By Paula Cassidy
An event took place that has fundamentally changed me - and I would be failing as a local voice if I did not pass this on to my rural readers. Unbeknownst to many, an assembly of eaters, farmers, charity members, local politicians, organizations, corporations, small businesses, young, old, beautifully eccentric and delightfully conservative - all convened at the St. Lawrence College in Kingston for a Food Summit. This event was put on by a National Farmers Union Local 316 initiative, Food Down the Road a Kingston and countryside program that promotes and educates toward a sustainable local food system. This was a meeting about food sovereignty. This was a meeting about so much more than just food.
Food was, at one point in time, an essential part of living - and absolutely never taken for granted. Regardless of your denomination or cultural differences, the breaking of bread was usually met with some form of prayer or thankful ceremony. Food was to be celebrated. And now we live in a country that places their first priorities on paying rent, paying cable, making the car payment, paying cell phone bills and buying cheap imported food with whatever they have left over. That is if you have anything left over - and for many, the reality becomes prolonged reliance on food banks and charities to fill the nutritive gap. Fast and convenient food has become the alternative answer to a majority - and our dependence on high mile import foods has seriously distorted our historically Canadian expectations - we now demand fresh strawberries in February and boo the produce manager when they are not in the cooler on shopping day.
When 9/11 hit, the city of New York had a three day supply of food. If the trucks, trains and computers went down - well, so went their access to food. Our entire food system has become based primarily on diesel fuel - and with cheap fossil fuel energy coming to a fateful and very definitive end - we must have enough foresight to begin our much needed transition into re-birthing the philosophy of sustainable and seasonal eating habits. I say 're-birth', because this concept of organic local farming is not a new idea. The 1920s originally birthed this value based system of traditional farming to provide alternatives for people to isolate themselves from the damaging effects of industrialization. Sustainability was the original vision of the 1920s, and so, here we find ourselves once again!
Farmers know many of the disturbing facts. But to our eaters - are you aware that family farms are disappearing? That the wealth produced by family farms is being captured by large agribusiness corporations? Small farmers not only have to depend largely on off-farm income to survive, but there are farmers in our country that are using the food bank? Off-shore food is displacing our own Canadian food production and current border inspection protocols allow a significant percentage of imported food products to enter the country without inspection? That misleading labels often fool consumers into thinking they are buying a Canadian product, when in fact it may contain only a small percentage of Canadian ingredients, with the balance coming from off-shore suppliers? That there is a war going on over seeds and most of us are completely clueless about the severity of this issue? A new concept of Terminator Seeds - or Suicide Seeds that have been genetically modified to produce sterile seeds, insures that farmers and growers never get to keep and grow from their own seed base, but are forced to purchase new seeds from huge seed companies every year - an exasperating method of corporate control. And that the average age of a farmer today is 53? We are losing our generational farmers. We are losing the producers of our local food and we are placing our reliance on imports to save a few bucks each week on our grocery bill. We are not just talking about the control of our food; we are talking about the safeguarding of our local communities, our families, and our children.
Depressing? No, not particularly, because in my shiny universe I choose to see my cup as half full. Problems allow for opportunities of improvement - and that is what the Food Summit was about. Opportunities to make a positive change. What can we do?
1 - Become a thoughtful-eater and learn to appreciate the value of quality food.
2 - Support smaller scale purveyors of food - buy locally and keep your food dollars in our local community as much as possible. Have a vested interest in the food that lands on your plate. Support just and fair food trade. The last time I checked, we weren't growing coffee in Canada! But at least support local businesses that bring fair trade tea, coffee or chocolate into your community.
3 - Reduce the food miles travelled - ask questions at your grocery store/food shops and make polite requests for more local food support. Make attempts to know the name of the farmer that brought your food from the field to your plate.
4 - Use education to change your world - read, listen, learn, pay attention, question.
5 - Remember that 'fear' tends to immobilize we Canadians - and as much as we need to know and understand the sometimes scary facts about a situation - it is more important that we focus our attention on cooperative solutions.
6 - Mentors! We need mentors! We need our old time farmers to pass on their
inexhaustible wisdoms of the land to our next batch of growers and producers. Our predecessors need to know that their shared knowledge and
input provides vital lay lines for our future.
7 - Grow something, Anyone. Just grow it. Grow vegetables on your balcony. Fill up your hundred-acre field. Whatever the scale, just grow something. (please note: I am referring to edible items that fit in the food groups, not products that would irritate the long arm of the RCMP)
8 - Farmers, Both old and new: Seek out alternative methods to live your farming lifestyle. Learn about Local Cooperative Food Distribution; check out concepts in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and support local Farmers Markets and organic growing systems. Don't wait for the government because they will always be way, way behind. We need to band up together to develop our own initiatives. We need to keep our farming passions alive by embracing the idea of cooperating with one another; setting aside our personal agendas to adopt a new set of traditional farming values that become our fundamental motivations. We need to readjust any preconceived ideas that this will happen overnight, but done with genuine sincerity and collectivism - we will insure a bright, sustainable future in farming. We need to impart a positive outlook on agriculture to the next generation - kids need to hear our passion for growing and tending to livestock - they need to see that we are unwilling to throw in the towel; that we will fight for our farming futures and for the future of our food.
9 - Loosen the grip that consumerism has taken on our psyches. Change your expectations. Evaluate your priorities and make the necessary adjustments.
10 - Vote with your fork. Remember: we are all eaters and we will always need food. We need people in power that are awake, that care about food and that genuinely want to safeguard the health and welfare of our small communities. We need to place our money and memberships with the organizations that actually hear the voice of the grassroots - and that facilitate opportunities of empowerment.
We are all local heroes that - as a collective - have the ability to change our future. Although it is nice to have very visual champions like Al Gore and David Suzuki to spark a national flame - the onus is on us - the real people on the real front lines. The ones without personal jets or TV shows - just dirt in our fingernails, manure in our treads and a chunk of locally grown organic basil stuck in our teeth.
I came away from the Food Summit with an excitement that is unstoppable. I do hope that I have ignited a renewed passion in you - both farmer and eater, to go beyond this page and take the next sustainable step. Thank you for indulging me with your open minds. Cheers, courage and light to you all! Contact Paula Cassidy at pcassidy000sympatico.ca or write Paula at 1307 Old Hungerford Rd R1 Thomasburg, K0K 3H0.
Paula Cassidy is a writer, who farms near Tweed with her husband and young children.