Is that all there is… to debate?

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Vote on Food and Farming analysis

Many have commented since the June 3 Ontario leaders’ debate that little attention was paid to health care, which makes up about 40% of the provincial budget. Food and farming faced the same lack of attention – hardly surprising, given the six ‘representative’ questions that the media selected to guide the debate: ethics, energy, jobs, debt, transit and education.

It’s a shame that the agriculture and food debate –organized by OFA and the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors– was cancelled. This debate might have given some insight into party platforms that don’t get a lot of prime time exposure.

It’s also a shame that there wasn’t a seventh question in the televised debate, asking the leaders to explain how their earlier positions would affect the development of agriculture and food in the province – forcing them to make clear the links between education, jobs, investment, (health!) and agriculture and food policies.

On May 23rd, Sustain Ontario’s Vote on Food and Farming campaign attempted to do just that, by asking party leaders to reflect on questions covering topics as diverse as health promotion, training and cross-ministerial cooperation – as they relate to agriculture and food issues. I went through their answers with interest, looking for points of consensus as well some of the details in their proposed solutions to issues that shape our food systems.

Three parties –the LiberalsNDP and Green Party– submitted thorough responses, while the PC leader sent a form letter with three brief paragraphs about the Million Jobs Plan. As a result, the Vote on Food and Farming Report Card was full of question marks in the PC column. I hunted down the PC white papers (which can’t be accessed from their own website!) in order to fill in that picture.

And what these white papers show is that the PC Party’s agri-food platform is largely silent on many of the issues captured in the Vote on Food and Farming. This is hardly surprising for issues that the party’s current election platform prevents them from acknowledging – such as increasing social assistance to cover the cost of a nutritious food basket, or increasing the reach of the Student Nutrition Program. In other areas, the white papers’ silence reflects low priorities (at least at the time of writing) for the promotion of healthy eating; encouraging ecologically regenerative agricultural practices; protecting pollinators and their habitat; and protecting farmland.

It is also hardly surprising that, on many of these same issues, the other three parties are all pointed in the same direction, differ only in degree, and could therefore –in theory– work with each other. For example, while the Greens advocate universal approaches in student nutrition programming, guaranteed annual income, protection of class 1 farmland and neonicotinoid controls, they would be unlikely to reject Liberal or NDP policy suggestions which move in the same directions.

One set of solutions highlights interesting differences between the parties: how to get beyond the Ministry-level ‘silos’ that often discourage cross-ministerial cooperation and coordination on food issues.

  • The NDP would “develop a coordinated approach that makes sense”;
  • The PCs would “create one-window access to government for farmers and agribusinesses so they can obtain information efficiently and get one straight answer from government”;
  • The Liberals would “convene an inter-ministerial committee to engage stakeholders such as Sustain on an integrated government approach to agriculture, food, nutrition, health, and environment issues”; and
  • The Greens would convene “an Ontario Food Policy Council with stakeholders and members of the public that is ingrained within OMAF, including a representative from each party and the Premier’s Office”

While I don’t want to overstate the significance of a single statement, these replies suggest some fundamental differences in their approaches to governance.

However, differences were not the rule. In fact, all four parties agree on two issues: setting targets for public procurement purchases of local food, and realizing the Community Food Program Donation Tax Credit, which are both sections of the Local Food Act, but are not yet proclaimed. Of course, even universal agreement doesn’t guarantee action in the current legislature: all parties promised to ease the regulatory burden on small and mid-scale processors in the 2011 campaign, and are repeating that promise in this campaign – since nothing was accomplished in the interim.

Often, the reason for lack of action can be found in the details. For example, only the Greens acknowledged that setting targets for procurement of local foods would be unhelpful without also increasing the funding to hospitals and other institutions. It is often such details that turn what appears to be consensus on the campaign trail into division in the legislature.

Another example: while there is a general consensus that the province needs more regionally-based infrastructure to move local food, the Liberals are investigating whether this can be done by giving money to mainstream distributors, and the PCs are suggesting that another food terminal will do the trick. These approaches reflect a fundamental misreading of both the historical lessons of regional food processing, distribution and marketing in the province, as well as the necessary components of a sustainable, regional-scale food infrastructure.

The leaders’ debate could have provided some much-needed details on the factors that shape their parties’ food and farming policies. Before you make your decision on voting day, be sure to take a look at the Vote on Food and Farming Report Card, which provides some of those details.

Phil Mount,

Valens Ontario

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