Friday, 9 March 2012

All This Talk About Food Is Making Me Hungry!

The last 48 hours of my life have been a crash course in a broken food system. 

This is not to say I didn't care about food issues previously. My love has made me quite aware of some of the challenges facing our current food consumption style from the day we met. Since then I've been frequenting farmers markets and trying to ensure as much of my food dollar goes to the people producing it as possible. Supporting local farmers for my meat and veggies along with any other sustenance available has quickly become a part of my lifestyle. On top of this, I've tried to severely limit the amount of money that I'm spending at fast food. This scene from Food Inc can best describe why I haven't eaten a nugget in at least a month. 

I sat in at the PEI Adapt Conference yesterday and learned a great deal. I brought my notebook with me, as I tend to do everywhere. In the last three months I've scribbled about six pages of random notes about random things as I wandered the Atlantic Provinces. Yesterday's conference quickly saw an additional six pages of notes added. This post is my attempt to pass on what I've learned in the last 48 hours: 

Do You Know What  CSA Is? If So, Why Don't You Have One?  

CSA stands for Community Supported (or shared) Agriculture. 

With a CSA you give your farmer X dollars at the beginning of the season. "X" will change depending on what you're buying. Obviously, a meat CSA is more expensive than a veggie CSA (per pound). With the money that you give the farmer, they use it for their operating costs. Seeds/livestock, tractors, etc. Many of these farmers even have greenhouses to help them produce some of the more sought after veggies like tomatoes and peppers. After that, at different intervals (some go weekly, some biweekly, others as one time returns) you get a box of food from your farmer. Most farmers just have a set box that has a mix of items. In the early part of the season it's usually greener - but as the season goes on you'll see more carrots and other colorful items crop up* as they come to harvest. Other farmers (like presenter Jen) will have something where you have a mostly set box, but can grab other items as wanted. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone likes broccoli. 

More often than not these are coming from small family farms that are using organic production standards and not the industrialized food model. My love and I will be participating in at least two this year, and I'd encourage you to do so. 

We Can Learn From The South

Dr. Av Singh's discussion outlined lessons that can be learned in the north from our neighbors to the far south.

In our culture we've redefined innovation as being something new and often technological, and fallen away from appreciating innovative ideas. For something to be an innovative idea, it does not need to be the most cutting edge technology. In fact, the most innovative ideas right now are those going against the trend of technology. As Monsanto is suing farmers for saving seeds, and actively trying to destroy the practice so new seeds can be sold yearly one of the most innovative things a farmer can do right now is save their seeds for the next season. 

Innovation can take the form of where you seek your advice too. In Africa, there was nearly an entire generation of farmers killed by AIDS. So the new generation is having to go back two generations for knowledge in this regard. I fear that in our western culture we'd seek scientists and consultants, whereas there's this beauty in farmers that so many are willing to freely share knowledge and information. 

I found this quote Dr.Singh shared form National Geographic was quite profound: 

Still, storing seeds in banks to bail us out of future calamities is only a halfway measure. Equally worthy of saving is the hard-earned wisdom of the world's farmers, generations of whom crafted the seeds and breeds we now so covet. Perhaps the most precious and endangered resource is the knowledge stored in farmers' minds.

Land was briefly discussed, and it was noted that in the south there's significant land acquisition taking place. This acquisition is mostly for the purpose of carbon credits and sprawl. The soil quality doesn't contain any currency, much like our culture. The land is only worth as much as you can exploit it for. 

There were two stats from Asia that I found particularly interesting: 
  • In China and India there are 200,000,000 rice farmers. (Close to 6x the population of Canada) 
  • In India, 70% of their milk comes from farms that have 1 or 2 cows. 
As CBC reported (or sensationalized depending on your viewpoint), another part of the discussion was that we need to see a shift in our culture to spend more on food. When I asked him how we move people from where we are currently (most don't visit farmers markets, for example) he said two things that stood out to me: 
  • "Food can also be part of our entertainment" 
  • "We need to challenge Sobeys and Superstore and let them know that we want real food"
We should reevaluate the money that we're spending on our entertainment budget (movies, video games, vacations etc) and shift some of that into the food pile. If we do that in conjunction with increasing our social activities over food (dinner parties, pot lucks, etc) we could have a significant positive impact on our farmers, our culture, and our health. 

The Little Hippies That Could

Jeff and Debra Moore kicked things off after a delicious lunch from Papa Joe's. They founded Just Us Coffee Roasters Cooperative.   

Jeff first outlined how the quality of coffee dropped significantly during the 80's as the big players raced for the bottom in price. Once that happened, people started shifting to other carbonated beverages, namely colas.  

They started a fair trade coffee company. As they put it, they wanted to have a coffee producer that was "...not subsidized by economic and social injustice." They started by traveling around to local food stores and other retailers that would have them giving out samples to anyone interested. People were impressed by the quality of their product, and success was not far behind. 

"The worse industrial food becomes, the more large the opening for local producers"  

They then outlined how small producers have started to lose control over fair trade. As people started to demand fair trade products (thanks, Coldplay), corporations wanted to look responsible and join on part of this. Nestle famously had under 1% of its purchases as fair trade, but chose to market its fair trade coffee heavily to give the impression it was a fair trade company. As part of this influx of corporations, the fair trade price stayed stagnant for almost 20 years. Furthermore, multi-nationals would use this minimum price (per pound of coffee) as THE price, whereas smaller roasters like Just Us would use this price as the minimum. 

With all that said, Just Us products are now featured in Atlantic Superstores and business is booming with expansions planned. How did they break into the Superstores? "It only takes a couple of people to say something" said Debra. She explained how as few as one or two people would ask at their local store, and sure enough they'd get a call seeking product.  

This couple also had my two favorite quotes of the day: 
  • "Never trust a man who says he's the boss, because you don't know what else he'll lie to you about." 
  • "There's a lot of awareness but not a lot of solutions"  

What Did You Learn At School Today? 

We need to make better choices with our food. Not only that, but we need to hold our retailers accountable for what they're stocking the shelves with too. If your grocer isn't giving you healthy choices, talk to them! The much better option is to talk to a farmer though. Sure it might be slightly less convenient, but the positives for our culture, your health, and society as a whole are immeasurable. 

*Sorry, I can't resist puns sometimes.

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