inclusion, only to find those fringe ideas of food justice and local/sustainable food discarded and excluded from the official outcomes. It is because of this approach to a Canadian Food Strategy, that the Conference Board of Canada is unfit to lead this discussion. The CBoC leads a deeply flawed process that has undermined itself through self inflicted philosophical and corporate wounds. Any effort to regain the trust of the Canadian just, local, sustainable food movement, and its practitioners, would have to be of biblical proportions.

Additional insight comes from last year's "Summit", which resulted in this controversy. For the record, no one has ever died from food purchased at a Canadian Farmers' Market or CSA. Unfortunately, that can't be said of the industrial food system.

Where is the Canadian Food System headed if the dialogue continues to be an exclusive exercise? If the following letter is any indication, the tolerance and patience of many Canadians to stand and watch the continued impairment of our food system, at the expense of the health of Canadians, is at an end. Professor Jennifer Sumner, in her response to the Conference Board of Canada's "Canadian Food Strategy" Primer, accurately captures the sentiment of thousands of Canadians working to build a just and sustainable food system. Here it is in its entirety:

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As many of you know, the Conference Board of Canada is preparing what it calls a Canadian Food Strategy and asking for participation in its preparation. I was contacted in early December by the CBoC and asked to join a consultation in January, which I agreed to. However, when I received the consultation primer (see attached), it was clear to me that the CBoC was not preparing a food strategy for all Canadians, but a food industry strategy that would benefit large players in the global market.

After carefully reading the primer, I sent the letter below, to which I received no reply.

Jennifer Sumner

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Drs. Michael R. Bloom and Charles Le Vallée

Centre for Food in Canada

The Conference Board of Canada

Dear Drs. Bloom and Le Vallée

I have received and carefully read the document you provided for the upcoming CBoC Canadian Food Strategy consultation.

I originally agreed to attend the consultation because it seemed as if the CBoC was genuinely trying to address some of the serious issues associated with food in Canada: growing hunger, escalating food-related health problems, ongoing environmental destruction associated with conventional food production and increasing control of the global corporate food system.

Instead, your consultation primer indicates just the opposite: no mention of hunger, no connection between food-related health problems and the corporations who peddle the 'edible food-like substances' that cause these conditions, little recognition of the globally recognized suite of negative environmental consequences of conventional farming, and a call for increasing the scope and scale of the global corporate food system. Indeed, the primer should be titled "Canadian Food Industry Strategy," to honestly indicate to the public that this consultation process not only involves the promotion of the Canadian food industry (as is clear from your first pillar), but also constitutes a vehicle for the food industry to move into the other four pillars - areas that reflect "Canadians' concerns and needs around safety, health, security and sustainability."

A true Canadian food strategy would be focused on, first and foremost, making sure everyone gets fed, much as the Canadian health-care strategy makes sure everyone gets healthcare. In contrast, your strategy aims to promote the visibility and growth of the food industry and to treat Canadians' concerns and needs as private profit opportunities, not public moral obligations.

In addition, your prescriptions represent a virulent form of neoliberal economics that has been acknowledged as responsible for the ongoing global economic crises and clearly only benefits about 1% of the population - in this case the owners, senior managers and shareholders of large multinational food corporations. Instead of putting forward innovative alternatives to this discredited economic model, the Conference Board of Canada wants to

· promote competition over co-operation

· advocate free trade over fair trade

· reduce or eliminate supply management (one of the only economic models that has made farmers successful)

· increase the scale of production and exports (instead of considering small and medium sized, regionally-based production to ensure every Canadian is fed)

· eliminate "unfair" regulations (unfair to whom?)

· incorporate public and private industry standards (which consolidates private oversight of public issues such as food safety)

· frame healthy food choices as new commodities (not behavioural changes such as eating more basic fruits and vegetables)

· promote private, voluntary environmental standards (which do little, if anything, to ensure our environmental future is protected)

I am surprised that the Conference Board of Canada is asking the public to support its promotion of the food industry. While corporate lobbying of government is a regrettable reality, masking such lobbying as a national food strategy and a "shared national vision for food that can promote collaboration and common purpose" is dishonest, self-serving and morally corrupt.

Needless to say, I will only attend your "consultation" if it changes from a one-sided advocacy for a special-interest group to a dialogical endeavour to build a Canadian food strategy that focuses on the concerns and needs of all Canadians, not just the food industry.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Sumner, PhD
Director, Certificate Program in Adult Education for Sustainability
Adult Education and Community Development Program
OISE/University of Toronto

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