Researcher aims to prevent food fights by promoting national food policy


Although food is a public resource, there is no effective and joined-up national policy to guide it, says Roderick MacRae, which is an issue that should be addressed.

By Elaine Smith

MacRae, an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, says it’s a large and complex issue that deserves a comprehensive solution, and he’s working to help things along.

Rod MacRae
Roderick MacRae

“When decision-makers look at governance, food is almost never top of mind,” MacRae says. “The British North America Act of 1867 gets in the way of an effective national policy and there is no concept of a national food system and ancillary issues. The responsibility for food system elements is so dispersed both vertically and horizontally that it’s the policy equivalent of trying to herd cats.”

Canada did have a national food policy during the Second World War, based on the realization that “if the government didn’t fully engage, there would be shortages and mass inflation,” MacRae says. “They intervened and it largely worked. However, afterward, the government assumed that the market would reassert itself and they removed most of the instruments. However, the marketplace never worked.”

Finally, in 2019, the federal government announced a national policy that MacRae calls “good on principles but weak on implementation.” He is determined to provide the tools to make implementation possible through his website Food Policy for Canada. The site, an ongoing project, is designed as a hands-on guide to making change at various levels of government that is both easily accessible and allows readers to consider various levels of detail according to their needs. It is based on a normative research approach, exploring “what could be” rather than what currently exists.

“The site can lead you to where the decisions are being made on a particular aspect of food policy and show you how to design an advocacy campaign,” he says.

MacRae believes that there are some issues that are fundamental to ensuring that our food system works better for everyone. One is management of resources, looking at the land and how we farm, giving consideration to greenhouse gases, water pollution and biodiversity loss.

“We know how to farm better, we’re just not doing it,” MacRae says.

grocery store aisle
We have a publicly funded health care system that is responsible when people eat poorly or food is too expensive for people to make healthy food choices

Another is diversification of control over food system resources, given that “all the economic control of the system is vested in a small number of powerful actors.” Finally, governments don’t believe they really have a role, other than advice, in shaping how people eat, MacRae says, but we have a publicly funded health care system that is responsible when people eat poorly or food is too expensive for people to make healthy food choices.

“Supply and demand should be part of a co-ordinated system that aligns production with what we need to optimize our health,” MacRae says. “This also touches on the overhaul of social assistance, because we need to ensure that people have the income to afford a nourishing diet.”

Understanding the system isn’t easy, let alone changing it, but his website offers aid to anyone motivated to participate in food system change, providing goals, solutions and various instruments to bring about a better system, such as legislation, regulation, subsidies and international agreements.

It’s an effort that can yield worthwhile results. As MacRae notes, “I want a food secure country.”