Archive for the ‘Food Issues’ Category

Why is growing our own food so important?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Someone once said that you could solve 95% of the world’s problems if you addressed the issues surrounding food.  As I thought about this statement, I began to see all of the aspects of our life that food touches.  I thought about greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation and pollution, waste issues, obesity, stress, degenerative diseases, poverty and loss of access to land and water in developing countries, genetically modified organisms, corporate control  – the list just kept on getting bigger.  The ways in which we set up our systems of food production governs much of the way that our society, and the societies that we trade with, function.  So, it would follow that if we changed our relationship with food, we could begin to reshape our society and address the problems that we face.

A century ago, almost everyone knew how to grow something, growing food and harvesting and storing it were very much part of day to day life and therefore part of a person’s education.  Often the academic year was arranged around the growing season, to allow children to help with the work on the farm.  Food was relatively simple, unprocessed and unpackaged.  But food production has become big business and today fewer and fewer people are actually involved in the whole process.  This has led to several generations of people who have very little understanding of their relationship to food or to the land that grows it.  I also believe it has led to a host of very poor environmental decisions that are beginning to have real consequences.

As an organic market gardener, one of my first real lessons in understanding consequences came when I was faced with an outbreak of cucumber beetles.  These tiny beetles are very fast and hard to catch, and they can easily destroy young cucumber plants.  I remember going to the local farm co-op store and looking at the remedies – this was before they had organic insecticides.  I read the labels, looked at the price (very high), and actually bought a container of something and brought it home.  Then I went out into the garden and as I worked I thought about the chemical, about the whole physical action of putting it on my cucumber plants, and then finally about harvesting those cucumbers and feeding them to my family.  I realized that the chemical insecticide was just not an option.  I think we lost most of that cucumber crop, but there were lots of other things to eat, and the next year we paid far more attention to the growing conditions for cucumbers.

Growing one’s own food also brings up many questions concerning value.  Science, technology, and industry have replaced so much of what was once an inherent part of human existence with artificial alternatives.  Why would anyone grow a head of lettuce when it can be bought for 60 cents at the grocery store?  Having grown my own food for 25 years now, I would ask why anyone would want to forego the experience of harvesting and eating something they have grown themselves for something that has no connection to their own life.  Taste and quality are definitely superior, but more than that, it is the satisfaction and the richness that gardening brings to my life that cannot be replaced.  In harvesting my own food year after year, I feel the sun, the wind, the soil.  I also feel deeply grateful for all that the earth has provided.  Somewhere along the way I have made a big shift from thinking that I grew my own food to realizing that what I am doing is caring for this miracle that is the soil and in doing so, am blessed with abundance.  For me, this is a way of knowing and of being in the world that comes only through thoughtful and mindful work in nature.  I also believe that it is the foundation for the kind of earth centered philosophy that we need so badly if we are to preserve this planet for future generations.

Wrapping up the year

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

I haven’t felt that there has been much for me to write about in the last few months – my apologies.  My planting for the year is finished and I have been trying to make what produce  is left in the garden survive as long as possible.  It is surprising how long one can harvest food from a garden, especially if the fall is reasonably mild.

Winter hit southern Ontario on Tuesday, December 8th.  Up until that time we had had many frosts but nothing drastic and no snow.  In my garden I managed to prolong the harvest of beets, green onions, spinach, kale, swiss chard, parsley and salad greens.  I served my last spinach salad yesterday, December 9 to friends.  This year I have covered the spinach with a thick layer of straw and I am hoping that much of it will survive the winter and grow again in the spring.  Over wintering of vegetables is really worth trying to do, as it means there are full sized salad leaves for the picking by late April.  If this snow melts soon, I may be able to cut the last of my salad greens and have a few more salads.  Nevertheless, salad from the garden in the first week of December is very impressive and really does show that we have potential to do so much.

For the most part I am beginning to eat from my cold room.  I stocked that in early November with 2 bushels of potatoes, 2 bushels of carrots, 6 large cabbage, 8 turnips, 2 bushels of onions, 1/2 bushel of leeks, 1/2 bushel of parsnips, 1/2 bushel of beets, and about 3 dozen garlic bulbs.  It is amazing how well this all stores, even though there is nothing fancy about my little cold space.  It is located in an unfinished basement, insulated from the rest of the room and at the end furthest away from the furnace.  I make a trip to a local organic farmer and buy all of these vegetables at once – my Honda Civic  struggles under the weight but we manage.  I find that leeks and beets do not keep as well as my other vegetables so I work at eating these first.  The rest really do well into late March and often into April and May.  I store my carrots in damp sand and have often had wonderfully crisp and sweet carrots in late May and early June.  Sometimes I wonder why such simple solutions have been forgotten.

In an email newsletter entitled Good Food Nation I see that MIT researchers think that America’s obesity epidemic can be reversed via ‘foodsheds’.  Essentially this means that we should eat food that is grown within a certain distance of our home.  By doing this we would find that our diets would change from processed and packaged foods to foods that are healthier and also more affordable.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 90% of American foods are processed.  Eating food that is locally grown and comes to us through farmers markets and local stores, would in essence mean a shift to far more fruit and vegetables, and a shift away from sending those fruit and vegetables elsewhere for processing.  Sounds like a good idea.

Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemna has voiced support for the idea of building regional foodsheds.  By creating a regional system of food distribution, transportation costs can be reduced, making nutritious foods cheaper.  Studies show that locally grown fruit and vegetables travel an average of 56 miles, while imported fruits and vegetables travel an average of 1500 miles.  In this issue, it never seems to fail that an analysis of the numbers reveals some pretty shocking information.   Pollan also lends his support to the idea of individuals growing some of their own food in their own gardens, noting that the Victory Gardens of World War II supplied over 40% of U.S. fruit and vegetables.  This is quite significant and hopefully all of you that are reading this blog will be thinking about their gardening plans for next year!  Send away for some seed catalogues – I recommend William Dam and Johnny’s among the larger companies as well as many of the small, organic seed companies that have sprung up over the last few decades.  Just google ‘organic seed companies’ and your area and see where the search takes you.

Creating a Local Food Supply

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Despite growing consumer awareness and increased support for local foods, there are many obstacles that must be overcome if we are to create a  vibrant and sustainable local agricultural economy.  Canadians import 53% of their vegetables and some 90% of their fruit.  Food production is steadily shrinking as prime agricultural land is developed and paved over.  In the past 15 years, the Canadian population has grown by some 15% while food imports have increased by 160%.  Ontario alone imports four billions dollars more in food than it exports.

Many of the problems lie with both government regulations and with the larger food suppliers.  What are the chances of finding a local strawberry in a major supermarket in June?  As often as not, they are still coming from the U.S.  In the U.K. this year, hundreds of tons of plums were left to rot on trees because farmers could not find a market for their fruit.  Despite a bumper crop of local plums, most supermarkets allocate only about 20% of their shelf space to British plums, the rest goes to foreign imports.  Only two of the larger British chains, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, responded to the problem by making space for British plums.  Others cited an unpredictable British supply as reasoning for their reliance on imported plums.

Poorly thought out government regulations are also a big barrier in the fight to increase local food production. In Quebec, small scale poultry and egg producers have been banned from selling any products that have been raised out of doors.  This is reportedly due to worries about avian flu, despite the fact that the disease occurs primarily in industrial farms.  In British Columbia, new regulations require that all meat sold directly to the public must be slaughtered in a provincially or federally inspected abbatoire.  This policy affects small farmers who have traditionally slaughtered on their own farms and though it may be appropriate for large scale operations it is questionable wether it is necessary for small producers.  In Ontario, government regulations have resulted in the closing of hundreds of small local abbatoires that traditionally served small farmers.  Instead we have only a handful of federally inspected abbatoires that create both problems of distance and scale of supply for the farmer that produces one or two dozen pigs a year for market.  Most Ontario supermarkets will only sell meat from federally inspected abbatoires, resulting in conditions where it is almost impossible to buy local meat.

So what kind of food systems and policies are needed in order to support small and mid-sized farms?  Must we completely rethink our ways of selling and buying food.  Not all of us can grow our own food or purchase directly from local farmers.  There are many innovative ideas that can increase the availability of local foods.  Farmers cooperatives, such as the Quinte Organic Farmers Cooperative are examples of farmers working together to pool their production and marketing efforts.  Mobile delivery services are another way in which producers can effectively reach consumers through a better system of distribution.  In the U.K., Riverford Organics delivers fruits and vegetables directly to over 100,000 customers, with 80% of their produce coming from small to mid sized farms.   Another very positive sign comes from the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International which recently  resisted pressure from large buyers such as Starbucks and decided that certified ‘fair trade’ coffee would only come from small scale operations.  All of these are very positive initiatives, however, one cannot ignore the need for supportive government policy if our food systems are going to change significantly.

A Vision for local agriculture

Friday, September 18th, 2009

As the gardening season draws to a close, it is sometimes good to reflect on why all of this growing and eating seasonally is so important.  There are the obvious benefits of taste, quality of food, and true enjoyment of the whole process.  But as we become more aware of the effects of our food system on the world around us, I believe we have to look at issues of environmental degradation and pollution.

Modern agriculture is very heavily dependent on oil and as such, contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.  It is estimated that in the past 50 years, the amount of oil used in agriculture has increased 80 times, while yields have only increased four times.  A 2oo1 British study done by PowerSwitch UK estimates that the average British family of four is responsible for about eight tonnes of CO2 emission through the food that they eat in a year, while this same family only emits about four tonnes of CO2 through the car that they drive in that year.  Similarly, an American study shows that the average person consumes 10 barrels of oil per year through the food that they eat, 9 barrels per year through the car that they drive, and 7 barrels per year for household consumption.

Oil is used in agriculture for many things – the production of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, mechanical cultivation, irrigation, processing, packaging, storage, and distribution.  By far the biggest consumption of oil occurs in the refrigerated transport of fruits and vegetables, by both plane and truck.  To give an example, it is estimated that it takes 127 calories of energy to fly one calorie of lettuce from the U.S. to Britain.  Changing one’s diet to include a high percentage of local and seasonal foods can go a long way to making a real difference when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we want to imagine what a truly l0cal agricultural economy would look like, we can look to Cuba for inspiration.  A 2006 video entitled ‘The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’ (produced by Faith Morgan, Pat Murphy and Megan Quinn Bachman and available through New Society Publishers) gives some very powerful images of a society transformed.  Before 1990, Cuba exported 80% of its agricultural outputs – primarily sugar cane and tobacco – and imported 80% of the food it consumed.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuba lost access to oil imports, export markets, and capital.  Today Cuba produces 80% of the food that it consumes, farmers are among the highest paid workers, and the Cuban diet has changed to include a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Throughout the country every inch of vacant land has been turned into gardens, producing both food and cooling shade.  Cubans consume only 1/10th of the energy that North Americans do and they are the only country to come even close to meeting the World Wildlife Fund’s targets for sustainable living and development.   Today Cuba’s largest export is ideas, and people come from around the world to learn what can be done.

Food Choices and Food Dollars

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Many of us become interested in growing some of our own vegetables out of a desire to eat food that is both fresh and organic.  If I were to purchase only organic vegetables for my family, I think I would be looking at a very hefty grocery bill.   Without my garden, those beautiful summer salads that we enjoy almost every day would not only be expensive, but would also involve either a drive to the Farmer’s Market in Kingston or a trip to the local grocery store for imported greens that are almost always grossly overpackaged.  With my garden, my vegetable food choices always seem to be easy to make.

But when I look around me as I walk down the aisle of a grocery store, I know that in many ways food choices have not changed much in the past 20 some years.  Kingston still only has a small percentage of health food stores or local and independent groceries.  Local, organic, minimally packaged food is a drop in the commercial food bucket.  As much as many of us would like to see a revolution in food and agriculture, things often appears to be getting worse, and not better.  One must also take a look at government policy if one wants to truly understand the make-up of our food choices.

I think it is very important that we understand the way in which government policy affects the availability and cost of the foods that we buy.  When one talks about buying and eating locally, one must decide what products one wants to focus on finding a local source for.  In my experience this can include vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat, honey, maple syrup, some dairy, and a very limited amount of grains and legumes.  For me, almost all of it is purchased outside of the grocery store, from local farmers, small butchers, a small cheese factory, and one small independent food store.  I see very few local products at Loblaws or Foodland.  Buying policies and government regulations affecting processing facilities make it almost impossible to sell local foods to big stores.  If we look at meat, most large groceries will only buy from federally inspected abbattoirs.  There are fewer and fewer small, provincially inspected abbattoirs in Ontario that process local meats and the regulations for a federally inspected abbattoir are so costly that these facilities must be large in order to be economic.  Similarly, new rules affecting cheese factories will probably spell the end of what few local ones remain in Ontario.

If we go one step further and look at agricultural policy, the picture gets even gloomier.  The U.S. Farm Bill doles out some $25 billion in agricultural subsidies a year.  The bulk of these subsides go to mega farms that grow wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.  As a result one American food dollar will buy 1200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. It will also buy 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.  If we want those carrots and the orange juice to be organic, well, hopefully you have a very small appetite.  We cannot begin to make large scale changes in our agriculture unless we address government policy.  We also cannot hope to come to terms with issues such as obesity and diabetes,until we insist that the interests of quality of food, versus quantity and centralized profit, are given priority.

The Good News

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Canadian Organic Growers is a wonderful resource for both serious growers and home gardeners as well as anyone interested in what is happening in the global world of agriculture.  The organization publishes a quarterly magazine, has local chapters all across Canada, hosts conferences and events such as Seedy Saturdays, has a lending library that is free to members, and also publishes a monthly e-newsletter.  I like the e-newsletter because if often gives one a quick but informative overview of what is happening with food and farming around the world.  For this blog, I thought I would summarize the good news.

  • The Canadian Wheat Board announces $200,000 in funding for organic sector development
  • Canada has said that any products derived from cloned foods can not be called organic under our new standards and logo (to me the overall news is awful)
  • A U.S. survey in 2008 reports that organic food sales are up 10%
  • Dannon is eliminating the rBST growth hormone from its dairy operations.  General Mills has done the same thing.
  • The Philippine army is launching an organic agricultural project to help less privileged residents in their area.
  • A 2008 report from the United Nations says that “organic agriculture is particularly well suited for smallholder farmers, who comprise the majority of Africa’s poor”.  Good news
  • A United Nations 2008 assessment of world hunger has concluded that ‘Genetically modified crops have very little potential to alleviate poverty and hunger’.  This is in direct contrast to claims coming from GM companies, but supports the continued development of organic food production.
  • Britons continue to support organic and ethical foods despite the downturn in the economy
  • 250 pesticides will be removed form store shelves in Ontario by the end of this month under the new Cosmetic Pesticides Ban Act.  Quebec is the only other province to have a similar ban, with P.E.I. and New Brunswick considering one.
  • The amount of land globally in certified organic production grew from 30.7 million hectares to 32.2 million hectares in 2007, with strong growth in Latin America and Africa.

Not to put a damper on life, but this seems important.

According to the Environmental Health News (01/06/09) antibiotics are showing up in vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and lettuce.  These vegetables are absorbing the antibiotics when grown in soil fertilised with livestock manure in which the animals have been fed antibiotics.  Approximately 70% of all antibiotics and related drugs produced in the United States are fed to cattle, pigs, and poultry.  You are not protected by eating commercially grown organic vegetables, because these too are fertilized with commercial manures. North American organic standards recommend the use of organic manure, but it is not mandatory.  This is because there is not enough organic manure to meet the needs of organic production.  For those of you with your own gardens, I would recommend sticking with manures from animals that are primarily grass fed – I use horse manure that I collect from local stables and commercially bagged sheep manure, both of which are widely available.

Experiential Learning

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A good friend of mine is the head of the Outdoor Education program at Queen’s University here in Kingston.  She has taken my gardening workshops and really believes that growing food should be part of Outdoor Education.  She recently asked me to write a small article for a newsletter, which I have exerpted below:

A century ago, almost everyone knew how to grow something, growing food and harvesting and storing it were very much part of day to day life and therefore part of a person’s education. Often the academic year was arranged around the growing season, to allow children to help with the work on the farm. Food was relatively simple, unprocessed and unpackaged. But food production has become big business and today fewer and fewer people are actually involved in the whole process. This has led to several generations of people who have very little understanding of their relationship to food or to the land that grows it. I also believe it has led to a host of very poor environmental decisions that are beginning to have real consequences.

Understanding nature is an experiential kind of learning. The interconnectedness of all that is our environment cannot be learned from a book. One can read about the need to act mindfully, but it is often only when one has actually spilled that night’s dinner into the campfire that a person begins to really understand what it means to be careful and thoughtful in their actions.

Growing food is also a very important form of experiential learning. Gardening, and the thinking that happens when one is engaged in it, is an invaluable experience. It is by putting our hands into the soil and by experiencing the whole season, that one really begins to understand the processes that are at work. It is through the satisfaction of growing and eating something that one comes to value the earth. And it is through being faced with choices, that one begins to understand their implications.

As an organic market gardener, one of my first real lessons in thinking something through came when I was faced with an outbreak of cucumber beetles. These tiny beetles are very fast and hard to catch, and they can easily destroy young cucumber plants. I remember going to the local farm co-op store and looking at the remedies – this was before they had organic insecticides. I read the labels, looked at the price (very high), and actually bought a container of something and brought it home. Then I went out into the garden and as I worked I thought about the chemical, about the whole physical action of putting it on my cucumber plants, and then finally about harvesting those cucumbers and feeding them to my family. I realized that the chemical insecticide was just not an option. I think we lost most of that cucumber crop, but there were lots of other things to eat, and the next year we paid far more attention to the growing conditions for cucumbers. Nature makes us wait and I firmly believe that it is this process of waiting that causes us to think and to look for environmentally responsible alternatives. The quick fix does not allow for this process to ever occur.

Growing one’s own food also brings up many questions concerning value. Science, technology, and industry have replaced so much of what was once an inherent part of human existence with artificial alternatives. Why would anyone grow a head of lettuce when it can be bought for 60 cents at the grocery store? Having grown my own food for 25 years now, I would ask why anyone would want to forego the experience of harvesting and eating something they have grown themselves for something that has no connection to their own life. Taste and quality are definitely superior, but more than that, it is the satisfaction and the richness that gardening brings to my life that cannot be replaced. In harvesting my own food year after year, I feel the sun, the wind, the soil. I also feel deeply grateful for all that the earth has provided. Somewhere along the way I made a big shift from thinking that I grew my own food to realizing that I cared for this miracle that is the soil and in doing so, was blessed with abundance. For me, this is a way of knowing and of being in the world that has to be felt and experienced through thoughtful work in order to be understood. I also believe that it is the foundation for the kind of earth centered philosophy that we need so badly if we are to preserve this planet for future generations.

Food and the World We Live In

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Someone once said that you could solve 95% of the world’s problems if you addressed the issues surrounding food.  As I thought about this statement, I began to see all of the aspects of our life that food touches.  I thought about greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation and pollution, waste issues, obesity, stress, degenerative diseases, poverty and loss of access to land and water in developing countries, genetically modified organisms, corporate control  – the list just kept on getting bigger.  Food really does influence so much and the ways in which we set up our systems of food production governs much of the way that our society, and the societies that we trade with, function.  So, it would follow that if we changed our relationship with food, we could begin to reshape our society and address the problems that we face.

Having worked and raised a family, part of the time as a single parent, I believe that most of us have some pretty finite financial and time limitations on our lives.  I would love to write letters to my MP’s, attend political rallies, and install some sort of renewable energy system on my house.  But I know that these things are just not realistic, at least not right now.  What I do believe I can do is to make choices about the foods that I eat, how they are grown, where they are grown, and how they are packaged.  This for me has been my constant activism, along with volunteer work in my community.  It feels doable and affordable and important because I very much believe in the power of the consumer.  It has been our choices and our lack of understanding of their implications that has created today’s food systems and the products that we see in our stores.  Our conscious choices can demand a different kind of food system – one that is ecological, that supports the local community, that does not impoverish others, and that is within our control. 

There are so many reasons to buy local foods and to eat seasonally. Local food initiatives are growing by leaps and bounds – many of them are exciting and offer positive hope for real change. The Ontario government is investing 12.5 million dollars in its Pick Ontario Freshness campaign and Quebec’s Put Quebec on Your Plate initiative has 14 million dollars in funding.

The Canadian Co-operative Organization (www.coopscanada.coop) published a report on Local Food Initiatives in Canada in June of 2008. This report can be found at www.ccednet-rcdec.ca. The report stresses that local foods contribute to the local economy, allow for a financially viable agricultural sector, increase our ability to be self sufficient, provide quality food at affordable prices, and significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food that has travelled thousands of kilometers. Farmer’s co-operatives have always been an important part of the Canadian agricultural landscape and increasingly farmers and retailers are coming together to support each other and provide quality local foods to consumers. The following excerpt about a really successful co-operative initiative is taken from this report:

The Really Local Harvest Co-op, an innovative farmer-run co-operative in New Brunswick is regaining control of the food system and finding the fun in farming. A small group of farmers had had it with the old way of doing things. They were working all the time, not making any money, and most of the food they were growing was being shipped out of province.

“We felt that we didn’t have a choice about creating the Co-op. You either work for northing or you create your own system”. Donald Daigle, President Really Local Harvest Co-operative.

The farmers went to the town of Dieppe with a plan to create a farmers’ market in 2004. Now on a typical sunny summer day, some 10,000 people visit the Dieppe Farmers’ Market to get a taste of locally grown foods like goat’s cheese, cranberries, vegetables, and other local products. The farmers have gone from nearly ‘losing their shirts’ according to Daigle, to leading the charge to revitalize their community. Within a few short years, the co-op has built a three million dollar local enterprise with numerous positive economic spin-offs for the community.

The co-op does not plan to stop there. Soon they will be unveiling an ambitious plan for an agro-tourism venture that will have visitors pondering the wonders of the apple and taking rides on a wagon powered by buffalo, all the while enjoying the food bounty of New Brunswick.