Food In Canada

Re-inventing Canadian food strategy

By Gary Fread   

Business Operations business planning food strategy

Gary Fread discusses a starting point for a renewed national food plan

In my articles I’ve spoken of the need for a Canadian National Food Strategy. The implication is that we do not have a national food strategy. Well, we do have, but in the form of individual sector/level strategies that are not tied together on a national sector basis. It is a de facto strategy. And as I’ve said we need to change that. How? Here are some thoughts about a starting point and a process that could lead us through the maze.

In an age of continuous improvement, it is organizational capability to adapt that is the only sustainable advantage. The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. We need to reinvent strategy as a process to generate continuous renewal in times of constant change. But continuous renewal (improvement) is not enough. There must be an element of discontinuous change (breakthrough) that must accompany it. How do we bring that about?

The first question we must ask is “What is the environment in which the Canadian food sector must compete and win?” Clearly, the overriding aspect is globalization – of literally everything: markets, businesses, knowledge itself, technology, and the gradual liberalization of trade. Then there are the demographic shifts, lifestyle trends and environmental issues. There are science-based issues like GMOs. There are the social responsibility issues and the cost of energy. How do we get at all of these influencers of policy?

Strategic Learning Process

There is a process that many companies use to sort out all of this regarding their businesses. The four steps of strategic learning are: Learn, focus, align and execute.  How does this apply to the food sector?

The Learn step involves a situation analysis that looks at five general areas:

  • Customers (consumers, food retailers, foodservices, export markets) – What are the trends driving each segment? How will tomorrow be different? What are the opportunities?
  • Competitors (other countries’ food sectors) – What are our comparative strengths and weaknesses versus our traditional and emerging competition. Where are we vulnerable and where are the opportunities?
  • Our (Canada’s) Own Realities – What are Canada’s trends in, say, productivity, innovation, sustainability? How can we leverage our strengths and address our weaknesses?
  • Industry Dynamics (forces at play in the global food sector) – What are the trends within the food industry, at all levels, that present opportunities for Canada? How do we exploit them?
  • Broader Environment (issues/forces outside the food sector but influencing it) – What political, economic, social or technological trends could be influencers on the food sector? What opportunities and challenges might that create that we need to deal with?

The Focus step involves formulating a vision of what we are prepared to stand for as a future for Canada’s food sector, and proposing some strategic choices. As I’ve said, I believe the vision is obvious – to be the best food sector in the world.

As to strategies, I propose the use of scenario building to provide a strong approach to doing this. Based on some variations of where we see the future going, we can then propose how we might strategically proceed to achieve the vision. Providing several scenarios sets the stage for involving members of the sector more broadly in a conversation that would begin the alignment process. And clearly, there is not one set of strategies that would accommodate all the various segments of the sector, but there will be some common strategies that do apply to all, and some segment strategies that accommodate the variation inherent in a complex sector.

The Align step is where the “consultation process” would begin. The goal is to align key influencers within the sector behind the vision and a set of strategies for its achievement so that they can become our “dragon slayers” to help sell and/or otherwise persuade the reluctant to come along. These people become the co-creators of the vision and thereby gain a large dose of ownership for it – a necessary condition to overcoming the doubters.

Then there is Execute step – making it happen. Publishing the output is the first and major step, but we need to think about what else we need to do with the output, or like many strategic plans it will sit on the shelf and collect dust while the next government decides the future of the sector. Perhaps task forces/working groups focused on the various strategies is the right way. This needs more thought by the implementers.

That’s the process of planning that would help to overcome the attitudes, segmentation, and lack of alignment that keeps us from being as good as we could be. The leadership must come from industry and be broad based and committed. This could be the biggest challenge. Who will lead?

Are we up to it? I say we are. We have to get the process started ASAP.

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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