Evidence of meeting #32 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was food.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Robert Seguin  Excutive Director, George Morris Centre
  • David McInnes  President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute
  • Michael Burt  Director, Industrial Economic Trends, Conference Board of Canada

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

Mr. Atamanenko, five minutes.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Thanks to all of you for being here.

Mr. McInnes, I'd just like to follow up on what you were talking about with health care and diet. I'm going to just throw out my questions, and hopefully we'll have enough time so that all of you can respond.

We talked about health care and diet. What I found most certainly when I did my cross-Canada food strategy hearings was that there was a lot of feedback to the fact that the more we support a good diet, the fewer costs there are for our health care system.

Should government have a role in perhaps mandating or legislating local procurement policies, either at the provincial or federal level, such as a certain percentage of food, for example, for state and federal institutions? Should there be some kinds of programs in place to support farmers? I know the U.S. has coupons for seniors to go to farmers' markets. In B.C. we had a pilot project where low-income families got coupons to go to farmers' markets. Should we be encouraging such a policy? It's well known that the more fruit and vegetables folks eat, the better their health is. That's one area.

The other one is the whole area of GMOs. I know that my Conservative colleagues will be happy that there is some talk of GM labelling going on in the United States in regard to freedom of choice—in other words, the choice to be able to choose GM foods or not. I'm just wondering what effect it could have here on our supply chain. Something like one million people signed a petition asking the FDA to label genetically engineered foods. There were over 500 partner organizations who helped to galvanize this movement.

In the State of California, I just found out, they are calling to have a referendum in the November ballot. If approved, the California position would have a ripple effect. There would be mandatory labelling of GE foods in California. Obviously, because California has been a leader in many instances, this would have a ripple effect, and probably, then, there would be mandatory labelling throughout the States, and it would probably come here.

If this were to happen, what effect do all of you think that would have on the food chain? Do you have any comments? We know, for example, that Europe and many other countries have this labelling.

I'll just throw those two out, and hopefully you'll have enough time to respond. Maybe Mr. McInnes can start.

4:55 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute

David McInnes

Thank you very much.

With respect to mandating local procurement, if I understood that correctly, mandating can often raise challenges. We have to be respectful of our international trade obligations, so we have to understand what any such practice could do.

I think the first step, and perhaps even the better step, is to look a little more in our own backyards. A number of provinces are doing this; the federal government is doing this: bringing together agriculture, education in the provinces, public health, and aboriginal affairs, among other departments, to try to understand how each of those departments has a touch point on food, because many of them do. How do we then get those departments working with community groups, associations, and producers and players in the agrifood supply chain? How can we better serve key populations? Many of the tools are at hand. It requires working differently together to help do so. I think that should be the first order of business. It comes back to the point that if we think differently about the food system, we may try to resolve many of those key issues.

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Before we move on, I have just one quick comment.

The State of Illinois has done that. They've legislated that by the year 2020, 20% of the food for state institutions be purchased locally. It looks as if it is possible, in spite of trade obligations.

I'll move on.

4:55 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute

David McInnes

There's a lot of activity around trying to source locally. Walmart, for example, has made a pledge to double the amount of produce it sources in the United States from local source. Supply chains themselves are responding. All I'm saying is that we need to look at the possible avenues in which to address the identified problem. I think we have to understand the implications of those choices we make.

Perhaps I can turn it over to one of my colleagues, if they'd like to pick up on—

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Please be very brief.

4:55 p.m.

Excutive Director, George Morris Centre

Robert Seguin

For the first part, I don't think mandates will work. The State of Illinois will try, but I suspect they'll find that over time they don't work to this extent, and just because they don't get challenged doesn't make it right. It just may be that it's not worth the effort to challenge it, as has happened in the past.

I think David has pointed out that there are different, better ways to make the marketplace work, and the markets will work, and they will work effectively if we let them, allowing enough information to get out and also understanding what the implications are.

GMO labelling may be one way of trying to address it. It may also be trying to verify whether or not genetically modified...if it changes the food at all. If it doesn't, what's the difference? Then we should try to see if that's something consumers really do need to get at, or only a select number of consumers really want to get at, and whether or not the government should then be involved if it's only a select number.

My strong view is that the markets can work if we allow them to work, and make sure we understand how they work, so they're not being abused by one side or another.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

Mr. Payne, you have five minutes.

March 28th, 2012 / 4:55 p.m.

Conservative

LaVar Payne Medicine Hat, AB

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the witnesses for coming.

We've heard quite a bit today in terms of changing marketplace, business opportunities, consumers, producers, manufacturers, obviously the food sector, and a little about government and research. I want to touch a little on the research side, because we did hear, I think from you, Mr. McInnes, about canola and what they did in terms of research and moving forward in product.

I would like to get your thoughts of who should be leading this particular aspect, in terms of getting research done. Is it the producer? Is it the manufacturer? Is it government? Who? And what kinds of priorities should we be putting on the various types of products?

We'll start with you, Mr. McInnes.

5 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute

David McInnes

Thank you for the question. This is a big question.

Clearly, academia and the scientists have a major role, of course, in research, and applied research is very important, but I think there's an increasing focus on how we commercialize it—or pure research, rather, that they're interested in. How do we apply the research to commercialize it?

I think canola—I'm glad you raised it—is an excellent point. Canola, of course, is one of Canada's major success stories, a major export success story. But it was born out of two Agriculture Canada scientists, if I'm not mistaken, who developed it and then worked with the University of Manitoba and the National Research Council and then with business and nutritionists to take it to where it is today.

What's the moral of the story? Sometimes an idea can start in pure research, but you need a full slate of players to bring it to success. I saw one statistic—from Cargill, actually—that said to fully commercialize a major project innovation can take ten years and $50 million to $100 million. So I think we have to see the complexity behind the question and understand all the more the reason why we need all the players to figure out how best to do it together.

On the other hand, if we really want to be nimble and beat our competitors and attract investment here, then business-led innovation is vital.

5 p.m.

Conservative

LaVar Payne Medicine Hat, AB

Mr. Seguin.

5 p.m.

Excutive Director, George Morris Centre

Robert Seguin

It's a very good question. The challenge here is that both levels of government have spent a good deal of time in the last century-plus putting in a lot of public infrastructure to support agriculture research and food research, for the very good reason that it benefited society. But the point David just mentioned about the complexity and the variations means that government is going to have to look at how to take that infrastructure and evolve it so that there is more response to the marketplace, and at the same time make it much more innovative than it has been.

It may be that Cargill faces those costs, but a number of other companies may face far less cost. This is an area in which the marketplace should allow innovation to occur where it's best and is adaptable. Let companies learn from either failures in the marketplace or from what really does work.

There has to be a different balance from the one we've had in the past, but it's not going to be an easy one to shift, given our historic dependence on public access to agricultural—particularly primary agricultural—research and our very good success in the history of Canada at that level. But that's changing, given all the variety of products out there and what we could do genetically, or even with new crop varieties at the vegetable or fruit level—you name it.

5 p.m.

Conservative

LaVar Payne Medicine Hat, AB

Do you have any comments, Mr. Burt?

5 p.m.

Director, Industrial Economic Trends, Conference Board of Canada

Michael Burt

Essentially, you're almost talking about the entrepreneurial spirit. I think you need a champion. Somebody has to see the opportunity, take the lead on it, and drive it. Many of the product developments we've seen over the years have been led by one partner in the value chain.

Definitely somebody has to see the idea and work at commercializing it.

5 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

You have three-quarters of a minute or more.