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A Canadian Conversation on Global Diets

A bowl of salsa with garnish sits on the edge of a table

Diets that are intentionally curated for healthy people and planet are being referred to around the world as ‘global diets’. Global diets have emerged as part of the solution to reduce human’s contribution to climate change, minimize pressure on global land use and deforestation, and improve global human health. The benefits, challenges, and controversies around global diets have been regular headlines since the release of The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. Public dialogue on this topic continued after the launch of the revamped Canadian Food Guide, and has recently been re-ignited with the releases of the World Resource Institute’s report, Creating A Sustainable Food Future and the International Panel on Climate Change’s report, Climate Change and Land.

One main aspect of the diets recommended in each of these resources is to reduce meat intake, particularly red meat. Increasing plant-based proteins and fruit and vegetable consumption are also recommended. These recommendations have resonated with some while appearing as a threat to others. Philip Loring, Arrell Chair in Food, Policy and Society, recently spoke to CBC on the link between diets and climate change, suggesting that, “we’ve become very polarized around individual solutions and we still lose sight of the middle ground.” As plant-based proteins become increasingly accessible, the adoption of global diets by some Canadians is becoming more attainable and attractive. For others, the recommendations of global diets may not align with their current dietary choices, food access and traditions, or preference of taste.

To better understand where this middle ground is and the role of global diets in Canada, Arrell Food Institute hosted the event “EAT-Lancet Commission: Capturing the Canadian Context” on March 7th, 2019 in Ottawa. The event brought together stakeholders from the Canadian agri-food sector to discuss what a global diet could look like in a Canadian context and how it may complement, disrupt or conflict with Canadians, from producers to consumers. Many at the event, including producers, policy-makers, commodity group representatives and academics shared their perspectives on the state of agricultural production, the influence of place and tradition on diets, and the importance of good governance in supporting Canadians to make healthy and environmentally conscious dietary choices.

Brent Loken from the EAT forum started off the evening by drawing our attention to the fact that many diets, particularly those common in North America that are high in red meat and starchy vegetables, are surpassing planetary boundaries, due to increasing consumption trends and environmental impacts. In his presentation, Loken outlines the commission’s five strategies for great food transformation that could lead to win-win outcomes for human and planetary health. Of these strategies, Strategy Two: Reorient agricultural priorities from producing high quantities of food to producing healthy food, sparked conversations on the ways agricultural sectors, from pulses to beef, are adopting best management practices and technologies to improve their overall sustainability.

Agricultural production can have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. Many producers in Canada are working diligently to enhance and implement a variety of management options to limit negative impacts. For example, producers are implementing strategies such as the 4Rs for nutrient management, participating in initiatives to produce ecosystem services, and/or adopting practices through programs like those offered through the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While acknowledging that there is still a lot of work to be done, Monica Hadarits from CRSB outlined the value in supporting producers as they adopt conservation practices to improve the efficiency and sustainability of their operation.

At the consumer level, experiences were shared on the challenges that individuals face with food, providing context to barriers that some Canadians have in adopting global diets. Bill Greuel, from Protein Industries Canada, shared his personal experiences in trying to eat a flexitarian diet while traveling in North American, which was sometimes difficult due to high costs and finding appetizing options for his whole family. Joseph LeBlanc, Director of Indigenous Affairs at Northern Ontario School of Medicine, reinforced how cost and access can be a barrier for many families, especially those living in northern regions of Canada that have heightened difficulties accessing healthy and culturally appropriate food. Leblanc emphasized that many people often have to make compromises with healthy food to fill hungry stomachs in their household. While chatting with CBC’s Cross Country Check-Up, Loring added to this context by highlighting that there are many cultural and financial reasons (as Greuel and Leblanc have pointed out) why it may be inappropriate to recommend  reducing consumption of certain foods to some.

Challenges for consumers in making healthy choices are partly a result of a broken food system and inadequate governance, Loken suggests – “where sugary cereals are cheaper than apples”. Evaluating and improving governance of food related issues could take place in many parts of Canada’s food system. This could take the form of enhancing adaptive and flexible policies that reflect the reality that there is no pan-indigenous experience with food and natural resources in Canada, as Leblanc suggests. It could also start with programs that facilitate food literacy and learning amongst youth. Jess Haines, Associate Director of the Guelph Family Health Study outlines that providing Canadians with the tools and knowledge on how to eat healthy is an important part of this discussion on diets in Canada. Haines continued by describing how a school food program that teaches youth how to prepare healthy food that tastes good could be an impactful way to continue to improve diets in Canada.

The topic of global diets has brought attention to the connections between agricultural production, diet and the environment. It has also emphasized that there are differences in Canadians’ capacities and motivations to respond to the recommendations. Moving past polarizing debates, Canadians have the opportunity to reflect and have open discussions on how their diets have varying effects on their carbon footprint, personal health, and local and global environmental health. Loring emphasizes that how Canadians choose to adapt their diets to improve their impact on these factors is an individual decision and there are many ways to do this, ranging from trying plant-based proteins to supporting local livestock and fish production.