Food In Canada

Opinion

A globally competitive food sector – will we make it happen?

Gary Fread examines the Saint Andrews Statement and what it means for the growth of Canada's food industry


In my last article I discussed some activities that were taking place here in Canada in the name of a vision and/or action plan for the food sector.  I talked about the 2010 Conference Board proposal to create a Centre for Food in Canada that would focus on creating a national food strategy, and on the current big issues in the sector.

Then the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) report came out in February 2011 with Canada’s Agri-Food Destination: A New Strategic Approach, again focused on innovation, risk management, sustainability, regulatory change, and a Centre for Good Food Citizenship. Both of these documents were very much on target in my mind, but again, we need to consolidate them into a single industry view of where we must be headed.

Consumer awareness

In the past several weeks there have been several articles written that put additional “spins” on the topic. One, appearing on July 19 and written by Tavia Grant, the economics reporter for the Globe and Mail, was a very informative article on the Canadian food industry. As well as covering some success stories, it discussed the industry’s importance to the economy, highlighting the fact that it is Canada’s largest manufacturing industry, with annual sales of $80 billion, and has passed transportation equipment as the country’s largest employer.

The article also refers to the probability that the food industry could comprise an even greater share of the country’s GDP in coming years. It is already a major exporter and has room to grow, especially in the value-added areas of the sector. For me, this was a breakthrough – articles such as these are getting the facts out about our industry to the general public. But what about government?

Saint Andrews Statement

On July 8, a document called the Saint Andrews Statement was released following the federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) ministers of agriculture meetings in St. Andrews, N.B. The statement summarized the result of the FPT meetings in establishing the next policy framework, Growing Forward 2, which represents the evolution from the 2003 to 2008 Agricultural Policy Framework, and the 2008 to 2013 Growing Forward policy framework. It was a fairly brief document, but it provides a high-level view of the next policy framework.

Overall, it speaks to a greater focus on competitiveness and sustainability – both environmental and financial – by focusing more on innovation, physical infrastructure, productivity, the regulatory environment, and increased collaboration between governments, industry and research partners. So, does it deliver what’s needed? Let’s go a bit deeper.

The overarching principles are that:
•    All parts of the sector have a role to play, and collaboration and partnership are key factors in success;
•    Government and industry each have a role to play in the components such as competitiveness, adaptability, sustainability, innovation and infrastructure;
•    Governments must ensure a smooth, timely transition to the new framework; and,
•    Policies must be an enabler to success in many ways.

The document states two policy outcomes:
1.    A primary agriculture and processing sector that is competitive in domestic and international markets;
2.    A sector that is adaptable and sustainable.

These are meant to have the following objectives:
1.    Innovation, from discovery to adoption, which speaks to the “research-to-commercialization” value chain I outlined in my Dec. 21, 2010 article; and,
2.    The institutional, physical and human resource infrastructure needed to secure the sector’s long-term competitiveness and sustainability, with a focus on regulatory structures and institutions that are enabling and responsive to opportunities that can lead to successes.

The statement goes on to speak of competitiveness on the basis of product attributes (innovation!) and cost (productivity!) – a competitiveness that is enabled by addressing barriers to trade and movement of food products across boundaries (does this imply a review of regulations and trade agreements?). It also discusses maintaining the productive capacity in terms of natural resources, financial resources and human resources through improving productive capacity, collaborative market-based approaches to environmental challenges, and attracting new entrepreneurs and investments to the sector. Finally, it speaks to a sector that is adaptive and resilient, and which responds to society’s demands while contributing to the well-being of Canadians.

Next steps

Based on what I’ve discussed in previous articles, it sounds as if government leadership is fairly on-target. It leads from the view of what it will take to be globally competitive in the food sector. It addresses the topic of innovation, both in linking researchers and industry, and in understanding the markets to give them what they need and demand. It speaks to sustainability in a big way, and it speaks to collaboration throughout the sector to “make the pie bigger” for everybody. It doesn’t focus a lot on productivity, but does reference the need to be cost competitive. In general, the statement hits the target. But that’s the problem – it’s too general at this stage to know where it will go.

The Saint Andrews Statement is high-level framework, and is expected to lead to the development of a new framework that will aid Canada’s food industry in achieving great goals. But the action plan to get there is still missing. And time is short; the new policy framework needs to be in place in about a year and a half. It’s hard to envision anything more than “more of the same” in that timeframe, but it’s not impossible. The industry has a role to play here in steering government aggressively in the right direction (see my June 1, 2011 article for some thoughts and ideas on next steps).

We must collaborate across all levels and segments of the food sector and come up with a strong, unified voice that will deliver the right message to get us where we have the capability to be – the best in the world! Come on CAPI, Conference Board and Canadian Federation of Agriculture (which has also issued its vision for the sector, which is also pretty good), let’s get together and create one voice with a consistent message. We can be the most innovative, productive and most sustainable producer and marketer of food products in the world if we work together, and if we can leverage government into making some key policy changes. Let’s do it now – we will never have a better opportunity. If we don’t do it we’re to blame, not government.

Gary Fread is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry. He has spent 25 years in management positions in the food processing industry, with a background in sales, logistics, purchasing and technical areas. He has worked with Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Morrison Lamothe, and is the past president and CEO of the Guelph Food Technology Centre. He is active in many food industry associations and organizations, serving on the boards of several. Contact him at [email protected]


Gary Fread

Gary Fread

Gary is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry.
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