Food In Canada

How to make a globally competitive food sector

By Gary Fread   

Business Operations Exporting & Importing Facilities Maintenance productivity

Gary Fread looks at Canada's role in in the worldwide food and beverage industry

In my previous articles you’ve heard one person’s view of what it would take for the Canadian food industry to be globally competitive and financially viable in the long term.

We talked about the need to listen to the markets and respond to what they need, and about the need to improve our capabilities in the areas of innovation, productivity and sustainability. We went on to make the case that the sector needs a vision of what it wants to be in the future, supplemented by a strategic plan for getting there. We suggested some general strategies and initial steps to begin.

What’s next?

Now the question is how do we make it happen? If the food and beverage industry were a business, this task would fall to the CEO and the senior management team, along with the full participation of all departments and employees. Well, the food industry is not a corporation, so there is no CEO or senior management team. So how do we do it? Leadership is needed, hopefully a visionary. The implementers and facilitators who will be the senior management team need to be identified and enrolled, and all of us who participate in the industry must be engaged.


There have been several efforts in recent years to accomplish this type of implementation of big ideas. In 2010 the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute, published Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A Roadmap for Stakeholders, an attempt to create and initialize a vision for the global food industry. It was developed by a collaboration of representatives from the private sector, the public sector and civil society (NGOs and foundations).

While the focus of the report is specifically on agriculture, versus the broader food industry, it does contain most of the elements we’ve noted in our previous articles. The principles are:
•    Mobilize the private sector;
•    Employ market-based solutions;
•    Empower farmers and entrepreneurs;
•    Integrate interventions; and,
•    Collaborate.

Sound familiar? It speaks to innovation, productivity, sustainability and social responsibility. Where is it going? Too soon to tell.

Also in 2010, the U.K., in collaboration with industry, developed a program called Food 2030. It is a vision for the U.K. food sector – the whole sector – and essentially gets at the “strategic plan” approach we have recommended. Its six core issues are:
•    Encouraging people to eat a healthy, sustainable diet;
•    Ensuring a resilient, profitable and competitive food system;
•    Increasing food production sustainably;
•    Reducing the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions;
•    Reducing, reusing and reprocessing waste; and,
•    Increasing the impact of skills, knowledge, research and technology.

These principles pretty well cover the areas we’ve talked about. There’s still a lot to be done as far as implementation steps, but it’s early on in the vision timeframe, and the U.K. government, including all departments related to food right up to the Cabinet Office, is providing leadership. Good approach, I think.

A Canadian vision

Even in Canada there are some things happening. In July 2010 the Conference Board of Canada issued a proposal to create a Centre for Food in Canada. It was put together by a broad group of industry and NGO representatives from the food industry, including crop and animal producers, food manufacturers and food and beverage retailers.

The proposal speaks to the need for a vibrant food industry in Canada, and as a first step proposes that a Centre should raise public awareness of the nature and importance of the food sector to Canada’s economy and society. It should also create a shared vision for the future of food in Canada within a framework of a “national food strategy” that will meet our need for a co-ordinated, long-term strategy for change. The Centre would also initially focus on: food safety, healthful foods, environmental sustainability, cost and usage of commodities, and food flows and globalization. It’s a great proposal. Will it move forward? In the Canadian environment, who knows? Let’s hope so.

There is also the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI), a partnership of leaders from many aspects of the food industry, which works as a not-for-profit, membership-based forum focused on improving the competitiveness and sustainability of the food sector. In February 2011 CAPI published Canada’s Agri-Food Destination: A New Strategic Approach, a vision document with the destination being “75 by 25.” The report states: “Canada must have the most successful good food systems in order to achieve ‘75 by 25’ by 2025.” Its goals are to:
•    Double Canada’s dollar value of agri-food exports to $75 billion (up from $38.8 billion);
•    Produce and supply 75 per cent of our own food (up from 68 per cent); and,
•    Generate revenue and efficiency by relying on biomaterials and biofuels in 75 per cent of the agri-food sector.

The strategies to achieve that vision are focused on five areas:
•    Development of a Centre for Good Food Citizenship;
•    Food system smart innovation;
•    Food system risk management;
•    Leadership in sustainability; and,
•    Enabling regulatory change.

It goes into a fair amount of depth in all those areas, and overall is an excellent document.

Global competition

So there are activities underway in Canada to move forward in achieving what’s potentially possible for our food sector. But there are also other efforts going on around the world, such as the U.K., that will lead to a very competitive environment. If we don’t make these things happen, we will be left behind.

So will we make them happen? As much as I like both the Conference Board and CAPI approaches, I think we need to have a unified voice for the sector. Can we make that happen? What about government – does it recognize the value of such an integrated vision and strategy for the food sector? And if so, will it provide the leadership required to pull together all of the various commodity sectors, provincial approaches, processing and retailing industries, service providers, university researchers, the investment community, policy makers and so on? That’s the big question, and so far it remains unanswered.

However, if we can’t make it happen, we’re headed for problems. Let’s pull it all together in a unified, collaborative approach and be as good as we can be, which is being the best in the world.

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

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