Last week I attended the two-day Canadian Food Summit, put on by the Conference Board of Canada (CBOC). In 2010, the CBOC launched the Centre for Food in Canada, with a twofold mandate: to increase public awareness of the food sector in Canada, and to work towards building a Canadian Food Strategy. The Summit was the first attempt to bring together people working in all corners of the food sector: big food, small food, processors, producers, farmers, food safety folks, community initiatives, those working in supply chain management, non-profits, and even a few lawyers.
It’s not often, at least in my experience in the food sector, that you end up in a room with such a wide variety of stakeholders. And it didn’t take very long for the sometimes disparate perspectives to announce themselves: Galen Weston, speaking on “Building a Long-Term Vision for Food for Canadians”, made an off the cuff remark about how farmer’s markets were great, but they’d kill people one day. It was an inflammatory thing to say, and surprising especially given the audience consisted of many who have worked long and hard to build and contribute to amazing, safe markets for their communities.
The thing is, there is value in his perspective – and he’s likely not the only one who thinks that way. So how do we take that kind of thinking into account to ensure that all people understand how food safety is applied across all levels of the food system? Is it about improving food safety education, in schools or to the general public, or implementing increased and/or more obvious checks and balances? Or is there embedded prejudice towards small food producers? Or all of the above? Though Weston’s comment was unfounded, the thoughts behind it merit a conversation on food safety. It’s trite, but how do we focus on building bridges instead of throwing stones?
I attended an interesting breakout session on modernizing Canada’s food laws and regulations (consolidation and streamlining, while maintaining flexibility, is key). We then moved back to the plenary room to eat an admittedly mediocre lunch while listening to Mark Bittman speak on how cooking and eating real food needs to become more of a priority in people’s lives.
A highlight of the conference was a presentation by James Withers, the CEO of Scotland Food & Drink (www.scotlandfoodanddrink.org). The organization is a nonprofit created to help Scottish food and drink companies increase their profitability, and celebrate the unique products being created, farmed, and nurtured in that country’s ‘natural larder’. The organization provided an excellent example of how working collaboratively to support an entire nation’s products can benefit small, medium, and large-sized producers alike.
I thought the organizers of the conference could have done a better job of engaging the voices of various stakeholders throughout the two days; if the gathering was meant to kick off a conversation about developing a Canadian Food Strategy, I felt I was doing a lot more listening than talking. I hope to see more opportunities for contribution to the Strategy from the CBOC in the future. But it was certainly a valuable start.