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Cherry blossoms

Ornamental cherry blossoms, a sure sign of springtime

Michael Ableman is a farmer and food activist based on Salt Spring Island, so he’s like a neighbour to us folks here on the Sunshine Coast. His farm is called Foxglove Farm, and Ableman is creating an educational centre there. From the website:

The Center for Art, Ecology & Agriculture was established to demonstrate and interpret the vital connections between farming, land stewardship, food, the arts, and community well being; to model the economic possibilities for small and medium scale sustainable agricultural and forestry projects, and to nurture the human spirit through public programs, classes, and events.

For a really wonderful introduction to Michael Ableman’s thoughts on food, agriculture, urban farming, and the need to inspire many more people to take up food production, tune in to this recent issue of Deconstructing Dinner, the weekly radio show out of the Kootenays. I found it very inspiring. I particularly liked Ableman’s policy recommendations (starting at the 23 min. 50 sec. mark):

  • Every urban area should have an urban agricultural centre, offering practical assistance in urban food production and support for making these activities economically viable;
    • These centres should support urban agriculture on all scales, from containers to rooftops to acreages, with a particular focus on fundamental sources of protein and carbohydrates (i.e., grains, beans, eggs, dairy);
  • Urban areas should have agricultural extension agents on their staffs offering workshops, classes, and on-site technical support and help in agricultural marketing;
  • Organic waste should be returned to farms via large-scale composting operations;
  • All permits for new housing developments should require that space be set aside for food production;
  • All new office, retail, and warehouse projects must contain a rooftop farming component, with greenhouses that use the building’s spent heat;
  • All municipalities should immediately phase out lawns (this suggestion got a big round of applause from Ableman’s audience);
  • All existing schools, churches, and sports facilities should provide cooperative neighbourhood canning, freezing, and dehydration services to the community;
  • All real estate transactions should include a 1% farmland preservation tax and the lands preserved should be put under covenants which protect their status as agricultural land;
  • Municipalities should offer property tax credits for landowners who turn their property over to long-term food-growing initiatives.

These all strike me as pretty sensible proposals. But we’re not yet at the point where these ideas will get much political traction. Nonetheless, we need to start engaging with local politics as much as we can to look for opportunities to promote the idea of greater self-reliance and resilience in the region. Every town, city, and region should be thinking about how to support its population as times become tougher.

So does anyone want to start a working group to develop a local food policy charter?

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is one of the most inspiring thinkers and speakers on the subject of food sovereignty, which refers to the right of all people to control their sources of food according to their own social, cultural, and political needs and not according to the requirements of transnational corporations.

This article, an excerpt from Shiva’s 2008 book Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, is a great introduction to her thought. The core of it is in this paragraph:

We need an alternative. Biodiverse, organic farms and localized food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity, while producing more food, producing better food, and creating more livelihoods. The industrialized, globalized food system is based on oil; biodiverse, organic, and local food systems are based on living soil. The industrialized system is based on creating waste and pollution; a living agriculture is based on no waste. The industrialized system is based on monocultures; sustainable systems are based on diversity.

And if you just can’t get enough of Vandana Shiva, here is a talk she gave back in March of 2007, titled “Defending Food Freedom in a Period of Food Fascism”. Unfortunately, the links to the video files appear to be broken, but there is a working link to the audio.

On January 23, 2009, Liberal Members of Parliament across Canada hosted community meetings to discuss the need for a comprehensive food policy for Canada. The following statement was read to launch the nation-wide roundtable broadcast on the net.

Why Canada Needs a Food Policy, by Wayne Roberts

Thanks to Members of Parliament Dr. Carolyn Bennett and Wayne Easter for their initiative in launching this much-needed public discussion. It’s my belief that a comprehensive food policy will contribute to an epochal improvement in government services for human and environmental well-being, and that it will come to be regarded as this generation’s gift to the future, much as Canadian medicare came to be the legacy of the last generation of politics.

For those Canadians who suffer from Obama-envy this week, it’s worth noting that a comprehensive food policy is an idea that Canada can provide world leadership for, and a key to such notable international goals as eliminating hunger, reducing obesity and protecting the climate and the environment generally. The idea is so good and will extend so many benefits to so many people that I look forward to it becoming a project that all political parties join cause in, whatever their differences.

Because food touches so many aspects of our lives in so many ways, a government that does not have a comprehensive food policy cannot, by definition, have a comprehensive health policy, energy policy, job creation policy, environment policy, global warming policy, anti-poverty policy, immigration and settlement policy, trade policy, industrial policy or – last but not least – agricultural policy. When food is torn apart, with bits stored in silos of health, energy, environment, immigration, trade and agriculture departments, it becomes like the patient who is treated by doctors as a liver, pancreas, heart, spine, ear, nose and throat, not a whole person. No patient responds well to this medical treatment, and no dynamic element of life responds well to this political treatment.

It’s been said that our problems with healthcare and food begin with the fact that the people in charge of food know and care little about health, while the people in charge of healthcare know and care little about food.  When two of Canada’s major food groups are donuts and pop, and when our medical system is overburdened with alarming rates of heart disease and diabetes, the way we keep food and health in different sectors of the economy is no longer economical and the way we divide government responsibility is no longer politic.  While various governments around the world flail their arms with various efforts to protect the climate from global warming, even the justly-praised Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fails to identify food as an area for corrective action, and we all miss the opportunity to deal with a food sector that is responsible for a third of global warming emissions, most of which can be reduced while also reducing world poverty and disease and improving farm incomes.  While various governments around the world work at stimulating the economy and job creation, and almost none of them look at food and agriculture, the traditional sectors relied on to generate the multiplier effect; this just shows how thinking inside the box has gone to ridiculous lengths.

A comprehensive food Policy will have a Plan to link all the People involved with food (from producers to consumers), all the Places where food is acted on (from homes to workplace cafeterias), all the Purposes that food serves (from communion with traditions and spiritualities to community development and personal health) and all the Parts that bring us food (from Agriculture departments to hospital cafeterias) so these elements can be connected and synchronized to optimize the multiple positive public outcomes of food.

In the absence of a comprehensive and rational food policy, Canadians suffer needlessly from four problems.  There is no good reason why these problems persist.  As many as ten per cent of the people of Canada, including a disproportionate number of children, cannot afford nutritious foods throughout the year, and have to throw themselves on the mercy of food charities or do without – this in a land where farmers produce more than enough food for all to eat, and where we spend billions more managing food waste than on under-nutrition of kids from low-income families.  Second, obesity, particularly childhood obesity, means many will live shorter and more painful lives than their parents; we can prevent this problem for far less money than we will spend on medical care for the diabetes and heart disease and related problems that flow inevitably from obesity.  Canada can, for instance, join other industrially advanced countries in providing national school lunch programs featuring nutritious, local and sustainably produced foods that introduce youth to the basics of healthy, balanced and delicious meals.

Third, at a time when the world faces likely food shortages as a result of challenges likely to be imposed by global warming, we are losing our best farm lands and young people are refusing to enter careers in food production that guarantee only poverty-level wages.  Though many want to do something positive for farmers and for global warming, we are missing the opportunity of paying farmers a fee to become stewards of clean air and water, beginning with incentives to reduce their own energy use and fees to store more carbon in their soil.

How exactly a comprehensive plan will look is a matter for serious deliberation and dialogue.  What’s so important about today is that the efforts to develop such a plan have now been joined, and we can at last start to turn the mess of disjointed food policies into the productive problem-solving of a comprehensive food policy.

Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.