Wayne Roberts is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food. Follow Wayne at @wrobertsfood or on Facebook.


Wayne Roberts is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food. Follow Wayne at @wrobertsfood or on Facebook.

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Happy birthday retail monsters

A Kmart store in 1979

Photo: Joe+Jeanette Archie, under a CC License

At a certain age, people stop making a fuss about their birthday, and maybe it’s the same with mega-corporations. 2012 is the 50th birthday of several of the biggest retailers in the world, and of the discount revolution they started, but no-one’s throwing a big party.

Few stores can compete with two of the giant-killers that launched back in 1962, Wal Mart and Target. They crushed most of the once-famous department stores that anchored shopping in the downtowns of most cities in North America, but which now barely survive on about three per cent of sales. Since then they’ve even finished off fellow discounters such as Kmart, which seemed most likely to succeed when it was born in 1962, but didn’t make it to 50.

Few forces can rival discount retail for transformative social, economic and environmental impact. It has literally and almost single-handedly reconfigured the shape of cities and scale of living standards across North America and in many places around the world.

The age of consumerism

What else was happening in 1962? Other than the Cuban Missile Crisis, Marilyn Monroe’s death, I Love Lucy’s debut, the Beatles’ first single, the opening of the Trans Canada Highway, a new car costing $2,500, a new house costing $15,000, a time when most moms were fulltime housewives, the average dad made $6,000 a year, and my highschool job as a stockboy at Simpson’s, in the epicenter of Toronto’s downtown?

What was happening was the powerful mix of suburbia and consumerism, both in their heyday, each feeding off the other. From the late 1940s to early 1970s, prosperity was the norm. Wages were on a steady climb up, credit was loose, installment buying was all the rage, and all politicians agreed that governments and consumers had a duty to spend to keep the economy humming.

When fewer things were bought, people paid more to get quality. When everything had to be bought, no budget could survive without buying everything on discount

In 1962, US President Kennedy pushed a giant tax cut to buoy consumer spending and head off recession. The idea that people would make toys, bake bread, build home additions, knit sweaters, repair cars, mend socks, grow food, wash dishes or clothes by hand, or cook from scratch was obsolete thinking from the impoverished past. Equally obsolete was the notion of consumer rights, though Ralph Nader burst onto the scene with that banner a few years after discounters dug in.

But mass consumerism killed the goose that lay the golden egg. The goose was the less is more rule. When fewer things were bought, people paid more to get quality. When literally everything had to be bought, no normal budget could survive without shopping to buy everything on discount. This was the huge opening discount retailers filled. They upped the self-service, stripped down the free delivery, free wrapping, easy returns and skilled sales staff to bring prices down.

Photo: ILoveMyPiccolo, under a CC License.

Suburbia was the perfect landscape for discount retailing. Suburban developers and planners banned mixed residential/retail/work land use, thereby moving all shopping into malls that rented space almost exclusively to national and global specialty stores. Malls, commonly owned by corporate conglomerates, were commonly anchored by at least one supermarket (wet goods), one department store (for dry goods) and one major discounter

The corporate power that dominates suburban party politics and cultural politics to this day is vested in these malls, not as showy as the bank and other towers downtown, but key players when it comes to how local elections and cultural politics work in the areas of cities where most people live.

Discount winners and losers

Suburbs and the discounter business model played off each other in many ways. Discounters hired suburban housewives part-time, for example, thereby driving down wage costs and establishing the norm of employment without job security or fringe benefits.

Most important, discounting was maintained by revolutionizing the role of retailers. Instead of being passive entrepreneurs who bought in bulk, sold to individuals and kept a small margin for the middleperson role, discounters used volume purchases to dictate lower prices to wholesalers, who in turn dictated lower wages to employees and suppliers – eventually going offshore to get the wages down to rock bottom.

The echo bouncing off discount box stores is the ‘giant sucking sound’ of manufacturing jobs leaving ‘the industrialized world,’ – more properly, the de-industrializing world

The production monopolies that called the shots during the 1950s were gradually decimated in terms of domestic employment as the new retail giants took charge. Oligopoly, where two or three producers (of toothpaste, beer or pop, for example) duke it out in advertising budgets rather than wages or prices, was displaced by what’s called ‘monopolistic competition’, much more dog-eat-dog and tooth-and-claw than kinder gentler oligopolies that were often unionized.

The echo bouncing off discount box stores is the ‘giant sucking sound’ of manufacturing jobs leaving what’s still called, out of force of habit, ‘the industrialized world,’ but is, more properly, the de-industrializing world. As well as production jobs, the jobs that once went to tens of thousands of independent main street retailers in solo shops also disappeared, making for a double whammy of lost employment. Combined, discounter-driven elimination of formerly well-paid production and retail employment accounts for the fact that real incomes for most working people stopped going up about 40 years ago

Who would have guessed back in 1962 who and what would end up being discounted?

Talking about a (concrete) revolution

quapan under a CC Licence

I started my research by typing ‘crumbling’ into Google, and as soon as I hit the first letter in the second word, up popped ‘crumbling infrastructure’.

I think that shows a lot of people are tracking what is often called a silent crisis of ageing sewage and water pipes, bridges, filtration plants and the like. Yet the issue isn’t on many governments’ to-do lists. Maybe that’s because the cost of fixing old infrastructure quickly adds up to hundreds of billions without any promise of new benefits – be they new kinds of business opportunities, or new improvements to health and wellbeing.

But a late-summer conference that brought city gardeners and construction developers from around the world to Toronto has just issued a declaration calling for a new generation of living infrastructure that’s built in partnership with what’s conventionally thought of as urban agriculture.

Talk about an odd couple! But this call for convergence between two groups usually thought of as being on opposite sides of the political fence and in two entirely separate spheres of action (one, a money-making construction industry that digs trenches, and one a form of recreation for those love digging in gardens) is what today’s enduring business revolutions are all about. Though this seems to be a time in history when more relationships among people are coming apart, it is also a time when new relationships are bringing people together, and business convergence is one of these.

What is now treated as a ho-hum revolution – the 1990s convergence of communication, information and entertainment technologies – brought at least three industries together that had long been thought of as separate and unconnected. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, electronic news services, movie rentals, music downloads – all are a product of that convergence.

A web of life

The same kind of revolutionary convergence may now be working its way through the construction and planting fields. Twenty years from now, the landscape and building equivalents of Facebook and music downloads will become the beautiful norm in our unused and often unsightly urban spaces. This transformation won’t be based on digitalization or the internet, but it will be based on the web – the web of life that weaves economic, environmental, community and health threads together.

Arlington County under a CC Licence

When that convergence happens, it will roll out four sets of new benefits from one set of initiatives that cost far less than if each service were delivered separately. New ways of repairing, restoring and replacing crumbling infrastructure – or, in the slums of the Global South, creating such infrastructure for the first time – will yield four benefits of crucial significance for cities.

First, a new convergence-based strategy around the built environment will supply safe and economical ways of ensuring delivery of everyday needs performed by water, garbage, sewage and energy utilities.

Second, that infrastructure will be more environmentally friendly than present-day methods; more resilient in the face of unexpected events likely in an era of global climate change; and more responsible in its management of increasingly scarce resources.

A revolutionary convergence may now be working its way through the construction and planting fields

Third, producing food in the city will become economically viable because new spaces will be devoted to it, and because some of its revenues will come as a result of ‘fees for environmental services’ that orchardists and gardeners provide to save public expenditures on infrastructure.

Fourth, millions of fulfilling, creative and knowledge-based construction and maintenance jobs will be created, not just the one-off jobs created by ‘public works’ programmes designed to stimulate immediate job creation for relatively unskilled labour.

Here’s the insight that led the steering committee responsible for Toronto’s Urban Agriculture Summit to issue its declaration.

Farming benefits

In Europe, the many social, health, environmental and economic benefits of regular countryside agriculture are identified as ‘multifunctional’ which qualifies farmers for fees either from the European Union or their own country, without fear of having this fee defined as a subsidy that contradicts free trade or the World Trade Organization.

If better farming practices lead to improved services – safer passage for migrating birds, better life chances for at-risk species, cleaner water for healthy fisheries or urban drinking water, increased storage of carbon in the soils offsetting carbon from fossil-fuel use, job training for hard-to-employ youth, or easier access to rural walks for tourists – then, Europeans argue, the farmers’ extra labour providing such extra services is deemed worthy of some economic compensation.

It’s cheaper to pay landlords a fee to green their roofs than it is to expand sewage pipes or sewage plants

A careful look at urban agriculture indicates that urban food production produces many health, social and environmental benefits and that this multi-functionality deserves a fee from regional governments. Far from costing local governments money, these fees compensate urban food producers for improvements that would be much more expensive to get from traditional infrastructure or conventional services.

This is the business case for treating urban agriculture as infrastructure. Take the example of green roofs. Green roofs store and absorb rainfall on flat roofs, thereby keeping rain from becoming storm water that floods sewers below. It’s cheaper for a city, especially a city that’s growing in size and looking at expensive expansion of sewage infrastructure, to pay landlords a fee to green their roofs than it is to expand sewage pipes or sewage plants. The moisture released as evaporation by green roof plants a few days after the rainfall cools the city, thereby cutting down air-conditioning bills. The plants provide green space that’s welcome to birds and butterflies as well as residents looking for a beautiful view of the roof and the city – all amenities that are quite expensive to deliver if they’re dedicated services that serve one purpose only.

To add more icing to the cake, Steven Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities points out that green roofs reduce the damage from direct exposure of the roof to ultraviolet sun rays during the summer and rapid freeze-thaw cycles during the winter, thereby extending the life of a roof almost indefinitely. ‘This is a case where the benefits increase each year, instead of depreciating, as is the case with non-living infrastructure,’ says Peck.

Community benefits

For an example of social benefits from green technologies, take community gardens. FoodShare started supporting community gardens about 20 years ago as a food source for individuals on low income. But projects mushroomed as people discovered the multiple benefits of gardens – education for school kids, job training and job-readiness training for the unemployed, youth engagement and community building for people in social housing projects, and so on. Almost by definition, the gardens also provide community benefits in terms of improved health, public safety, neighbourhood beautification and pride.

If FoodShare and its food producers were paid a little extra for these extra services, it would be far more cost-effective for local government than funding separate programmes for anti-hunger, school curriculum enhancement, job training and additional policing in stressed neighbourhoods. That’s the value proposition behind this Toronto declaration, which holds that ‘good food, green buildings, great cities grow together’.

This seemingly unusual partnership can bring an entirely new paradigm for the built environment in cities.

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

My dirty secret

Weird as it seems, this summer’s scary news stories about drought and global water crisis took a load off my shoulders – and allowed me to come clean with a dirty secret I’ve kept from neighbours and friends for almost 20 years.

It goes back to an article I wrote during the early 1990s about composting toilet manufacturer Abby Rockefeller, who taught me that water could be put to higher uses than moving human sewage – black water, it’s sometimes called – through pipes to be flung into the nearest river or lake. Rockefeller was equally passionate about the ‘grey water’ from sinks and bathtubs. Her idea was to separate out grey water to irrigate gardens, from black water that could be converted to fertilizer, thereby keeping both out of the sewage pipes and lakes. As with regular garbage, resources only get wasted as garbage when they’re commingled – whence Rockefeller’s slogan that ‘waste is a verb, not a noun’.

Ever since that interview, I’ve been sneaking down early in the morning or late at night to pour rinse water from cleaning cans and pots on my three-by-four-metre front garden. ‘It’s a scientific experiment,’ I’d explain whenever neighbours caught me in the act.

Actually, my 20-year experiment shows that a wild garden with two bushes and one fast-growing oak can thrive on the combination of rain and grey water, with no need for a garden hose. The water is poured directly over plant roots, so there’s no loss to evaporation. And the film of cleaning liquid and food particles – harmful as sewage because they feed algae in lakes and consume oxygen that fish need – break down as nutrients in the soil. Plus, avoiding water from the hose is appreciated by plants, which like their water soft and free of municipal chlorine and fluoride.

To get back to this season’s water crisis, it’s the rich opportunities for reuse and recycling – not the scarcity – that should focus municipal debate about water. Actually, conserving or cutting back on water use is only a drop in the bucket of the water cycle-based strategy that’s needed.

Most cities have plenty of water to go around, when the water goes through a full water cycle. Indeed, including plant watering as part of the water cycle is one reason why agriculture in cities is such a natural, and why, in some cases, city gardens are better than rural farms for growing water-intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables. After all, the reason cities have so much waste is that they have no valuable place to put their under-appreciated resources.

Beyond conservation are a series of opportunities to wring benefits from the priority uses of household and workplace water, and then return them to the water cycle in as good shape as possible.  

A case study of bio-mimicry
To expand on my little experiment, we could start by capturing rain water on the roof and using it for dishwater – a nice trick because rain water is soft and needs less soap. Once used as dishwater, the grey water could be piped to the garden, where the piping hot water would not only fertilize plants but carry the heat from the dishwater to warm the soil and add some season extension to the garden in early spring and late fall – thereby creating a hospitable environment for a wide range of fruits and vegetables valued in a multicultural city. Some of the water that formerly would have been used for  the dishwashing machine or garden hose could be diverted to aquaculture – small neighbourhood fisheries for tilapia and other species that tolerate still waters – which supplies lean protein for humans and nutrient-rich water for yet more garden plants. Filtered clean by plants and soil, that water would fall to the water table and then be returned to the water cycle.

Urban agriculture and aquaculture help the water cycle work the same way they do in nature. It’s a case study of bio-mimicry.

Cities have many other ways to use water, and the heat or cool it carries at different stages, resourcefully. Toronto, for example, keeps many of its downtown office towers cool with ‘deepwater cooling’, cold water from deep in Lake Ontario piped through office buildings to keep them cool, thereby providing a low-cost form of solar air-conditioning.

Alternatively, green roofs, as mandated for large buildings in Toronto, capture rain water, keeping it out of the sewers and saving it for plants that evaporate the water on hot summer days, thereby cooling the city, again thanks to low-cost solar power. A lot better than letting rain fall aimlessly into sewers, usually ending up as swill, full of the flotsam and jetsam of city streets, which is often dumped untreated in lakes and rivers.

Sometimes green infrastructure comes as cheap as a law protecting near-city green belts, rich with swamp and other all-natural soil and earth filters and regulators of water. Economists Sara Wilson and Michelle Molnar, reporting on Toronto’s green belt for the David Suzuki Foundation last May, estimated that regional marshes and forests save typical households over $380 a year in residential water treatment bills.  

Problem or opportunity?
In all likelihood, advancing global warming will bring drought more often to areas that have seldom faced it over the last few thousand years. Such droughts will more frequently afflict dryland areas that have long served as ‘breadbaskets’ of the world, at the very moment in history when expanding human populations most require the staple crops that they have produced. Anxiety about this has led many, such as Inter Press Service food analyst Stephen Leahy, to worry about what will happen to a world that requires the equivalent irrigation of 20 Nile or 100 Colorado Rivers a year.

I do not want to minimize the need to conserve water. At the same time, it’s still possible, especially in cities, to see the problem of water shortage as a series of opportunities disguised as a problem, as the old saying goes.

The real problem is more of our own making than that of the climate. We have governments that treat water and food in separate ministries and departments, though neither can exist without the other. Food cannot grow without water. Likewise, the water cycle cannot exist without plants and animals that use both its liquid asset and the heat or cool it carries.

Cities offer the most visible opportunities for bringing those two essential resources – the food cycle and the water cycle – together for their own mutual benefit and ours. That is the context in which reuse and recycling of water will thrive. 

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

Photo (top): Amelia Wells under a CC Licence

In praise of Honduras' forest gardens

Honduran forest gardens show life beyond corn fields. Photo: fishhawk, reproduced under a CC license.

The drought-parched harvests around the world this year, along with the season’s hottest archeological finding, offer a cautionary tale.

Benjamin Cook, who sifts through mountains of computerized data rather than dusting off shards of pottery like old-fashioned archeologists, has developed a climate model that explains one of the great mysteries of Western hemisphere history – the sudden collapse of the advanced and mighty Mayan Empire roughly 1,300 years ago.

It turns out that drought – human-caused drought – was the culprit that made the Mayans’ Central American homeland uninhabitable. The Mayans chopped down forests both to clear land for farming maize (corn) and to burn timber to convert limestone into building blocks for Mayan temples, much like the energy-intensive process used to make today’s cement.

Once the region lost its dark forest canopy that previously absorbed the sun’s rays, the heat bounced back into the atmosphere, thereby evaporating clouds that once dropped the rain needed to feed the first empire, being as it was entirely dependent on a food supply centred on corn. History seems to be repeating itself for the second of the Western hemisphere’s great empires, which is not only entirely dependent on a corn-centred food supply but also on an energy system bent on deforestation.

Forest food

I am just back from a visit to Honduras, which confirmed that there is life after plantation-style fields of corn. It just takes a complete rethink of the standard ‘Western’ notion that forests are about wilderness that has to be cleared before fields can produce agriculture and support civilization.

Today’s urban forestry ethic promotes city trees as a way to bring nature back to the city and to provide pleasing and calming environments that improve air quality and boost mental health. But a new generation of city tree enthusiasts sees orchards and forests as ways to grow food, not just as an escape from the Civilization Blues.

What I saw among the Indigenous peoples in Yorito and its surrounding mountain ranges certainly confirms the view that forest gardens have what it takes to provide food, as well as other benefits.

Of course, Honduras has some obvious advantages when it comes to food production. Aside from a tropical climate, it’s classed as a ‘centre of origin’ for many of the world’s major food crops, including corn. It enjoys plenty of genetic diversity of its own, as well as imports from other tropical colonies controlled by the Spanish conquerors of Central America.

The village of Yorito is about a three-hour drive north on paved road from the capital city, Tegucigalpa. The mountain villages we visited from there every day are a further two-hour lurching jeep drive over rib-crunching dirt and gravel roads.

During our stay we ate our morning and evening meals in the living room of Nelba Velasquez, one of Yorito’s leading micro-entrepreneurs, who also started a water-purification plant staffed by young single moms, as well as a landscape shop and forest garden in her own quarter-acre yard. Much of the food in the restaurant comes from the garden. Like many people in town, she grows beans and squash on raised beds and hosts a number of chickens, who live up to the free in free range.

The supermarket garden

The first thing I notice is that the temperature in Nelba’s forest garden drops about five degrees, partly thanks to shade and partly due to the evaporation of cool water from broad-leafed trees. She says she sometimes comes here for a cool afternoon snooze in a hammock tied between two trees – the latest must-have in forest gardening.

Here, in one overgrown parcel of a quarter-acre lot, I see a beautiful and scrumptious answer to climate chaos and hunger – and to the chronic-disease pandemic created by micronutrient deficiencies among rich and poor alike. Nelba first bought the abandoned livestock pasture she turned into a home 26 years ago and has been tending this garden ever since.

If this were a supermarket, no-one would complain about lack of choice in the produce or medicine aisles.

Here is my count of what fits in her backyard: four avocado trees, two each of two different kinds of guava tree, a papaya tree, a mandarin orange tree, a lemon tree, a tree bearing yellow Nanci berries for juice, a plum tree, 60 coffee plants, a tamarind tree, with sweet grass (for Thai soup and tea), balladania (a herbal that soothes anxiety), allspice and passion fruit hanging out of the fence lining her neighbour’s property. Did I almost forget the 10 varieties of banana?

The entire garden is organic and requires no ploughing, which keeps all the carbon stored by trees and in the soil intact – a powerful measure to mitigate global warming. It also contains a hammock, a clothes line, a baking oven for bread, a catchment basin for rainwater, two heaps of Japanese-style super-powered compost called Bokachi, a woodpile, a raised bed for vegetables, and a showroom for landscape plants.

Nelba puts the diversity down to a personality quirk. ‘I always want to diversify everything. My hands are in everything.’

Aside from running the water-purification plant next door for a day a week, Nelba is also on the local public health board and is treasurer of her local cial, which promotes seed diversity as a tool of empowerment for low-income communities. Forest gardens are sprouting among the hilltops dominated by beans and corn, wherever cial chapters flourish.

I believe these kinds of forest gardens are becoming the next new thing in North America’s local food movement. Earlier this summer, Seattle claimed to have North America’s first, only to be jumped on by a score of cities and towns claiming they were first. The nice thing is that edible forest gardens don’t have to compete with trees grown for beauty, shade and animal habitat. Forests are all-inclusive presences.

We don’t need a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness, my solar engineer friend Greg Allen likes to say. We need a prophet to lead us back. Food production can be part of that restoration.

Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds cials in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as part of its delegation. He is also the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

The forest garden photo shows a producer in Zapote, Honduras. Photo by treesftf, reproduced under a CC license.  

No water, no crops: how this year’s North American drought will impact you

corn fieldI can’t figure out why Mark Twain is considered such a smarty pants for noticing that people always talk about the weather but never do anything about it.

If people talk about the weather – this summer’s drought, and its likely impact on runaway food prices and forest fires – that’s deep folk wisdom recognizing how completely Nature determines our life prospects, not matter what level of air conditioning is available.

If people don’t do anything about the weather, it may be because they’re wise enough to know the most decisive things in our lives are beyond our personal control.

But if people don’t do anything because they think government has the problem in hand, then Mark Twain’s weather joke needs some extra helpings of ridicule.  

It’s almost impossible to think of a crisis of the scope of this year’s worldwide drought, which arises from such predictable factors, yet has been subject to so little oversight or preparation by public authorities. Government agencies charged with food and food security are awash in ignorance that it took a heat and drought wave to bring to our attention. The level of government screw-up on this file is every bit as big as the screw-up in banking regs that led to the ongoing recession since the banking collapse of 2008.

Let me count the mistakes.

No government agencies or ministries in North America integrate responsibility for food and water, even though – you heard it here first – food is quite hard to grow without water. Maybe it’s time someone started to think about food and water policy together, especially with regard to corn, which cannot be pollinated unless there is moisture during an extremely brief ‘breeding season’ of two weeks – not exactly a candidate for today’s chaotic climate.

Today’s global food system relies on about 10 crops (from among literally thousands) for about 80 per cent of calories. The five top sellers – corn, wheat, rice, sugar and potato – are notable water guzzlers, as well as big-time degraders of water as a result of fertilizer and pollution run-off.

well watered potato fieldGovernments, almost all of which have food departments, have allowed all food-security eggs to be put in a few baskets without any concern about overspecialization, despite universal warnings from scientists that we are entering an era of climate instability. Indeed, in the Global South, Northern government aid programmes have encouraged water-intensive ‘modernization’ (aka dams) and the marginalization of traditional crops such as nutrient-rich quinoa and millet as well as drought-resistant livestock.

Since the 1990s, a once-standard policy of most countries since ancient times – maintaining of reserves from good years as a hedge against famine in bad years – has disappeared, making all people reliant on this year’s weather – something so stupid it has never been done before.

Corn – once the sacred crop of the Mayan and other indigenous peoples of the Americas but since bred to become the sacred crop of the junk food industry – is treated as most-favoured crop throughout North America, as indicated by the irrational subsidies to support corn ethanol for motor fuel, despite the fact that corn requires as much fossil fuel inputs on the farm as corn fuel displaces from the highway.

Corn producers enjoy this and other party favours because corn provides feedstock for cheap sweetener in pop and processed foods and cheap and fast feed for livestock, few of which evolved to eat nutrient-free corn. Corn is also a favourite of the agribusiness complex, because corn producers have to buy so much fertilizer and pesticides, and so many tractors and genetically engineered seeds. A subsidy to corn is a subsidy to junk food and a flow-through laundering scheme for agribusiness, which ends up with most of the subsidies.   

Here comes the corn shock

Since the 1990s (if you’re wondering why then, that coincides with the rise of a new world order, the World Trade Organization and large-scale deregulation of corporate responsibility), speculation on an essential requirement of food has been legalized and even encouraged by government-initiated low interest rates that drive investment monies into ever-riskier ventures.

As a result of loose money coupled with deregulation, financial houses and hedge funds  speculate on food commodity prices subject (except in the US) to fewer limitations than products traded in city-based stock exchanges. As a consequence, price volatility has shot up since the 1990s, and shot up this year far beyond expected declines in corn would suggest. The traded price of a bushel of corn shot from about five dollars in (the Northern) spring to about eight dollars in July.

City governments are not blameless in this, and need to be brought up to snuff. With few exceptions, government agencies refuse to increase purchasing of local and sustainable foods. As University of Guelph food policy expert Evan Fraser argues, boosting local and regional production creates ‘buffer zones’ of food production around cities, protecting them from weather and other sources of turmoil that an overly specialized ( both crop-wise and geography-wise) global food system has become.

We will see how much money shoppers save from favouring cheap global foodstuffs when the grocery bills come in as the ‘corn shock’ does to food prices what the oil shock of the 1970s did. The system that gave us obesity and low prices is about to narrow its offerings.

The fumbles in government policy are a warning to keep a close eye on what governments do to protect farmers, consumers and the environment now that the spotlight is on them. A lot of people are doing a rain dance for government money to drop on them, and the rain needs to fall on the right places.

Certainly, there’s no reason to offer more support beyond conventional crop insurance to corn growers who plan to stick with that crop in future. Assistance to corn farmers should be linked to programmes that help them dry out from corn addiction and move into crops that support public health and the environment.

Nor is there reason to subsidize consumers to offset rising costs of corn-based (ie unhealthy) foods; such subsidies would mainly flow to speculators who drove prices up.

Nor is there a reason to starve funding for measures that will reduce global warming (which should henceforth be known as global drying) and protect the climate of the future from worsening climate chaos.

The fundamentals are wrong here, not just the climate. We need to focus on ending the drought on responsible public food policy.

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

Photo (top) Corn Field by Alternative Heat under a CC Licence

Photo (bottom) Potato Field by Arg_Flickr under a CC Licence

How Toronto Found Its Food Groove

The Toronto food movement is one of the tastiest broths in the world, a mixture concocted from one part Toronto, one part food and one part movement. I’ve helped stir this dish for almost 20 years, both as chair of the Coalition for a Green Economy during the 1990s and as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council since 2000, and am still amazed at how the recipe links the pleasures of good food and a happy table with environmental protection, public health, social justice, good jobs and all-round people power.

Today’s food movement grew up alongside the anti-globalization movements of the past 20 years, so thinking and acting locally are crucial to it. Food issues have helped many people rediscover their sense of place, and rethink how crucial place is – not just for the foods we eat, but for the people we become. So let me begin with the terroir that nourished the local food movement.

The Toronto food movement was not born with a gourmet spoon in its mouth. Nothing about me or the city would have led someone to predict either of us would ever succeed in food. Like many World War Two veterans, my parents seized the opportunity of a Veteran’s Land Grant to buy half an acre of land on the outskirts of the city for $200 – the idea was that vets would have enough land to grow their own food and put a roof over their heads when the expected post-war depression descended. I grew up in this warm, friendly, humble and hopeful neighbourhood of vets. Like everyone else on the block, I ate bacon and eggs with white toast and milk for breakfast, ham and sliced cheese on white bread with Campbell’s Soup for lunch, and one of seven dinners served on the same day of each week – from roast beef on Sunday to beans and wieners on Tuesday and macaroni and cheese on Thursday, all usually served with a side salad of iceberg lettuce and tomato and a dessert of canned fruit that was sometimes in Jell-O.

I don’t recall ever eating without lots of yakking and goofing around. I knew lots about mealtime, but little about food. I didn’t taste garlic until I went to university, never tried yogurt or a bagel until I moved downtown for grad school, never ate fish without batter and chips until my thirties, rarely had wine with dinner until my fifties. It’s the social warmth around food that I still most enjoy to this day. I’ll do practically anything to avoid eating alone, and never pick a restaurant where relishing the food might take precedence over having a hoot. I’m in the foodie contingent that sees food as primarily a social, rather than a gourmet or nutritional, experience. To the extent that my upbringing was typical of that of other Torontonians of my generation, it’s safe to say the Toronto Food movement did not arise, as it has in so many areas of the world, as a battle to save a rich and pre-existing food culture from Americanized mediocrity. No one has ever thought that ‘Toronto the Good’ referred to good food in restaurants. For many, many years, Toronto had no restaurant or café culture. Going out to eat was a social, not a dining, experience. Restaurant hangouts in my neighbourhood, usually referred to as slop shops, were places friends goofed around in while nursing pop and fries – just enough to cover the table charge. Cans of Campbell’s Soup and boxes of Kellogg’s cereals were on show behind the counter where short-order cooks worked. There was only one place, Little Bo Peep, where a high school student would take a date for a burger (hold the onion) and fries, or a family would go out for a roast beef sandwich smothered with mashed potatoes, canned peas and gravy.

Family restaurants were rare because a typical family had a stay-at-home wife who saved more money for the family by doing the cooking and cleaning than she would earn working outside the home. To gain perspective on the total absence of resistance to the meteoric rise of fast-food chains during the 1970s, we must concede that in Toronto, as in many North American locations, junk-food joints actually raised the bar on food, as well as washroom quality. It’s humbling to acknowledge that the crux of the modern case against fast food chains is based on the link to chronic disease; few think of kicking junk food because of repulsive cooking, taste, atmosphere, ethics, isolation from public life of the street, or any rationale that might grow out of a pre-existing and public food culture.

Notwithstanding the absence of vibrant food traditions, Toronto has always had a lot going for it. First, the city won the geographical sweepstakes. Toronto is surrounded on one side by an inland sea that once supported an important freshwater fishery that could’ve been the envy of the world if we hadn’t been so nonchalant about polluting it with agricultural and industrial runoff – a process that happened without much discussion of the consequent loss of wild foods and lean protein. Toronto is surrounded on its other sides by the largest stretch of Class 1 farmland in the country. Rain, sun and moderate temperatures are as plentiful as fertile land. The remaining area of good land is so big that the remnants of it saved from urban sprawl in 2005 – with belated legislation adopted mainly to protect endangered ecosystems, not precious foodlands – are still enough to qualify as the largest protected greenbelt in the world.

Toronto also has location. It’s closer to more US cities than any US city, except perhaps Pittsburgh. As a result, many US corporations have placed their auto and food branch plants in the area; food and beverage processing in the Greater Toronto Area is second in size in North America only to Chicago. Plentiful jobs, especially entry-level positions, were a magnet for many immigrants who came to Toronto after the 1960s.Thanks to them, Toronto is now the most varied multicultural city in the world, with a range of Chinatowns and Little Italies, a flourishing Little India and Greektown, and countless centres of emerging excellence in Caribbean, Tibetan, Ethiopian, Brazilian and other cuisines. California has its Silicon Valley, and Ontario has a Culinary Valley.

Toronto is also blessed with valleys carved out by creeks flowing into Lake Ontario. It’s been said that these valleys define the city as much as canals define Venice. Valleys hardwired the city to avoid the worst fate of North American cities: the segregated inner city, surrounded by rings of suburbs to which any group with options escaped. Thanks to valleys, which prevented sprawl based on concentric circles, Toronto is rich in mixed neighbourhoods. Most low-income residents live along a U that stretches the length and width of the city; as a result, lower-income neighbourhoods are often cheek by jowl with a variety of prosperous areas, as is the case with Regent Park and Cabbagetown, for example, or St. James Town and Rosedale. As a result, embittered politics that pit haves against have-nots don’t root themselves in city wards, because no politician can win an election on the basis of one social grouping. Nor are Toronto food deserts – vast areas with only convenience or liquor stores but no decent food stores – anywhere as common as they are in the US.

Thanks to mixed neighbourhoods, where people bump into different kinds of people on an everyday basis, much as if they were in a small town, the poor are less likely to be marginalized, excluded or vilified as ‘the other’. Toronto has long enjoyed a consensus, which transcends left and right, that the city that works must be proactive to avoid the fate of US cities, which have rotted at their core, polarized by racism and grinding impoverishment. Shortly after food banks came to Toronto during the early 1980s, Liberal mayor Art Eggleton gave start-up funding to FoodShare, now the largest city-based food security organization in North America, in a bid to prevent dependence on food charity from becoming embedded in the city. With the same goal, the public health department initiated the Toronto Food Policy Council in 1991, now the most influential food council in the world. When that didn’t end hunger, the newly amalgamated Toronto unanimously adopted a Food and Hunger Action Plan and Toronto Food Charter in 2001 that inspires urban food activists around the world. Not that Toronto couldn’t do better, but few cities – Havana in Cuba and Belo Horizonte in Brazil are probably the best known – do.

Torontonians have also been open to ways of thinking about food that find no space in other cities. Ironically, that openness may descend from its ‘Toronto the Good’ past. The allegedly uptight city, which imposed severe limits on booze in restaurants until the 1970s and a non-commercial Sunday until the 1990s, was fuelled by a long-standing alliance that brought together trade-union radicals –who valued a common day off for all workers on Sunday, and a clear class-conscious brain not befuddled by alcohol for the rest of the week – with Red Tories (conservatives with a strong social conscience) and social Liberals, a base broad and cohesive enough to sustain the Toronto Daily Star, long Canada’s leading daily and a consistent voice for progressive views. Most of Toronto’s standout progressive policies – city-run non-profit childcare centres and homes for the aged, well-funded public transit, publicly owned electrical and water utilities, city-managed farmers’ markets, free and low-cost recreation centres, for example – express this tradition, which goes well beyond the typical city agenda of parks, potholes and police.

After the 1970s – when the city became a centre of self-consciously Canadian intellectual and cultural life, and the city’s civic activities were increasingly propelled by an astonishing multiplicity of citizen groups and non-government organizations – the old progressive consensus was enriched by a wide range of public intellectuals and writers from alternative publications like NOW and EyeWeekly, music and book publishers surviving in coach houses and other noncommercial spaces and a lively public culture on view at a long list of street festivals, parades, restaurant and club districts. Toronto, in short, has a huge number of progressive citizens, voters and activists.

Part of the robustness of this working relationship among progressives came from a showdown against Modernist planning and architecture during the 1970s. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Toronto’s skyline came under the domination of Modernists who thought steel, cement and glass high-rises expressed the unlimited potential of high-tech homo sapiens; indeed, Toronto has one of the highest proportions of highrises, particularly in the suburbs, of any North American city. During the 1970s, a grassroots rebellion, led by such giants as Jane Jacobs, John Sewell and David Crombie, beat back the notion of cities dominated by towers and expressways, and created a permanent safe space for a cross-cutting set of ideas around respect for human scale, appropriate technology, decent treatment of marginalized people and government accountability to ordinary people – as it turns out, the common ground beneath sustainable agriculture and community food security.

Food movements are almost by definition profoundly cross-cutting. They attract people who are into science and people who aren’t, people on the left, right and centre, people linked to formal religion and highly personal spirituality, vegetarians and carnivores, health-food nuts and slow-fooders, peakniks who think we’re running out of oil and people who’ve never heard that cheap food was based on cheap oil, recent immigrants and fourth-generation Canadians. By and large, they all take issue with Modernism and Brutalism, most sharply expressed during the last 20 years by genetic engineering, factory-farm livestock methods and globalized trade in bulk food commodities – the bêtes noires of the food movement. Today’s foodies got a major leg up when they inherited a successful public culture pitted against Modernists and Brutalists that’s been the hallmark of public discourse since the 1970s.

This brings us to the second ingredient in Toronto’s food movement: food. I have a special affection for the style and content of food advocacy because I came to food politics as I was coming out of my middle-age crisis – my tame alternative to a Harley-Davidson? – after some 30 years of intense activism around student, labour, peace, anti-nuclear and socialist issues. The earthy realities of food have an impact on politics that’s different from the politics that flows from age, gender and class discrimination, for example – politics that flow from human constructs, not biological needs or environmental imperatives. Food brings its own unique taste to the Toronto food-movement broth, a taste that would be entirely different if it were a Toronto student, labour or anti-nuclear broth.

I think the special taste of a food movement comes from empowerment. The direct and unmediated connection between humans and food means food is more amenable to direct action by individuals or groups than any sector of the economy. At any given time, people can choose to give up sugar in their coffee, go for soymilk instead of cream, skip meat for one day a week, pay a little more for fair-trade chocolate and so on. The directness of food breeds what horizontal fair trader Michael Sacco of Toronto’s ChocoSol calls ‘actionism,’ autonomous and self-directed activity in support of a concrete choice that is distinct from the activism of demanding action from another entity – i.e., government. The tendency in the food sector is to join demonstration projects as often as demonstration protests.

Empowerment is also expressed in the desire of most food enthusiasts for ‘authentic’ food experiences, which engage the eater as a participant, not just as a passive consumer. Being a health-minded eater also empowers people to become producers of their own health, rather than consumers of medical cures. In general, food calls on people to become ‘pro-sumers,’ to use the term Alvin Toffler coined in his 1970 book, Future Shock. Many decades after the book was written, lines between producers and consumers are being blurred, most flamboyantly in new media, but also in food, where backyard and container gardeners, foragers and serious cooks are doing to food production what blogs have done to news and comment. By inviting people to work in the body politic with the power they have rather than focus their politics on power someone else has, food inspirations tend to generate calm, good cheer and roll-up-your sleeves actionism, qualities often considered rare in the left.

So, what does this mean for the future of Toronto’s food movement? By sheer accident, I tripped onto one aspect of the answer in the fall of 2008, while I was wandering around the annual fall harvest celebration at the Brick Works, the fabulous new farmers’ market organized by the non-profit Evergreen Foundation. An old friend, solar-greenhouse veggie-grower David Cohlmeyer, waved excitedly for me to come over and pointed to an elderly man with unruly grey hair who, Cohlmeyer told me in a hushed voice, had a family link to the owners of Scaramouche, one of Toronto’s most respected restaurants, and was a strong supporter of local and artisanal food producers. ‘Run after him and ask him to tell you what he just told me,’ Cohlmeyer said. I did as directed, introducing myself to Moie Wasserman and asking him to repeat what he’d just told Cohlmeyer. Well, he said, he’d lived in California for many years, and long enjoyed the annual Berkeley event Alice Waters puts on at Chez Panisse (one of California’s most revered food havens). She brings in the best local farmers and food producers, and they take over the street with their displays. ‘But they can never do anything like this,’ he said, pointing to all the people feasting on samples while talking to organizers behind various displays at the Brick Works. ‘To have farmers, producers, slow-food people, all these people, as well as government agencies and non-profits, all working together, you only have that here in Toronto.’

That’s one, very positive side of the movement: the ability of people in some 100 configurations in the mobile food web, spanning the passions and obsessions of academics, gourmets, anti-poverty activists, gardeners, composters, seed collectors, vegetarians, restaurant critics, raw foodists, localistas, greens, economic developers, fair traders, creatives, you name it, to work easily and causally with each other in a loose solidarity (or should I say soilidarity?). University of Toronto sociologist Harriet Friedmann wrote most insightfully about this aspect of the Toronto ‘community of food practice’, as well as about its pragmatism and continued openness to new ways of doing and thinking about things, in ‘Scaling up: Bringing Public Institutions and Food Corporations into the Project for a Local, Sustainable Food System in Ontario.’[1]

But there are two sides to that free-flowing dialectic. As is true with so many aspects of food, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Easy and porous relations are one thing; centrifugal force is another. The Toronto food movement can keep it together despite distinctions that might prove to be antagonisms elsewhere – this can be seen in the co-operative relationship between foodies who love fine and authentic food and social activists who mainly worry about hunger, to give just one positive example. Nevertheless, the Toronto food movement lacks a centre that holds, an organization with the moral authority to say, ‘We all need to get behind this breakthrough opportunity and put our regular work on hold so we can lift the entire movement up a notch’.

It’s notable that there exist no groups with the sole objective of raising public education and alarm over certain trends, or mobilizing consumer or citizen protest against government inaction on the local and sustainable food file. Neither that kind of thinking nor that kind of leadership is on the minds of many people in the food movement. In the absence of such leadership, we allow decision-making power to veer towards government agencies and foundations that fund special projects and fail to develop leadership that responds to the needs of a broader movement.

I worry about this shortcoming as Toronto heads towards the tipping point of systemic change in the food system. We are now safely out of the margins of public discourse. Food topics are covered on a regular basis in all the media. Food organizations are growing like topsy. Farmers’ markets are popping up all over the place. Organic sales continue to climb faster than most other food segments. Local food is hot. The most conventional food producers – Unilever and Kraft, for example – are going out of their way to market to people who value local and real and fairly traded food. These are all indicators that we’ve successfully moved from the marginal avant garde to the early adopters and are now heading to a place where those inspired by the food movement can rock the food world, both in the stores and in government service (which is, at present, far behind the stores in responsiveness).
Making the most of this imminent opportunity should be at the forefront of serious movement builders’ minds – we need to find mechanisms that work centripetally, that unify diverse people and bring them together behind breakthrough causes. As I write this, I’m hopeful that a food strategy currently in early stages of development under the leadership of Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown – a project I’m privileged to be working on, and that will see food experts from many walks of life coming together in a working group that will advise on a comprehensive food strategy for the 21st-century city – may serve to crystallize that function.[2] If that does not come to pass, another similar force must be invented. Toronto has so much to offer; I hope we can offer a model for getting to the tipping point, too.

[1] Agriculture and Human Values, 2007, 24: pp. 389–98.
[2] Toronto Public Health (2008). ‘Proposal for Development of a Toronto Food Strategy.’ Staff report to the Toronto Board of Health. June 2, 2008. The working group will meet during the winter and spring of 2010, and a draft report from the group will invite citizen engagement and comment towards shaping a final report, which is expected to be tabled with City Council in late 2010 or early 2011.

Taken from The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork. Edited by Christina Palassio and Alana Wilcox. ISBN 978 1 55245 219 6
Wayne is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

Time to wok the dog?

A lot of people were upset to learn that their best friend was a major global warming culprit. According to the 23 October issue of the New Scientist, pet owners can no longer look down on SUV owners as if they alone belonged in the eco-criminal doghouse.

New Zealand/Aotearoa green architects Brenda and Robert Vale did the maths on their pet theory of global warming. They show that feeding pets requires as much land and energy – taken as an indicator of greenhouse gas emissions – as cars. A large dog has a pawprint of 1.1 hectares, about the same as the tyre print of an SUV, while a smaller dog consumes the output of 0.84 hectares and a cat 0.15.

Based on the number of pets in 10 affluent countries, the Vales estimate that cats require the output from more than 400,000 square kilometers a year, about the size of one and a half New Zealands, while dogs require the equivalent of five New Zealands.

To give their findings stunt value, the Vales titled their full-length book Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living. Turns out, however, that the Vales don’t really want to wok your dog. Their pet peeve is that no-one is getting up close and personal enough with their serious responsibilities in managing their output of global warming emissions.

Too many people think they can get off light in their climate responsibilities by changing a few light bulbs or taking a cloth bag to the supermarket, the Vales say. The real choices, given the energy reductions that have to be made, have to cut a lot deeper, to the point that they reach serious trade-offs ‘which are as difficult as eating your dog,’ they say. ‘You might decide to have the cat, but not also to have the two cars and the three bathrooms and be a meat eater yourself.’

Like many environmentalists, the Vales depict the path to a green economy and lifestyle as one that must go through a veil of tears; their vision of the future is a gruesome one, where heart-wrenching variations on eating pets are the only option to catastrophe.

I think their shaggy dog story confirms a totally different approach. The reason why the average person living in the Global North consumes the output of six hectares, six times more than the average person in the Global South, is that Northerners enjoy a lot more non-essentials, or luxuries. To put their sins of emissions behind them, most Northerners only have to give up a few of their more useless or harmful luxuries, without cutting into the basics of survival or enjoyment.

In lieu of the Vales’ footprint approach to measuring how many acres people with different lifestyles trample on, I concocted a pawprint model based on the hectare used up by a large dog. One luxury imposing a heavy burden on the planet would be one pawprint, two luxuries two pawprints, and so on. If all the typical Northerners each commit to eliminating two pawprints’ worth of luxurious expenditures, and pet-owners did penance by doing three, we could do what governments and businesses can’t; and as the show at Copenhagen surely shows, the ball is in our court if anything positive is going to happen.

The average Northerner should be able to get rid of two or three pawprints’ worth of global warming emissions with their eyes shut, simply by dumping bad food habits. Most garbage surveys show that the average person in the Global North throws out over 30 per cent of the groceries they bought at the supermarket. An unnecessary pawprint of emissions went into growing, processing and delivering that food on land that could have hosted trees that sucked carbon out of the atmosphere. Another pawprint went into trucking that waste to landfills, where it will rot and produce methane, over 20 times more powerful a global warming gas than carbon dioxide. Someone else might choose to earn their pawprint reduction badge by reducing the amount of grain-based meat – the most expensive, luxurious and fat-of-the-land form of protein, and also the most taxing on water and energy use. A few servings a week of meat from grassfed livestock would not only be heart-healthier, it would transform meat from a product that increased global warming to one that sucked up carbon in perennial grasses. Home composting is arguably worth another pawprint reduction badge, by virtue of garbage truck miles eliminated as well as by eliminating the need for fossil fuel-based fertilizers and soil conditioners. Growing food in the backyard instead of grass turf, one of the most resource-intensive and environmentally-negative uses land was ever put to, earns another pawprint reduction badge.
It’s so easy to earn pawprint reduction badges by eliminating luxuries that pet-owners can easily earn their pawprint reduction badge by cutting back on another luxury they’re less emotionally attached to.

The Vales might like stunts that dramatize the difficult trade-offs facing people, but as far as I can see, their bark is a lot worse than their bite needs to be.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, November 19-25, 2009

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

Time for an alternative to cheap food

Only Time will tell if we’re at the point in the food debate to pop the taboo question: how come, despite all the squawking about food being too expensive these days, food is so incredibly cheap? What hidden force lies behind all the obvious problems?

To give credit where it’s due, Time magazine, a showpiece of glossy conventional wisdom since 1924, is the first mass-audience news weekly to make a splash – ‘Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food’, the 20 August edition challenges its readers – about the false economies that drive the cheapening of food and all the mishaps that causes.

The Time piece creates a space in which it’s now legitimate to raise questions about the secret social policy and secret foreign policy that drives a food system based on cheapness – a deliberate political decision that’s gone unnoticed and unchallenged by both the Right and Left in Britain and North America for over 150 years.

A moment’s reflection would tell anyone that food bought anywhere in North America cannot possibly be as cheap as it seems. Can a banana that’s been planted, tended, harvested, packed and shipped halfway around the world actually cost half of what it costs to mail a light letter from one side of town to the other? But a moment’s reflection is precisely what cheap food – the economic equivalent to muzak in the supermarket – is designed to suppress. The hegemonic assumption, across Left and Right, green and brown, is that abundant supplies of low-cost food can properly be taken for granted.

For those who don’t have time to read the original, here’s the gist of the argument. The US agricultural industry produces ‘unlimited quantities of meats and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans,’ writer Bryan Walsh maintains. The hidden price tag comes in the form of ‘eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs – and bland taste.’

Until the 1950s, North Americans and Europeans spent as much on food as on shelter: about a quarter of their income. Nowadays, food – most of it ready-to-eat – costs about 10 per cent of most people’s incomes. A good chunk of that price drop can be explained by farm subsidies, especially the $5 billion a year fertilizing the US corn crop, Walsh says, which in turn gets converted into dirt cheap prices for all the things corn goes into – from cornflakes to pop sweetener to meat. Little wonder that cheap carbohydrates and cheap fat win out over unsubsidized fruits and veggies, creating an epidemic of obesity and a disaster for medical expenses. ‘Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health-care bills after our fatty, sugary diet makes us sick, conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier,’ Walsh says. The industrial food system that ‘fills us up but leaves us empty’ is ‘based on selective forgetting. But what we eat – how it’s raised and how it gets to us – has consequences that can’t be ignored any longer.’

To which I would add, in the interest of overcoming ‘selective forgetting’, that there’s a history to this, stretching all the way back to the ‘bread and circuses’ that kept the Roman proletariat preoccupied during the collapse of the Roman Empire. Closer to today, as I explain in painful detail in The No Nonsense Guide to World Food, cheap food was adopted as a strategy of the British empire after the 1840s, when Britain became the free trading ‘workshop to the world’, keeping impoverished workers alive on cheap sugar and grains from Canada and other colonies.

Instead of propping up living standards with low-cost housing, as was done in continental Europe, the Brits opted for cheap food. This was cunning social policy because it kept the edge and crankiness of desperate hunger off the agenda of working class politics, and also served to divide the lower orders into two groups – one that lived on the right side of the poverty line because they ate cheap food and the other, which lived on the wrong side of the poverty line because they grew, made and sold cheap food. Unlike Europe, where labour politics was based on social unionism concerned with betterment of all, Anglo labour politics centred on what was called ‘bread and butter’ or ‘porkchop’ or business unionism concerned with specific occupational groups. This divide between Anglo-American and European politics has endured until today.

In this century, particularly after the 1970s, cheap meat was added to the diet of cheap sugar and grain in Anglo America. Fast food joints prepared salt, animal fat and carbohydrate meals so cheaply that the low cost of food played the same role in Anglo America that cheap servants play in the developing world – providing affordable treats to middle-income workers by super-exploiting people at the bottom rung in the food industry. For all that Julia Child thought she helped the servantless American middle classes eat well, cheap food helped them even more. The foreign policy side of the story related to US, and to some extent Canadian, efforts to find a counterpoint to the power granted to Arab and other colonies by direct access to petrol. What North America had, and cheap oil producers didn’t, was cheap food, so cheap that many colonial countries became dependent on it. This is the global geopolitical role played by cheap food, originally masterminded by Nixon henchman Henry Kissinger.

These unspoken realities behind food politics explain why food has the pricepoint it has, why food producers, by far the largest occupational grouping in the world, account for the great majority of the world’s poor, hungry, nutrient-deficient and diseased, and why – despite the ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ damage to personal and environmental health – it’s taken so long to start a serious discussion about it. Nothing so powerful as an idea who’s come to Time.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, 10 – 16 September 2009.

Food fights

I read about Chef Jamie Kennedy possibly going broke on the front-page news (not bad profile for someone who’s not a banker or carmaker getting bailed out by the Government) at the same time I got an invite to see the preview of Food Inc. So the chance to think about the two food happenings together gobsmacked me. Food Inc and Food Red Ink – I came to realize there’s more cause-effect here than we might think.

I see so few movies that I’m easy to please at the worst of times. The great camera work, interviews, writing and storyline of Food Inc produce a powerful effect of a commercial food system without an ethical bone in its body.

But I’m disappointed that movie producers in today’s highly-conscious globalized world can treat the theme of an ‘industrialized food system’ as if the industrialized food system has no country of birth and as if no countries have food systems that were colonized, not just industrialized. About the only country in the world that would identify industrialized food as merely industrial instead of US multinational is the United States. And the widespread equation of industrial and American food is justifiable, if a bit sloppy. Industrialized food, as I argue in my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, is a byproduct of US efforts to maintain military, political and economic control of the world, from the time of the post-World War Two new world order during the 1940s to the time of the post-Cold War new world order since the 1990s. Industrialization of food gave the green light for US domination of cheap food exports, which created economic and political dependency. One problem with local, I guess, is that sometimes movies can get too close to see the whole picture.

Once the movie triggered my old Canadian nationalist buttons, my mind flashed back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. That’s when Susan Crean’s Who’s Afraid of Canadian Culture? was all the rage, and Canadian singers, writers, comics, actors, artists and academics – but alas, no foodies – were demanding some attention as possible prophets in their own country.

The best of them were going broke trying to produce in, for, about and from the local Canadian scene – just like Jamie Kennedy, the Margaret Atwood of Canadian bacon, is going broke now. And like Kennedy, the Canadian authors, actors, comics, singers and academics of the 1970s got stern lectures about being too exclusive, too highbrow, too lacking in talent and smarts. You could call them too anything as long as you didn’t come out and make the most obvious point: they were too unsupported by their own governments’ agencies and policies.

The bald truth is that Jamie Kennedy, the most celebrated of the local celeb chefs, is in trouble for the same reason Canadian cultural figures working in non-food media were in trouble 40 years ago; he’s being done in by his own government.

Kennedy is quoted in the local media as blaming his economic problems on the high cost of local food. That upset a lot of localista, who feel that problem shouldn’t be named. And it caused a howl among the yuppie-bashers, who wondered how the price of local food could ever be high enough to explain Kennedy’s sky-high prices.
But Kennedy’s baseline problem flows from the unofficial but unspoken food policy of Canadian governments at all levels: no good deed goes unpunished.

The reason why local food is only available at upscale restaurants and high-end farmers markets is that government policy makes local food unaffordable anywhere else.

Kennedy was one of the founders of the Knives and Forks farmers’ market that first brought farmers’ markets to neighbourhood streets way back in the 1990s, when today’s farmers’ market revival was just a gleam in a few foodies’ eyes. Today, he spends countless hours bringing local and artisanal foods to the Brickworks and other food oases. While he takes time from his day job to find and support local farmers, conventional chefs, cooks and fast-food managers rely on imported food delivered right to their door, thanks to the just-in-time logistics of multinational supply chains that feature anonymous foods selected on price point alone.

Governments evidently believe it’s a level playing field when the two kinds of restaurants or retail outlets compete head to head on price and quality, even after governments have funded a virtually-free highway system for long-haul food truckers to navigate.

It should not be thought that governments have no ability to promote local products. At the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the biggest booze retailer in the world, Ontario wine is the first thing an incoming customer sees. Same for beer at the government-sanctioned monopoly called the Beer Store. Same for Lottario tickets at corner convenience stores – no long-distance betting in this province, where the Government takes the lion’s share of money wasted on gambling.
Only when it comes to the cornerstones of nutritious diets, healthy lifestyles and sustainable economies do governments lose their ability to provide infrastructure for local product. For example, Ontario’s government-owned Food Terminal for wholesale buyers does nothing to highlight Ontario-grown food. There’s no requirement that supermarkets give a nudge with product placement for local, as is done in booze stores. Since both federal and provincial government agriculture department officials have their heads stuck in the sands of export economies, there are virtually no programmes to support post-harvest handling, customized processing or even basic inspection of local foods – the latter being the reason why New Zealand lamb gets into local restaurants with clearance from the Canadian Government, while would-be shepherds in Ontario try to find nearby federally-inspected slaughterhouses. Government purchases of local or sustainable food is much talked about, but I can’t name a handful of places where it’s policy, and rarer still, where the policy is implemented.

Public infrastructure for local foods barely exists because governments – following the directives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others – have ceded infrastructure to be a private matter for multinational corporations to decide on, with no regard for family farms, community enterprises or public health. That’s why Jamie Kennedy is facing tough times, and – the good news – why movies like Food Inc are now coming out of the US.

(adapted from Now Magazine, July 2, 2009; Wayne Roberts is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)

Less means more

Carlo Leifert

The great divide between food and farming is about to become a blur as a result of pioneering scientific research in Europe that’s pushing the boundaries of health and agricultural policy. Though no poem insists that ‘food is food and agriculture is agriculture, and never the twain shall meet’, that may as well be the watchword in both fields. The chasm between the two is rarely bridged at any level of public discussion or decision-making. Food writers rarely report on farms, and vice versa. Nutritionists rarely discuss anything that happens to food before it’s harvested, and vice versa for agronomists; even the champions of organic farming rarely make nutritional claims. Doctors barely know about nutrition and hospitals serve what is called hospital food, just as farmers and processors don’t fret about what happens to diabetes rates when all their corn is turned into cheap pop and junkfood filler. Government ministries and departments of food and agriculture rarely meet, let alone worry about harmonizing their policies.

The two solitudes

I’ve long believed that the vice versas of the Two Solitudes of food and farm are responsible for most of the ills in both worlds, and so was all ears when Carlo Leifert came to speak to the annual Canadian Organic Growers (COG) conference in Toronto during February. Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in England, manages 31 institutes in a collaborative research project that’s revolutionizing our understanding of how humble farming methods – not just high-tech food storage, packaging and cooking methods – can boost health outcomes of food. Leifert’s team is tasked to help farmers do more with less by using low-cost methods to grow high-value food – thus the name of his project, the Quality Low Input Food Project.

The less is more approach applies as much to eaters as farmers; turns out that organic eats are so much more nutrient-dense that this could well become the new low-input weight-loss fad

The work is funded by the European Union, which hopes to shift its hundreds of billions of dollars in yearly agricultural subsidies away from encouraging high volume and toward encouraging high nutritional and environmental quality. The less is more approach applies as much to eaters as farmers; turns out that organic eats are so much more nutrient-dense that this could well become the new low-input weight-loss fad.

From quantity to quality

The shift from quantity to quality is a huge shift for Europe, where heart-wrenching memories of widespread famines during the 1930s and ’40s inspired policies that drive up food production. That obsession has held firm, even as populations began to suffer more from obesity than hunger, and as mountains of unsold food surplus, rather than shortages, kept farming in perpetual crisis. But as the research by Leifert’s team gains ground, the merging of farm, food, health and environment concerns will become the new normal. I predict this convergence if the food and health field will outshine the significance of the 1990s convergence of the media, information, computer and entertainment industries.

Leifert wastes no time getting to his findings. Organic farming methods ‘are the only way forward,’ he begins his talk at COG. ‘Even in the short term, organic is the only way to achieve acceptable yields.’

Those are fighting words for the champions of costly chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, tractors and harvesters, the stock in trade of typical farmers in the Global North, often backed by more expensive capital equipment than the typical factory worker. Though many have criticized the environmental and social costs of capital-intensive methods that emptied the countryside population and polluted its ground and water, none have dared challenge the supremacy of high inputs when it comes to production of cheap and plentiful food.

Leifert, who has a PhD in microbiology, insists his views are based strictly on science, not personal preferences. Over a long lunch at the Yorkville organic restaurant, True, he lays out the objective reasons why the high-input farming methods that produced low-cost food in the recent past are fast becoming obsolete.

With about 30 years’ supply left in the world, mostly in Africa and Canada, the cost of phosphorus imports alone is already so expensive that it is starting to drive European conventional food prices to the level of organic

Chemical fertilizer made up of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) is the foundation stone of modern industrialized agriculture, since it let farmers specialize and grow the same crops on the same field year after year. Organic farmers, who spread their time composting and rotating many crops of veggies, grains, animals and green manures, couldn’t compete on labour time or price.

The N in NPK is the headline act in conventional agriculture because it’s the chemical elixir that gives plants energy, albeit at a cost of spewing out 2.38 tons of global-warming gases for every ton of fossil fuel-based nitrogen – not exactly a high environmental quality.

Phosphorus - the limiting factor

But the sleeper when it comes to resources and productivity is the P for mined phosphorus, which Leifert calls ‘the bottleneck’ or ‘limiting factor’ of plant production, since no other chemical has an impact without phosphorus. With about 30 years’ supply left in the world, mostly in Africa and Canada, the cost of phosphorus imports alone is already so expensive that it is starting to drive European conventional food prices to the level of organic, he says. The organic fertility strategy, which relies on recycling crop and animal wastes instead of purchasing them from off-farm, can survive the resource crunch, Leifert argues. But the trump card is nutritional quality.

It turns out that synthetic fertilizers produced quantity at the expense of quality, for the simple reason that artificial nitrogen encouraged plants to grow fast to compete for light, thereby prioritizing starch relative to complex nutrients. Pesticides also discouraged plant production of nutrients, which may have evolved to protect plants from pests, he says.

When it comes to meat and milk, the organic leg up is even more dramatic. There is more protein, more Vitamin E, more lutein, more caretenoids and more omega 3 fats in food coming from animals wandering outdoors to chew on fresh pasture, Leifert’s research team has proven – much better than the results from animals fattened fast inside a barn on stored grains. That makes for a healthy difference in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, some child allergies and even e-coli incidents, he says, and a significant reduction in medical costs. As well, a person gets the same nutrients from 10 to 20 per cent less calories, Leifert says. ‘If obesity is a major problem, then that’s a benefit.’

Give cows grass!

He’s the first to admit his findings aren’t based on rocket science. Exhaustive research covering differences in northern and southern European farms, in winter and summer, in barns and out in the fresh air, proves ‘we have to give cows grass,’ he says. ‘We could have told you that before.’ Indeed, Sir Albert Howard, one of the pioneers of organic farming in the 1940s, based his arguments on organic farming’s yeoman service to health exclusively on the superiority of fields composted with manure and crop wastes. This fertility ‘is the basis of the public health system of the future,’ Howard wrote during the 1940s, and can reverse the ‘famine of quality’ resulting from ‘vast supplies of bastard nitrogen’ left over from war industries. Only the fragmentation into distinct specialities could prevent public awareness of these benefits, Howard warned of ‘the plague of so-called experts’ who have specialized to the point where they learn ‘more and more about less and less.’

That plague may now be coming to an end. Individuals who buy organic food can now expect to get more nutrients for their money, and public health likewise depends on higher-cost food that leads to lower-cost medicine – a smart and humane trade-off since food-based disease prevention is always cheaper and happier than medical cures.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, 28 April 2009

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


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