By Sylvain Charlebois (AIMS Senior Fellow)
- Globe and Mail, 13 January 2019
It appears that the four food groups most Canadians know by heart are on their way out. Health Canada has announced it will finally release its long-awaited new Food Guide in the spring of this year. But the new guide will likely challenge many of our preconceptions about food itself. Information leaked recently suggests that dairy products will no longer have their own category. In fact, milk and dairy products will now be only one of over 28 different food items Health Canada intends to encourage Canadians to eat more of. In doing so, Health Canada will not only show audacity, but for the first time in decades it will give the food guide a new purpose.
The first food guide in Canada came out in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. At the time, food security was a much more significant issue than it is today. The food guide was more of a tool to showcase Canadian agriculture and stimulate the rural economy. And why not? Our farmers needed the support and food sovereignty at the time had a different meaning. The initial guide had six food groups, instead of four.
However, not much else has changed since 1942. Other than merging fruits with vegetables, and eggs with meat products, and notwithstanding the addition of some nice colors and a few illustrations, the food guide we have today is quite similar to the original one from decades ago.
While Canada has idled in updating its food guide, other countries have made significant progress. The United States systematically revises its food pyramid every five years. The U.S. went from a Basic 7 model in 1943 to a more adaptable version now called MyPlate. Basic 7 and MyPlate are inherently different, and the USDA has just announced more changes coming in 2019. In Canada, our current food guide is already more than 12 years old. Revision cycles are longer, and changes over time have been modest at best. Along with several European countries, Japan, Brazil, and even China have modernized food policies to reflect their society’s modern way of life. Most food guides around the world, unlike Canada’s, promote nutrients rather than specific food products.
But it appears Canada now intends to catch up to the rest of the world. Based on some information coming from Health Canada, the food guide will most likely depart from its humble initial purpose of sponsoring agriculture and will finally serve our quest for a better quality of life. Let’s face it, things have changed since 1942. Canadian agriculture is much more diverse, and much more trade focused. Food demand in Canada is more fragmented than ever, as a result of more immigration, and different lifestyles and values affecting food choices. Our modern lifestyle is slowly destroying the “three meals a day” institution as we know it. Most Canadians don’t eat three times a day, or at specific times, and out-of-household food consumption is at an all-time high. Snacks, grab-and-go solutions, and other quick food fixes are now very much a part of the daily routine of many Canadians.
Changes to our food habits won’t come easily, though. A new approach will likely challenge entrenched conventions that have been protected and institutionalized for decades. If Health Canada does go ahead with the rumored changes, proteins are certainly one area which will see significant shifts over time. Our vibrant beef industry could have a very different place in our food guide, but will continue to do well regardless. But dairy is likely the one sector which will be affected the most.
Dairy is represented by what most consider to be the most influential lobby group in Canadian Agriculture, perhaps even in our entire economy. The group spends over $80 million every year to encourage Canadians to drink milk and eat more dairy products. That’s almost $3 for every Canadian. The current food guide gives dairy a vital place in our diet, at 4 servings a day. Supported by our supply management scheme for decades, dairy farmers have relied on long-standing, policy-driven support to make a living, from milk served in schools to seeing dairy products promoted at different key events across the country. Everything made sense as the synchronicity between trade and domestic food policies was flawless.
But with three new trade deals which have opened our market to more dairy products coming from abroad, a new food guide without a dairy category or a prescribed number of servings is the last thing the Canadian dairy sector wants. On the other hand, it is exactly what Canadians need, and more than ever. Nutritional security seems to be the new focus, and all Canadians deserve a food guide that can help them better understand how to lead healthier lives. Obesity, especially among children, is at unacceptable levels in Canada. As well, food security remains a lingering issue influencing our nutritional choices, even in 2019. Welcome additions to the new guide encourage Canadians to value nutrition, to drink water, to consider where and how we eat and with whom. Just setting standards on portions and food products is fruitless.
Regardless of what happens next, dairy farmers, while producing a high-quality product for Canadians, will need to accept that their commodity is now part of a much larger portfolio of good, natural food ingredients. Milk and dairy products will coexist with several other commodity groups which deserve as much attention, if not more.
Professor in food distribution and policy, Dalhousie University
Senior Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University.