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Canada’s Food: What’s On the Table?

April 21, 2017

Food and agricultural sustainability can be looked at from a variety of angles: environmental, nutritional, cultural, economic and more. Trade policies and agreements are additional factors that can have an impact on sustainable food systems. For Canada, the United States is our largest trading partner — in 2008, the U.S. was a major source of our food (57%) and a major recipient of our total exports (55%)[1].

In the following discussion with Dr. Evan Fraser, we explore potential changes to trade and economic policies south of the border, and their potential outcomes on different aspects of our food system.

Dr. Evan Fraser, PhD, is the Director of the Arell Food Institute at the University of Guelph and a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security. His specializations include food security, economic globalization and climate change.

Prepared by Z. Maria Xu, Dietetic Intern at the Nutrition Resource Centre 

Q: Can you briefly describe the economic policies that may be implemented by the United States under their current administration? How might this impact Canada’s food system?
A: The first thing is we just don’t know. But what would be the speculations? There is some possibly of renegotiating aspects of food trade under NAFTA, and that might result in the U.S. imposing tariffs on Canadian goods, which could lead the Canadian government to put tariffs on U.S. goods in retaliation.
Q: What might be the impact on the availability of different (i.e. culturally appropriate) foods, and even manufacturing and processing (i.e. employment) in Canada?
A: I’d like to reiterate that everything regarding trade policy with regard to the U.S. is speculation and we simply don’t know how our trading agreements with the U.S. may be affected yet.  If we were to get into a trade war with the U.S., where tariffs imposed by the U.S. are responded to by tariffs imposed by the Canadian government, then it’s possible that such a tit-for-tat trade war could lead to a decline in exports and more expensive imports .
In the short term, such a scenario would probably mean that our imported fruits and vegetables would become more expensive, as they mainly come from areas like California. This would negatively impact food access overall—and not just culturally appropriate foods.
In the long term, the situation might be slightly different. One of the effects of NAFTA was a reorganization of the food processing industry, especially for fruits and vegetables. Many food processors moved south of the border in order to have reliable supplies year round. So if there was a protracted period of time when imports became expensive due to protectionist policy, there would be a strong incentive to reinvest in Canadian processors. However, it is completely unknown if we will end up with such a scenario.

Q: Could changes in U.S. policy lead to price volatility in Canada? What might be some of the unintended social consequences?
A: Both the potential changes in tariffs, discussed previously, along with changes in access to migrant labour, could impact food prices in the short term. For instance, if there was a sudden reduction in migrant workers—as has been speculated could occur by some in the media— there could be increased labour prices translated to the consumer. The most obvious consequences would be more expensive food, and this could lead to more hunger and deprivation. In addition, I think that since we import a considerable amount of fruits and vegetables, then this is where we would see prices rise first.
A reduction in access to migrant labour could also create a labour shortage that in turn creates incentives for farmers to invest in automation rather than relying on workers. 
Q: Are there any preemptive measures under consideration to minimize the impact of food price increases and volatility?
A: Some argue that ever since the late 1980s, and in particular since we signed NAFTA we haven’t maintained protection against global shocks and taken steps to maintain local food systems. Therefore, some suggest that one way of createing resilience means combining both global and local systems so that consumers have different ways of accessing food.
Q: How will food system changes impact the work of registered dietitians? What can other public health professionals (including dietitians) do to mitigate these potential effects?
A: At a domestic, and at a global level, we produce too few fruits and vegetables and too much sugar and fat. I would hope that we take this window of opportunity to reform the food system and create policies that lead to a more sustainable, equitable and nutritious food system.

Let’s take the example of Canada’s pulse industry. Over the past 25 years we have become one of the world’s biggest pulse producers. Nutritionally pulses are a good source of protein, fibre and nutrients but to a large extent, pulses and legumes are not a regular part of the Canadian diet. The role of industry, public health and academics is to see opportunities like this to promote the use of such ingredients in our diets.

In summary, I believe that a lot can be done to help empower consumers to adopt a healthy sustainable and affordable diet. You don’t necessarily have to be buying expensive foods to maintain a good quality diet. So, I’m not advocating for any specific diet, but rather arguing that sensible menu planning and high levels of food literacy can buffer consumers from problems.
To learn more about the global economy, climate change and the food system, join Dr. Fraser for an NRC webinar on this topic on May 18, 2017 from 12-1 PMRegistration information to come soon!

For further information, contact Mary Wales, Communications Coordinator,

[1] Statistics Canada, International Trade Division, 2008, special tabulation. Retrieved from :