The first food guide in Canada came out in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. The food guide was more of a tool to showcase Canadian agriculture and stimulate the rural economy. And why not? Our farmers needed the support and food sovereignty at the time had a different meaning. The initial guide had six food groups, instead of four.
However, not much else has changed since 1942. Other than merging fruits with vegetables, and eggs with meat products, and notwithstanding the addition of some nice colours and a few illustrations, the food guide we have today is quite similar to the original one from decades ago.
While Canada has idled in updating its food guide, other countries have made significant progress. The United States systematically revises its food pyramid every five years. In Canada, our current food guide is already more than 12 years old. Revision cycles are longer, and changes over time have been modest at best.
But it appears Canada now intends to catch up to the rest of the world. Things have changed since 1942. Canadian agriculture is much more diverse, and much more trade focused. Food demand in Canada is more fragmented than ever and different lifestyles and values affect food choices. Our modern lifestyle is slowly destroying the “three meals a day” institution as we know it.
A new approach will likely challenge entrenched conventions that have been protected and institutionalized for decades. If Health Canada goes ahead with the rumoured changes, proteins are certainly one area which will see significant shifts over time. Dairy is likely the one sector which will be affected the most.
Dairy is represented by what most consider to be the most influential lobby group in Canadian Agriculture, perhaps even in our entire economy. The group spends more than $80 million every year to encourage Canadians to drink milk and eat more dairy products. That’s almost $3 for every Canadian. The current food guide gives dairy a vital place in our diet, at four servings a day. Supported by our supply management scheme for decades, dairy farmers have relied on long-standing, policy-driven support to make a living, from milk served in schools to seeing dairy products promoted at different key events across the country. Everything made sense as the synchronicity between trade and domestic food policies was flawless.
But with three new trade deals which have opened our market to more dairy products coming from abroad, a new food guide without a dairy category or a prescribed number of servings is the last thing the Canadian dairy sector wants. On the other hand, it is exactly what Canadians need, and more than ever. Nutritional security seems to be the new focus, and all Canadians deserve a food guide that can help them better understand how to lead healthier lives. Obesity, especially among children, is at unacceptable levels in Canada. As well, food security remains a lingering issue influencing our nutritional choices, even in 2019. Welcome additions to the new guide encourage Canadians to value nutrition, to drink water, to consider where and how we eat and with whom. Just setting standards on portions and food products is fruitless.
Regardless of what happens next, dairy farmers, while producing a high-quality product for Canadians, will need to accept that their commodity is now part of a much larger portfolio of good, natural food ingredients. Milk and dairy products will coexist with several other commodity groups which deserve as much attention, if not more.