The Star, April 27, 2008
National food policy should give priority to local agriculture over globalized agribusiness
by Thomas Axworthy
Our mothers always told us to eat our greens. Today, the injunction should be to eat green.
Eating is many things – a necessity, a pleasure, part of our culture – but it is also an environmental act.
Industrial agriculture, the current structure of the North American food system, is based on low prices to farmers, high usage of chemicals and copious amounts of oil. These factors must be altered if Canada is to have plentiful, safe and nutritious food in the future.
With oil now costing $120 (U.S.) a barrel, we are entering an era of peak oil prices. Gas is approaching the record of $1.26 (Canadian.) a litre in Ontario and many forecast it will reach $1.40 by the summer. This surge in the cost of fossil fuels will have profound impacts in a host of areas, not least in the way we organize our food supply.
Strawberries in December will soon become a luxury few can afford. It takes 35 gallons of oil, or the equivalent of a barrel, to raise a steer to go to market. Twenty per cent of American petroleum is consumed in the producing and moving of food.
Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist for The New York Times, writes that America’s “food chain is powered by fossil fuel.”
Ingeborg Boyens’ book, Another Season’s Promise, makes a similar point about Canadian farming: “The amount of energy required to produce a calorie of food is constantly increasing. At issue is not just the food required to do all the mechanical work on the farm: energy is also needed to manufacture fertilizer and chemicals at the front end of the process and to transport and refrigerate food in the final stages of its delivery to the consumer.”
Peak oil is already turning Canadians away from giant SUVs and towards compact cars. We need a similar turn away from factory farms and towards local food producers.
Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer who has authored more than 40 books imploring North America to re-establish a balance between ecology and agriculture.
He begins with the sober reflection that the “qualities that make humans the most astonishing of all the families of creatures – our intelligence, our ambition, and our power – have made us also by far the destructive of all creatures … ” Agriculture’s mission is to “maintain its people in health, and this applies equally to the people who eat and to the people who produce the food.”
Canada’s current system of agriculture is far from healthy. But not so long ago farming was at least in harmony with nature. Farms used to waste nothing. My grandfather and uncle farmed grain in Saskatchewan but their farm, like their neighbours’, was mixed with lots of animals to graze, provide manure and ultimately food. The sun provided energy to the crops, the animals fed on the grass (what we now call free range) and their waste, in turn, provided nutrients to plow back into the soil.
In contrast we now have mega-mechanical farms requiring huge amounts of capital, chemicals and fossil fuel.
We have not had a national policy to help the family farm since Eugene Whelan was minister of agriculture in the 1970s. Ever since, we have had a policy of industrial farming, consolidation, agribusiness and globalization. But this policy rests on the fatal flaw of cheap energy. That era is over. We must return to a policy of local food through the family farm.
The recent 2006 Statistics Canada Census on Agriculture paints an unhappy picture of the stress that affects farm families. Canadians pay 12 per cent of their national income on food, only half the percentage their parents paid in the 1950s. As food prices have gone up, farmers have not benefited. The census reveals that inflation has gone up 8.6 per cent for farming inputs (machinery, chemicals, etc.) compared to only 1.7 per cent for products sold. In 2006, 37 per cent of the farmers in the census had receipts under $25,000. Not surprisingly, 71 per cent of these farmers did not make enough to cover expenses.
With farmers squeezed by low prices and high costs, half of the farm families had one or both partners working off the farm to make ends meet, though farming is more than a full-time job. As a result, farmers are leaving their profession in droves: in 1991 there were 390,000 Canadians in farming but by 2006 there were only 327,000. In 1991, there were 78,000 young farmers taking over from their parents, in 2006 only 30,000. If the trend continues, who will be left to grow the food?
We need a national food policy that relies on the family farm to produce local supplies.
School boards should purchase food for their lunch programs from local farmers, just as St. Lawrence College in Kingston is doing. Queen’s University should follow this example.
Agriculture Canada should encourage farmers’ markets. Where possible, individual consumers should buy direct from the farmer. Regulations should be eased to accommodate the 100-mile diet.
Most of all we need an alliance between the city and the farm. Earth Day was celebrated last week with marches and park cleanups. A month earlier, Earth Hour saw hundreds of thousands of Torontonians turning off the lights. These are welcome symbols but we need daily action.
One way is to follow Wendell Berry’s advice and “eat responsibly.” When we purchase food we should ask: “Where does it come from? How was it made? What chemicals were used? Methods of slaughter?”
Denmark is experimenting with a barcode that can tell consumers about the history of the produce as well as the price. We need the same here.
Industrial agriculture has brought us mad-cow disease, soil erosion, pollution by toxic chemicals, depletion of aquifers, animal abuse, and long-distance transportation of food stuffs. This model must be transformed into sustainable agriculture.
The local food movement is a start. Every day could be Earth Day if we started to eat responsibly.
Thomas S. Axworthy is chair for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University.