Give Peas a Chance

By: Angela Lee

Whether you’re splurging on avocado toast or simply struggling to get enough nutritious food to eat, the bottom line is that what you eat, where it comes from, and how it was produced all matter. As it is becoming increasingly apparent, food is not just a private concern, but rather, has wide-ranging public consequences. Purchasing patterns and market trends are promising signs that people are becoming more aware of the environmental, social, and ethical implications of their food choices, but in light of an ever-expanding population, small-scale voluntarism is clearly not enough. Accordingly, governments and policymakers have a significant role to play in terms of offering the right incentives and disincentives to promote, incentivize, and facilitate more sustainable food production and consumption practices.

Until recently, there has been little by way of systemic efforts at addressing the various and vexing issues related to food production and consumption in Canada. However, in the past year or two, the federal government has launched several initiatives in this respect, with the pinnacle being the National Food Policy led by the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food. This policy, the first of its kind in Canada, will unquestioningly chart the trajectory of agri-food policy for years to come, by setting both a long-term vision for the health, environmental, social, and economic goals related to food, while also identifying actions we can take in the short-term.

Organizations like Food Secure Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have long advocated for a National Food Policy, but some remain skeptical of whether such an initiative can live up to its promise. After all, the swath of concerns related to food along every node of the chain – from production through to consumption – are innumerable, and affect each and every Canadian, the privileged and the marginalized both.

Indeed, there are good reasons for skepticism. Barriers to meaningful reform in the agri-food sector have been identified for years now. When it comes to promoting shifts towards more sustainable diets, harmonization needs to occur horizontally as well as vertically in order to ensure coherence among agriculture, health, water, environmental, and trade policies. Yet, fragmentation is still evident today. For example, the recent revision process for Canada’s Food Guide, led by Health Canada, leaves out any considerations about the sustainability of our food choices – a conspicuous absence, given that diets with low environmental impacts are also generally better for our health.

Unfortunately, balancing the priorities and interests of a large and often-divergent group of stakeholders is inherently challenging. However, in a situation that can sometimes seem bleak, the more compelling narrative is one that focuses explicitly on what can be gained by alternative outlooks and approaches. Despite being a challenge to the status quo (arguably, a necessary one), the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives to animal products presents several different kinds of opportunities for Canada.

Though sometimes maligned for ideological reasons, plant-based diets offer compelling advantages. The climate change mitigation potential alone presents a strong case for shifting away from animal products, if one is not persuaded by the health risks and ethical concerns posed by industrial animal agriculture. Further, the sophisticated simulacrums of animal products that are available today are a far cry from the bland veggie burgers and thin plant milks of times past. Embracing plant-based alternatives– if not as outright replacements for traditional animal products, then at least as occasional or supplementary options – can take us one step closer towards addressing the unprecedented global challenges we face today.

Plant-based protein is a key component of many of the alternative products entering the market, and the mounting demand for these kinds of products presents a unique economic opportunity for the Canadian agricultural sector. Canada is a leading producer of pulses—a notably high-protein food group. According to Pulse Canada, “Canadian production of the eight major pulse and special crops (pea, lentil, bean, chickpea, mustard, sunflower, canary seed and buckwheat) increased from about 1 million tonnes in the early 1990s to 5.9 million tonnes in 2015, more than a fivefold increase in 25 years.” By capitalizing on this niche, the Canadian agricultural sector can benefit from this thriving market while concurrently supporting the development of sustainable products from an environmental and human health perspective.

As public consultations get underway for the National Food Policy, it is important that Canadians reflect on the four themes that the federal government has identified as priority issues: increasing access to affordable food; improving health and food safety; conserving our soil, water, and air; and, growing more high-quality food. When supported by thoughtfully designed policies, local, sustainably grown, plant-based food choices can promote each of these goals, while also being delicious, varied, and nourishing. By giving peas a chance, we can challenge unsustainable, unhealthy, unjust, and unethical modes of food production and consumption, while also advancing flexible, realistic, and successful methods and modes of creating change.