Big Food vs. Canada’s Food Guide

The interests of the food industry don’t always coincide with healthy eating. What’s at stake is Canada’s new Food Guide. It’s a big deal.

image: Globe and Mail

Canada’s Food Guide is widely respected. Seventy-five years after its first launch, it’s the second most requested government document after income-tax forms. It’s distributed to dieticians and doctors for patient advice and to schools and hospitals for creating meal plans. The new guide will be around for a long time, so it’s important to get it right.

Understandably, big food lobbies want the new guide to endorse their products. Even intergovernmental departments disagree on what should be recommended. One agency, Health Canada, wants the new food guide to “shift towards more plant-based foods,” less red meats, and to limit “some meats and many cheeses” high in saturated fats.

Another agency, Agri-food Canada, disagrees. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. Last year, AAFC officials wrote a memo marked “secret” in which they worried:

“Messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries.”

The pressure on Health Canada comes from other food manufacturers as well. Recently, the “Canadian Juice Council” surfaced. Nutritionists had never heard of them before their bright orange booth appeared at the annual conference of the Canadian Nutrition Society. Nutritional biochemist Dylan MacKay said: “I’d never seen or heard of them before and I’ve been going to CNS conferences for years (Globe and Mail, November 23, 2018).”

The origin of the Canadian Juice Council was obscure despite the presence of a web page and a Twitter account (with 2 followers). Food reporter Ann Hui isn’t surprised at the obscurity:

“And no wonder. The Juice Council doesn’t exist in the way you might expect: as an institution disseminating impartial facts and information about juice. Rather, it was created by the lobbying arm of the beverage industry – in a practice known as ‘astroturfing,’ used by lobbyists in all kinds of industries to create the appearance of a grassroots movement and a larger chorus of voices than actually exists.”

Ann Hui found that the Canadian Juice Council was an invention the Canadian Beverage Association whose members include Canada Dry Mott’s, Coca Cola Canada, and PepsiCo Canada. The industry supports 60,000 Canadians workers, 20,000 of those directly.

The Canadian Beverage Association is worried about changes in the Canada Food Guide that would remove the equivalency of whole fruit to juice. The old guide says that a half-cup of juice is a substitute for one portion of fruit.

The new guide, to be released soon, will advise Canadians to avoid drinks high in sugar. One 12-ounce bottle of orange juice contains about the same amount of sugar as 12 ounces of Coke – more sugar than the World Health Organization recommends for the average adult in a single day. Excess sugar consumption is linked with heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The government is in a hard spot –do they support an industry that employs thousands of workers in the making of an unhealthy product or the health of Canadians who consume it?

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When nature gives you tar sands, make carbon fibres

Oil sands crude prices have hit rock bottom. The future could be in the tar -the bitumen. The original name for the deposits, tar sands, should be restored because that’s where their potential value exists.

Image: Mining.com

Extracting oil from tar sands is done at great cost. Huge tracts of land are stripped and the tar sands are dug up or injecting with steam. Once it’s dug up, the thick goo has to be diluted just to get it through pipelines. To turn into useable petroleum, it has to be sent to refineries thousands of kilometres away. Because there aren’t enough pipelines to get it to refineries, and because convention oil is relatively cheap, the extraction of oil from tar sands is not profitable.

Beyond the cost of extracting oil from tar sands, there is the cost to the environment. Because extraction is so energy intensive, more greenhouse gases are produced than from conventional sources. Canada is the fifth largest producer of crude oil in the world but we produce 70 per cent more greenhouse gases per barrel than global averages according to Corporate Knight magazine (Fall, 2018). That higher average is because of the tar sands.

Then there are investment pressures that are moving away from fossil fuels. Europe’s largest asset manager is increasing its “decarbonized portfolios” and so is Canada’s second largest pension fund, Caisse of Québec.

Instead of burning the stuff as fuel, a better plan would be to extract the valuable byproducts of bitumen. An Alberta government agency, Alberta Innovates, is looking to producing derivatives of tar. In their report “Bitumen Beyond Combustion,” they suggest three possibilities.

The most obvious is asphalt for roads. The global market for asphalt is currently at $65 billion and is expected to grow. The tar sands now produce asphalt but the current method of transportation requires that the product be kept very hot for transport. A better way of moving asphalt to market is to turn it into pellets and ship it to markets. An engineer for Stantec engineering who worked on the report says:

“The infrastructure, the rail cars, are out there, the global pull, the pricing mechanisms – people are building roads all over the world everyday.”

Less obvious is the production of carbon fibres. Like any organic compound, bitumen is right for making carbon fibres. The fibres have a wide variety of applications including strong lightweight composite materials used in aircraft, aerospace, and wind industries. They strengthen cement and steel.

When used on their own, they can replace steel in automotive manufacture. If carbon fibres took just one per cent of the global steel market by 2030, that would require 3 million barrels of bitumen a day, one study found.

Another surprising component of tar sands is vanadium used in making batteries and high temperature metals. While one a barrel of bitumen contains only 30 millilitres of vanadium, millions of barrels would produce a lot of the metal.

At the current value of crude oil, it’s not worth mining the tar sands for petroleum. The bitumen, once regarded as a troublesome byproduct, may be the future of the tar sands.

 

Reboot Statscan

Statscan needs to update its operating system and reboot.

They now operate on a paper system in which only 40 per cent of surveys on spending habits are returned. Those that are returned are sometimes incomplete. Respondents sometime forget to include digital purchases such as orders from Amazon, Netflix and Uber.

Return of surveys is critical in determining strategies like benchmark interest rates which are used to calculate Old Age Security and child tax benefits. Spending habits also helps policy-makers. If Canadians are spending a large amount on drugs, for example, governments could decide to create better drug coverage.

Statscan wants to modernize the way in which they collect data through digital records held by banks. In the light of privacy breaches of Facebook and other accounts, Canadians are understandably nervous.

However, Statscan doesn’t want data that we don’t already share with banks. And unlike bank information, the data will be stripped of personal information such as your name, social insurance number, address and postal code.

We should worry more about the personal data that private companies collect. Economics reporter Barrie McKenna says:

“If you’re seriously concerned about letting others see your financial records, shopping habits and internet surfing behaviour, well, that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Just think for a minute what companies such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bell, Facebook, Google, Amazon or the operator of the Highway 407 toll road already know about what you did today, or in the past month. Stitch it all together, and it’s your life in bits and bytes (Globe and Mail, November 4, 2018).”

This hasn’t stopped the federal Conservatives from trying to make hay from Statscan’s plan. They have labelled it “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

Politicization of the gathering of statistics undermines the vital role Statscan plays.

There is nothing Orwellian about it and data is secure. Former assistant chief statistician at Statscan, Michael Wolfson, says:

“Under the legislation, neither the courts, the RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency nor Canadian Security Intelligence Service can access the data. Internally, Statscan has designed its computer systems with all kinds of safeguards, and it is a criminal offence to use the data for any purpose other than statistics.”

The mistake that Statscan made was to assume too much. Canadians need to be consulted about the modernization of data collection that Statscan proposes. The lobby group Openmedia is critical:

“Under our current laws, many important elements that could protect our privacy while still allowing StatCan to carry out its critical work are not in place. This includes transparency – notifying us – and meaningful consent.”

There’s a trade-off of my privacy and what I get in return. I regularly reveal details of my private life every time I use an ATM for cash, log on to Facebook to connect with friends, and buy stuff from Amazon. It’s an exchange that I accept.

All the more reason to reveal my spending habits for the public good: I want my data to be used for something other than trying to sell me something.

Ten years after the Great Recession, nothing’s changed

A decade later, the crisis that threatened to take down the global financial order seems like a bad dream. Now it’s business as usual.

image: Alt-M

In Great Recession, banking institutions creaked and groaned under the weight of flawed investments. Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of a large U.S. investment management firm phoned his wife and asked her to withdraw as much money as she could from an ATM because he feared the banks wouldn’t open the next day. A hedge fund manager sent an email to a journalist during the meltdown saying: “It feels a little like the end of the world.”

But the problems have been fixed, haven’t they?  Yohann Koshy, editor for New Internationalist magazine, is not so sure:

“The world almost did end. And everything stayed the same. Time was borrowed in the form of nationalizations, cash injections and money-printing: space for the financial sector to breathe. But the air is getting thin again (July/August, 2018).”

How we got here.

We went from a stable financial period -one of the longest in centuries- to one designed to fail. The post-war era from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s brought prosperity to everyone: workers and employers alike.

This stable economic period was engineered by the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 in which a system of monetary rules were applied to the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan. A key feature of the agreement was a stable U.S. dollar to which many global currencies were pegged. The value of the dollar was linked to a quantity of gold held at Fort Knox.

“This ‘gold standard’ forced discipline on the financial system: it was much harder for banks to create credit out of thin air,” says Koshy.

Under Bretton Woods, money was tied to the value of gold and economies were tied to the goods they manufactured. The U.S., already tooled to produce military equipment, switched to produce the world’s goods.

The U.S. dollar became so popular as a global currency that not enough dollars could be printed. President Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971.

This ushered in the era of financialization. With the dollar having no tangible value, economies also became more abstract. Wall Street made money from the production of goods in other countries.

A recession was avoided in the 2000s by the lowering of interest rates. Financial institutions were awash in money and they invested it in exotic and dubious things like derivatives, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. And banks gave mortgages to people to buy houses that they couldn’t afford.

As the world staggered towards financial calamity in 2008, governments injected massive amounts of money into banks to cover their bad investments. Bailouts were given to the very perpetrators of the dubious investments. The chair of Goldman Saks announced that the biggest beneficiary was “Wall Street itself.”

Nothing has been fixed. What will happen the next time the system teeters towards calamity? “Whatever the answer,” says Koshy, “the blame must not be laid at the feet of the migrants, workers and the marginalized, but on those enabling, creating and profiting from a rapacious and crisis-prone financial system.”

As the air gets a little thin in the stratospheric world of finance, we can only hope that the wizards of exotic investments remember 2008.

Canada’s Roma

The Romani people of Canada have been met with both fascination and suspicion.

image: from film “Opre Roma: Gypsies in Canada”

For more than a century, Canadians have been fascinated by the colourful bands of “Gypsies” that roamed the country. There was a circus-like feeling when they came to town. Dressed in colourful costumes, women danced, told fortunes, sold herbs, and worked as midwives. Men made and sold copper utensils and furniture. Gypsies must have been  a rare source of entertainment in frontier towns like Kamloops.

Historical entries of the Roma are brief says Professor Cynthia Levine-Rasky, author of Writing the Roma:

“In historical almanacs, most encounters are discussed only fleetingly, such as the report of the “Gypsy show put on in Kamloops in 1898, or in description of visitors who dressed ’like Gypsies,’ or in the numerous sightings of nearby campsites (Canada’s History Magazine, June/July 2018).”

While these Gypsies were never identified as Roma, the nature of their activities closely corresponded with the people. The Roma liked the myth that the name “Gypsy” projected, so it’s understandable.

“Gypsy” obscures the people’s origin. In Europe, the Gypsy label was given to the Roma because they were thought to originate in Egypt. The Roma never identified a homeland. Their origins were further obscured as they took surnames from whatever country they landed in.

We now know that the Roma originated from Northern India in the eleventh century. Their exodus to North Africa and Europe suggests they may have been refugees from the spread of Islam into India.

In Canada, the most common subgroups of Roma came from the United Kingdom, Russia, and Hungary. In some respects, the Roma were like other ethnic group. “Also like other groups, the Roma have been misunderstood or regarded with suspicion,” says Levine-Rasky. “But, unlike with people with other ethnicities, the myth of the Gypsy travelled alongside the Roma wherever they went.”

One attack on the Roma is seared into their historical memory. The Roma settled into a camp near Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, in 1935. Women told fortunes in town and the men, who were skilled mechanics, did odd jobs.

In the middle of the night five drunken miners attacked the camp, intent on raping two Romani girls; Bessie and Millie Demetro.  A reporter wrote: “hardly a member of the band escaped the carnage that followed.” Their father, Frank Demetro, fired a gunshot into the air to scare them off. He was arrested for firing another shot that killed one of the miners. Demetro was taken to hospital to care for his injuries and placed under RCMP guard. Frank’s brother Russel, fearing that Frank would not survive prison because he was diabetic, admitted to the shooting. Russel was tried but acquitted on a plea of self-defence.

Canadian Roma commemorate the event with a song in which Frank appeals to his wife Kezha: “Kezha, de ma ki katrinsa te kosav a rat pa mande (Kezha, give me your apron to wipe the blood from me)”

But don’t look for bands of Gypsies roaming the countryside today.

“When we learn of their historical travails, however, the Gypsy myth is challenged, just as it is when we encounter the Roma in Canada today –a dynamic and pluralistic community numbering about one hundred thousand and encompassing citizens of many faiths, occupations, and statuses,” says Levine-Rasky.

 

Canadians support carbon pricing

Canadians, including business groups, support Trudeau’s proposed carbon-pricing plan announced Tuesday. So why are some politicians opposed? The short answer is politics, although games are being played by both sides.

image: Werner Antweiler

Recent polling from Environics Research shows that nine out of ten Canadians are concerned about climate change. And a majority support carbon pricing except in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Tony Coulson from Environics Research says:

“For many Canadians, it appears their concern about the consequences of climate change is strong enough that they’re willing to bear some cost to help stop it (Globe and Mail October 16, 2108).”

The feds say that they will collect carbon taxes from those provinces that don’t have a carbon-pricing plan and return the money directly to citizens of those provinces. Depending on how little fossils fuels they burn, they could get more back in rebates than they spend on the added carbon tax.

Opposition parties are calling it a vote-buying tactic in time for the next election.

Those opposing carbon pricing include Ontario Premier Ford. During his Alberta visit to bolster Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Ford tweeted:

“I am proud to say that Ontario will stand with Albertans who oppose this unfair and burdensome tax on families and businesses.”

The Ontario Premier has allied himself with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in opposing the federal tax plan. Manitoba also recently cancelled its planned carbon tax.

Carbon taxes are directly on the sources of carbon: 70 per cent of them from burning fossil fuels to heat our homes, generate electricity and for transportation.

Ford claims that carbon taxes take money out of the pockets of taxpayers. Not necessarily. A revenue neutral carbon tax such as the one that B.C. has doesn’t. Sure, we pay more for gasoline but receive an equal reduction in taxes elsewhere. As demonstrated in B.C., carbon pricing reduces greenhouse gases and doesn’t harm the economy.

If Ford wanted to take a conservative approach, it would be our carbon tax. A progressive approach would be to take the carbon taxes and directly invest them into sources of renewable energy.

Canadian businesses also support carbon pricing. The business-backed C.D. Howe Institute has recently come out in favour of carbon-pricing. The institute understands both the necessity and practicality of carbon taxes. C.D. Howe policy analyst Tracy Snoddon says:

“The politics of carbon pricing may have changed but the climate change challenge and Canada’s emissions reduction targets under the Paris agreement have not. The economics are also unchanged – carbon pricing continues to be the most cost-effective option for achieving emissions reductions across the country (Globe and Mail October 18, 2108).”

It’s disappointing to see politicians use the future of our planet as a political football.

Canadians want government action. For the first time in polling history, Canadians say that individual action is not working that governments need to step in.  “A slim majority now feels that voluntary action is not enough to address the challenges we face,” says Coulson.

Canadians are waking up to the fact that individual actions, like changing to energy efficient light bulbs, is not working. Only legislated policies will collectively accomplish what we individually wish for.

 

Canada’s first constitution of 1763

 

More than a century before the confederation of Canada in 1867, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a basis of government in North America. Peter Russell, in his book Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests, calls the proclamation “the formal beginning of Canada’s constitution,” and adds:

King George III. Image: Wikipedia

“Accordingly, the Proclamation called for that essential institution of Anglo-American liberal government: a representative assembly. This plan of government reflected the fact that, in terms of constitutional and representative government, Britain was the most advanced European state of the day. …France was still an absolute, not a constitutional monarchy (p.29)”

It’s odd now to think of England as a model for government now, but at the time a progressive King George III empowered the colonies of North America to form government comprised of citizens empowered to: “make laws for the Public, Peace, Welfare, and good Government.” Colonial courts were set up as well for hearing “all cases, criminal as well as civil, according to Law and Equity, and as near as may be agreeable to the Laws of England.”

The force of the proclamation reverberated through the centuries.

The first shock wave was the revolution of the thirteen colonies of what is now the United States. They were not happy with the lines drawn on the map of North America by the King. Land west of the colonies as far as the Mississippi was assigned to Indigenous peoples. The thirteen colonies saw the proclamation as hemming them in from expansion to the west. Two years after the proclamation, the American Revolution started which led to their independence in 1776.

Treatment of Quebec had a better outcome. With the winds of independence drifting through the colonies, Britain decided to accommodate their new colony of Quebec. Wisely so, since Catholic French-speakers outnumbered the English. In the Quebec Act of 1774, French property and civil law was introduced and French-speaking Catholics held public offices.

Recognition of Indigenous land title took a little longer. Two and one-half centuries later, Canada is finally recognizing Indigenous entitlement laid out in the proclamation. Reactionary Canadian governments ignored the proclamation and proceeded with the subjugation and assimilation of Canada’s first peoples.

As one of the three pillars of the founding of Canada, Indigenous peoples were left out of the British North American Act in 1867. The French and English pillars were there says Russell:

“One of the first challenges for the infant Canadian federation was its relations with the absent pillar, the Indigenous peoples (p.163).”

Two centuries after the proclamation, patient Indigenous leaders reminded us of their exclusion. George Manual was one of those who rallied against the failed colonization of his people. As former chief of the Neskonlith band of the Shuswap nation and participant of the residential school in Kamloops, he collaborated with Michael Posluns in writing The Fourth World: An Indian Reality in 1974.

In a landmark court decision, against the wishes of the Province of B.C., the court ruled that Nisga’a territory had never been extinguished. We live on unceded Indigenous land in most of B.C.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is referred to in section 25 of our Constitution Act of 1982. And on the 250th anniversary of the proclamation in 2013 was celebrated in Ottawa with a meeting of Indian leaders and Governor-General David Johnston.

Now we’re getting somewhere.