The Canada Food Guide has never just been about just nutrition. It is a political document as well, representing the views and interests of the food and farming lobby.
Less successful among the lobbyists, judging from the latest edition of the guide, were those backing meat, milk and eggs. These were relegated from their place of prominence to being among the many protein sources and a greater emphasis placed on plant-based proteins.
One of the more alarming suggestions is not found in the guide itself but in the accompanying Canada’s Dietary Guidelines for Health Professionals and Policy Makers:
“… there is evidence supporting a lesser environmental impact of patterns of eating higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods. The potential benefits include helping to conserve soil, water and air.”
It’s a misleading statement which reflects the broken agricultural and food system which is as much about waste, obesity, unhealthy food choices and the demise of the farming community as it is about nutrition.
Livestock production is a necessary component of sustainable agricultural systems. Animals, especially ruminants, allow farmland to be rotated among a wider selection of plant types and reduces or even eliminates the need for pesticides and commercial fertilizers.
In addition, livestock are important to the maintenance of soil fertility and, with the right management and combination of animals and plants, soil carbon levels can be built, effectively addressing climate change.
Here in Ontario, there are areas of the province where farmland has been highly degraded due to the absence of animals.
For folks unfamiliar with farming – that’s the majority of the Canadians – there is a great deal of confusion. Little wonder. The production systems that feed most of us were not developed to support the soil but rather the industry that has been built up around agriculture. It’s more about the inputs than the land.
Long gone are the days when mixed farms dominated the rural landscapes. These often featured not one, but several livestock species. While not perfect, were capable of maintaining the health and fertility of soils – and rural communities – over the long term when managed well.
In contrast, today’s agricultural system has become industrialized with livestock production and crop production viewed as separate centres of profit. In this context, yes, livestock production can be viewed in far less than a flattering light although that’s the direction farmers have been herded toward.
A more useful comment in the “dietary guidelines” concerns a legitimate concern: “Reducing food waste – by households, food processors, farmers and food retailers – can help make better use of natural resources and lower greenhouse gas emissions.”
Unfortunately, beyond suggesting families hone up on their food skills to avoid waste, the problem wasn’t explored much further.
While there are different aspects to food waste, the consideration that looms as the largest is how we value food, along those involved with its production.
The emphasis in society, however, is too often about price.
I grew up with the maxim, “clean your plate,” taught to me by parents who knew something about hunger and, as farmers, the value of food. Experience as a gardener, too, emphasizes those words.
Cheap food isn’t the answer. It needs to be valued. ◊