Le Québécois Libre, May 15, 2010, No 278.
Few images evoke romance more than the countryside. In this pristine setting, simple farmers eke out a humble but honest existence, cultivating the Earth from dawn till dusk. They grow nutritious, wholesome foods, using naught but the sun’s rays and the soil’s richness. At harvest time, they load nature’s bounty into a rustic cart to wheel produce to the local market. There, they offer the highest-grade fare to consumers who know whence their food comes and have a keen eye for quality. Back home, the buyer prepares a nourishing and healthy meal from the day’s purchases.
It is upon this bucolic and pastoral image that Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff sought to draw when he announced on April 26, against a rural backdrop, plans for “Canada’s First National Food Policy.” The document sets out five principles: healthy living, safe food, sustainable farm incomes, environmental farmland stewardship and international leadership. Some of its goals are reasonable, but unlikely to be reached through government action. Others are simply bad ideas, and even more so when pursued through state coercion. Finally, some flat out contradict each other.
What Government Can’t Do
The Liberals propose to educate Canadians on how to make good nutritional choices and to mandate “clear and simple” food labelling while promoting “improved fertilizer and pesticide management.” I want to know what I’m putting into my body and how it affects me. Improving the way fertilizers and pesticides are used couldn’t hurt. So what’s the problem?
In all three cases, it’s the same one.
The science on good nutritional choices is simply unsettled. For example, the best diet eliminates animal products. Or it includes lots of meat and no grains. Or it’s centered on fish, olives, grain and wine. You should avoid caffeine. But it’s good for you. Drink milk. Don’t drink milk. And on and on. In sum, there are unanswered questions.
As for food labels, it’s good that people know what’s in their food, but what about those who can’t understand the labels? Or don’t care what the labels say? What if the label doesn’t tell you what you want to know? Is the same label really best for all foods? Do people in different regions read them differently? These are challenges with no clear solution.
As for “improved” fertilizer and pesticide use, which is the best fertilizer? Which is best for which crop? In which soil and which climate? Which pesticide is safest? Most effective? Best against a given bug? Most cost effective? Once again, questions without easy answers.
Granted, Michael Ignatieff isn’t responsible for scientific uncertainty, complicated labels, or stubborn, annoying pests (well, maybe a little responsible…). But that doesn’t mean that the government needs to be involved in efforts to address those issues. The public sector has no motivation to make any honest attempt to identify the “best” diet (if such a thing exists and is identical, or even similar, for each of us). It doesn’t get rewarded for determining what food label works best, or how a farmer should fight aphids or mites. It does, however, have a tremendous incentive to bend to powerful interests who want the state to tell people to buy what they’re selling. The available incentives impel politicians to seek more votes and bureaucrats to seek more power. In both cases, even the most virtuous individual has no reason to behave well and every reason to behave badly.
What Government Shouldn’t Do
The goals of nutrition, labelling, and managing farm inputs are likely better served by a free market that can respond to changing supply and demand with multiple, flexible options instead of one-size-fits-all, top-down “solutions.” Other aspects of the scheme, however, propose goals that the government has no business pursuing at all.
Take the commitment to plough $80 million into a “Buy Local Fund” to “promote high-quality, homegrown foods produced by local farmers,” under the heading “healthy living.” Presumably, therefore, local food is healthier. Nutritionists can say whether air miles and healthfulness are, in fact, inversely proportional, but equating “local” with “Canadian” is specious. Or does an imaginary line really make Charlevoix lamb (distance from Montreal: about 400 km) more “local” than Vermont steak (distance from Montreal: about 100 km)?
The conflation of “local” and “domestic” is both misleading and telling: in truth, what is proposed is a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to agricultural producers. Canadians who want to buy home-grown food at full price don’t need the state to get involved. Canadians who don’t want the food shouldn’t be pressured by the state to change their minds. And Canadians who want it—but only at a discount—shouldn’t use government to force taxpayers to cover the difference.
Or consider the commitment to sustainable farm incomes. Canadian food producers already enjoy a range of programs designed to ensure them a stable income. For example, Quebec farmers receive over $700 million in annual subsidies, guaranteeing overproduction and all the resulting negative environmental consequences. Subsidies also force vegetarians to pay for meat, vegans to pay for milk, Jews to pay for pork, environmentalists to pay for factory farming, and everyone else with strong beliefs about food ethics to support things that they oppose.
In addition, Quebec farmers benefit from minimum prices fixed by the government and buttressed by sky-high tariffs (such as 299% for butter or 246% for cheese). These measures keep prices artificially high. For example, between 1995 and 2007, the production costs of milk in Canada fell 3.8% while prices increased 53%.
So-called “sustainable” incomes cost the public dearly. Liberals who really want to help “250,000 children from low-income families access healthy, home-grown foods” should persuade their provincial colleagues to stop forcing consumers to pay above-market prices for those very same foods while simultaneously raiding the taxpayer’s wallet.
Or again, take the promise to quadruple “clean energy” production – more specifically, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal. The same caveats apply here too: government is bad at figuring out which alternative fuel source is cheapest, cleanest, most reliable, least exhaustible, or most easily adopted. But this proposal (which has nothing to do with food, incidentally) is even more dangerous.
If the government wants to quadruple energy production from four specific sources, it will employ the usual policy levers: tax credits, subsidies, loan guarantees, and so on. It will thereby entrench special interests, giving them an incentive to fight efforts to diminish their privileges. Now remember that any new technology has unknown consequences that can remain hidden for some time. Exhibit A: the internal combustion engine is a 19th century invention, but a century passed before global warming became a concern.
So which new fuel source might have side effects as unforeseen and dangerous as fossil fuels? No one knows, but the more special privileges we give emerging technologies, the harder it will be to remove them—even after we realize that, say, wind farms disrupt global air currents, or that tapping geothermal energy disrupts the tectonic plates.
I don’t claim that these particular scenarios are possible, but I do claim that we lack complete knowledge, and always will. So even if Big Oil threatens civilization, what if it turns out that we’re in grave danger from Big Wind and Big Sun? We can’t eradicate vested interests, but purposefully entrenching them is foolhardy. Preventing catastrophic climate change will be of little avail if the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.
That’s Not What You Said a Minute Ago…
In addition to inadvisable policies, “Canada’s First National Food Policy” contains contradictions that make it appear to have been drafted by committees that were not on speaking terms.
The Liberals want food that is “local” and “healthy.” They should make up their minds. Many foods cannot be grown in Canada, except at prices that consumers will not pay. Some provide nutrients that have no local source (at least in winter). Others may have local substitutes, but how many people will drink boiled tree bark to ward off scurvy? If you think that Canadians don’t eat well now, wait until we cut out fresh vegetables, tropical fruit, rice, coffee and other basics.
The Liberals also want local food to be “affordable.” Again, pick one. Any first-year economics student knows that trade restrictions drive up costs. Many foods can be produced more efficiently outside Canada, where producers benefit from a friendlier climate, richer soil, longer growing season, and other advantages. Imports keep prices low, which especially benefits the least wealthy among us.
Finally, the Liberals would promote local foods at the expense of imports… while simultaneously building “capacity in local food production and food security” abroad. The best guarantor of food security and production is wealth, which the developing world can easily generate by selling agricultural goods to the West. In 2002, the World Bank estimated that eliminating global agricultural protectionism would increase rural income in the developing world by $60 billion, thereby enriching farmers in poor countries while cutting our food prices still further. Canadians who want to help the developing world should eat more Mexican tomatoes and Moroccan tangerines, not banish them from their diets.
The Pro-State Bias
While there are other reasons to oppose the policy, the initiative does have its supporters. Maybe that’s because the Liberal scheme really is a good idea. Or maybe it’s because we’re biased to view these matters as a choice between central planning by selfless public servants versus profit mongering by greedy market actors.
That’s a debate we won’t resolve here. But in the spirit of advancing it, I give the last word to Essex County Federation of Agriculture president Larry Verbeke. When interviewed by his local paper, Mr. Verbeke admitted that he knew nothing about the details of the proposal. Still, he pointed out, “any national food policy is a good idea.”
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4. Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Nestle M. "Food lobbies, the food pyramid, and U.S. nutrition policy." Int J Health Serv. 1993;23(3):483-96.
5. Martini E. "Jacques Cartier witnesses a treatment for scurvy." Vesalius. 2002 Jun; 8(1):2-6. Brett J Stubbs. "Captain Cook's beer: the antiscorbutic use of malt and beer in late 18th century sea voyages." Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 12, issue 2, June 2003.
6. National Post Editorial board, "We can't grow everything." National Post, April 28, 2010. William Watson, "Keep the state out of kitchens." National Post, April 28, 2010. The StarPhoenix Editorial board, "Ignatieff failing to grasp reality of prairie farms." The Vancouver Sun, April 27, 2010.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.