Sustainability, health, development hooked into NDP food plan

Welland, Ont. MP Malcolm Allen, shown here at centre in January with local restaurateurs Tarina Richard-Ash and Pete Kouretsos, on Wednesday launched the NDP’s food strategy. (MalcolmAllen.ndp.ca)

With about a year and a half to go before a federal election, the opposition New Democrats have mapped out a overarching food strategy roping in agriculture, rural affairs, environment and nutrition policy.

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen and deputy ag critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau on Wednesday launched their party’s “pan-Canadian” food strategy, under the title “Everybody Eats.”

Allen, in an interview, described the strategy as a roadmap the voting public can use to determine where the NDP would go on food-related issues if elected to government.

The strategy, developed over three years of outreach, is expected to position the NDP as “the only party in Canada with a comprehensive plan to meet the challenges facing agriculture and food security,” the party said in its release.

The strategy proposes investment in rural economies, including backing “viable business ventures that would re-localize food production and processing” and “addressing challenges for existing enterprises.”

Canadians, Allen said, want to have local food options where those exist, but the strategy also aims to approach the idea of “localized” food in a more comprehensive way — acknowledging, for example, that peaches from the Niagara or Okanagan regions “would be as ‘local’ as you can get.”

To that end, the strategy also calls for “strategic investments to help farmers develop local and regional markets,” such as working with local ag councils to build direct links between farmers and retail chains, and support for scaling up of organic production “to meet growing consumer interest.”

The strategy also calls for ways to open the sector to new and young farmers, ensuring they can “access the capital and land they need to gain entry to the farming sector” — including educational tools and support for succession planning, mentorship programs and exploring options such as increasing the “restricted farm losses” tax exemption for new entrants.

Also, the party proposes to work with provincial and municipal governments to “prevent both domestic and foreign land speculation,” and to identify “major issues in the future of land use” in both the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

The strategy also proposes developing a “supportive” employment insurance framework for seasonal workers, and to ensure that “a path to citizenship” is made available for temporary foreign workers in the ag sector.

The latter move has the support of several agrifood industry groups, he said, noting many workers in the seasonal ag worker stream have been returning to Canada each year for “decades” but opportunities for employers to bring workers forward for permanent resident status are limited in provinces such as Ontario.

Labelling

The NDP, in its document, pledged to ensure “food claims and images are clear, factual, informative and not misleading to the public,” including labelling standards that “improve consumer choice.”

Among those, the strategy calls for development of “clear, accurate and consistent labelling” on animal treatment in food production, as well as “clear, accurate and verifiable labelling” on products “that have undergone genetic modification.”

Similarly, the party calls for “clear accurate and verifiable labelling” on the origin of food and food products. Product labelling, Allen said, is “fraught with danger if we don’t do it well.”

Asked whether origin labelling, for instance, would follow rules similar to those in the U.S. now being challenged at the WTO, Allen said “no, we’re not headed down that road.” Canada and the U.S., he said, have “way too integrated a market” to require country-of-origin labels so specific.

Processors, he said, often buy ingredients from different sources and blend, and a label that lists information such as processors’ sourcing countries would be acceptable.

“Driven by producers”

On the ag policy front, the food strategy emphasizes marketing boards as “critical supports to domestic production” and to “ensure that producers make the decisions on the future of their marketing boards.”

When asked, Allen said that does not mean an NDP government would move to impose a single-desk marketing system such as the former Canadian Wheat Board. Marketing boards and supply management systems, he said, “are things that have to be driven by producers.”

The strategy further calls for ensuring trade negotiations secure “real and meaningful” market access for Canadian exporters while protecting Canada’s supply-managed ag sectors.

Protection of supply management systems, Allen added, is not as much at the forefront of free trade negotiations as some may suggest. At the WTO, he said, Canada’s supply management “has been allowed to exist and to continue to exist.”

And in talks with trade blocs such as the European Union, he said, EU negotiators have told their Canadian counterparts “‘Look, we want a little more allowable in cheese; you can keep supply management.'”

Among other priorities, the strategy calls for “stable, long-term funding to promote peer-reviewed agricultural research in the public interest” and to reverse cuts to public research facilities and regional projects.

The party also aims to ensure “economic costs and benefits” are included as a factor in new regulatory approvals for genetically modified (GM) seeds.

Allen, the MP for Welland in southern Ontario, noted GM alfalfa as an example of a product whose approval has been “causing folks the most consternation,” noting the potential harm to markets as a possible cost.

That said, Allen added the party is “not talking about slowing things (approvals) down for the sake of slowing things down.” Approval processes must be developed in a “pragmatic” way based on current science, also acknowledging such science is evolving. — AGCanada.com Network

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