The release of Canada’s new Food Guide in January was, predictably, followed by hot debate. The Food Guide has a long history of being contentious. The 2007 version was heavily criticized as being influenced by lobbyists from the agriculture industry.
As a result of this perception, Health Canada broadcast its refusal to invite industry to the table during development of the new guide, assuring critics that it would be science-based.
The newest guide eschews former nutritional pillars, like food groups and serving sizes, in favour of advice that’s already familiar to anyone who reads health blogs or parenting magazines: fill half your plate with vegetables, drink water, cook at home and spend mealtimes together.
But one piece of government-issued advice has alarmed many farmers and others working in Canada’s agriculture sector. The Food Guide instructs Canadians to “choose protein foods that come from plants more often.”
Several commodity groups across Canada have expressed concerns that consumers might be led to believe that they should replace too much of the animal products in their menu with plant-based alternatives. Some doctors and health experts have echoed these concerns.
Some worry that the government’s recommendations could bring serious disruptions to the Canadian agri-food system. But it’s difficult to tell for certain how much influence the Food Guide will have on that end.
We’ve known for some time that Canadians are embracing alternative proteins. According to a 2018 food trends report from the University of Guelph, over 40 percent of Canadians said they planned to include more plant-based proteins in their diets, which is higher than the global average. It’s possible that, rather than influencing future consumption habits, the Food Guide is simply reflecting actual trends.
Fortunately for farmers, modern agricultural production has demonstrated that it adapts well to changing markets.
Unfortunately for many of our fellow Canadians, our new national menu is really quite expensive. As health reporter André Picard says, “The symbolic fruity/nutty/grainy plate is actually out of reach for many who struggle with poverty, food insecurity and health illiteracy.” The new Food Guide highlights the fact that, for many, healthy eating is a luxury.
This raises an important question: Is the role of the Food Guide to recommend what is best for health, or what is best for health depending on what’s in your wallet.
If the answer is the former, then the government-issued Food Guide deserves a corresponding suite of policies that will make it possible for Canadians to eat healthfully.
We can pray that the Food Guide will inspire policy makers to provide the necessary structures – social welfare, tax and income policies; food security strategies; environmental protections, and, potentially, agri-food industry supports – that will both make nutritious food accessible for all Canadians and smooth the ripple effects for agriculture.
Currently, the federal government is developing the nation’s first national food policy. The ambitious “Food Policy for Canada” will set Canada’s long-term vision on issues like health, food security, food safety, the environment, economic development, farming, food processing, food distribution and consumption – the whole shebang. The public consultation process for this policy concluded in 2018. There’s no word on when the policy will be released, but perhaps the Food Guide hints at where federal policy makers are headed.
People have questioned how influential food guides are for almost as long as they’ve been around. On one hand, our newest guide may not change the average Canadian’s intended food choices all that much. On the other hand, it could be the harbinger of significant social, economic and environmental changes to come.
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