By Jeff Carter
I had conversation some time ago with an indigenous professor from Western Canada; a person with a distinguished academic career with books and many peer-reviewed articles to their name.
During the course of our discussion, the topic shifted to food. I asked her opinion of the idea creating a better relationship within Canada, farmers in the south working closely with to remote northern communities to provide more affordable and nutritious food options and eventually establishing mutually beneficial trade.
In Northern Canada – it’s no secret – food security has been a problem for decades. It’s not so much in terms of quantity. Rather it is quality and the exorbitant cost. Rates of diabetes, heart diseases and other health issues are running rampant.
The professor, rather than responding, suggested the member of the communities in question may not have an interest in the types of food that might be provided through such an arrangement. I remained silent, thinking that’s something the peoples of those communities will have to work out for themselves.
Then came a surprise. I was asked whether the First Nations of Canada can “count on” the government.
I didn’t answer then but having considered the question in the intervening months I’ve come up with an answer of sorts: “Ask a farmer.”
It is not just indigenous communities impacted by the failure of the food system. The crisis is growing everywhere, throughout Canada and globally. Increasingly, families are forced into difficult decisions of where to spend their limited incomes while at the same time members of farming community struggle to remain profitable and deal with the fallout of that struggle – stress and mental illness.
Having worked as a food-system/agricultural journalist for the past 30-odd years, I don’t think it’s out of the way to make a few observations.
The wider Canadian community remains blissfully unaware of the realities of today’s food system despite the diligence of members of the farm community to correct this issue. I spoke, for instance, to my farm-raised sister who didn’t realize that field corn is no longer ‘picked’ but rather combined.
According to Food Banks Canada, food insecurity has reached an all-time high in Canada. The time is ripe for fundamental change, given that an ancient maxim remains as true today as it did millennia ago – “Hunger breeds unrest.” While food banks, soup kitchens and others charitable means to feed disenfranchised families will grow, more consideration will be given to the underlying issues that necessitate these efforts.
Agriculture’s future will no longer be based on the extraction of inexpensive fossil fuels. That transition will be gradual but inevitable, driven primarily by market forces rather than government policy. Farmers have already made the initial shift, limiting their use of energy-rich inputs to the point they’re able to remain profitable – at least when the stars align themselves favourably. Others have moved even further in this direction, embracing soil-based systems to capture such benefits as animal-crop dynamics and the power of soil biology.
Local food systems will continue to grow. The idea of local, once viewed with a certain level of distain within some quarters of the farm community, is being increasingly embraced throughout the food system but that doesn’t necessarily support all participants, including farmers. For farm families to benefit, they must exercise a high degree of control.
Not only will the trend toward home cooking continue, gardening will make a comeback but, as with farming, the transition will take time. As more families build their ‘from-scratch’ skills in the kitchen, growing their own food, or at least sourcing it directly from farmers will be embraced more widely. ◊