When I was in grade twelve, I traveled to the Dominican Republic with a group of twenty students from my high school in order to learn about sugar production. The trip allowed me to see, first hand, how sugar is grown. I also heard stories about living and working conditions from those who grow and cut sugar cane. While we were given an overview of the importance of consumer activism to, for instance, the decline in child labour in these communities, we were also confronted by poverty. My most vivid memory of the trip is of a conversation that I had with an elderly woman who took me on a tour of her home. A hurricane had decimated the village a few years before, and scrap metal had been used to reconstruct one or two room dwellings there. Over a small fire, she heated an oiled pan and warmed a can of sardines, asking myself and two other guests if we would like some. Having just completed an activity in which we unsuccessfully attempted to purchase a week’s worth of groceries using the weekly wages that are paid to sugar cane producers, I politely declined. She stood slowly to show us her room. A mattress stained deep brown was a prized possession. I thought about how her community sweetens those in other places. The experience has forever changed the way I look at food and left me with a lasting sense that my consumption habits here affect the lives of persons elsewhere.
While I remain convinced that my food choices here do make a difference, an event that was held in St. John’s last month serves as a reminder that consumption activities alone will not solve all of the problems within modern food systems. An audience filled Petro Canada Hall to near capacity midway through October for the event The Future of Food: Ending Hunger Globally, Sourcing Food Locally. Oxfam Canada Executive Director Robert Fox began the evening by declaring that the global food system is broken, and continued to outline just what he meant by this. The Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Executive Director, Kristie Jameson, followed Fox’s discussion and added some local context to the discussion of contemporary food systems.
Ending Hunger Globally
Fox made reference to the food crisis in East Africa and famine in Somalia in the early stages of his address. An estimated 11 million people have been affected, making it one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Next, he provided an overview of the ways in which farm subsidies in the United States, Canada and Europe affect food systems in Latin America and the Caribbean; notably by dumping excess, cheap goods into foreign markets, which serves to decimate local food economies in other regions. Articulating the environmental cost of globalized food trade, Fox encouraged audience members to consume products that are grown close to home in order to limit food miles. His speech gave the sense that the development of local food systems everywhere would fix many of the current woes, including hunger and environmental degradation. Finally, Fox assessed the corporate land grab, a practice that displaces native peoples in some regions, and buys up agricultural land and family farms in the Canadian prairies as a form of investment, or to create industrial farms.
According to Fox, there are a number of ways that citizens can address these issues. You could focus on human rights and advocate for universal access to healthy food, or address environmental issues related to food production and distribution, or labour rights, or land rights, or trade standards. The list goes on and on. Buying local and/or fairly traded goods was one possible solution mentioned. Informing ourselves about the food system, voting, asking questions about where our foods come from, how they are produced and by whom, and writing letters to government officials and businesses were other steps that he encouraged us to take. So, while Fox articulated his sense of the global food system’s disarray, his discussion did not unfold as a completely depressing eulogy. Rather, he endeavoured to challenge those in attendance to do something with the information he shared.
Sourcing Food Locally
The call to purchase locally produced foods has been made by a number of food systems analysts, researchers, and environmentalists, as well as food critics, nutritionists and chefs. It is not difficult to sell people on the benefits of local food, which supports area producers, leads to a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, and involves enjoying the taste of fresh food. As I pointed out in my last article, it is difficult to purchase these foods at large grocery stores in the province, but berries, apples, and plums are ripe for picking across the province in summer. Gardening can supply families and individuals with fresh lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, carrots, beans, beets, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, and a variety of other vegetables. Hunting, fishing and trouting are also great ways to derive local animal proteins. The Food Security Network has created a “Food Security Inventory”, which lists organizations and businesses across the province that offer local food.
For Fox, it was important to note that consumption habits are not enough to address the current inequalities and sustainability issues along food production, processing and distribution lines. Fixing a broken food system will require political effort as well.
Kristie Jameson is the Executive Director of the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador (FSN). Since taking on the role, Jameson, staff members Rick Kelly and Sarah Ferber, and a volunteer Board have worked to further establish a vibrant network of food security organizations across the province, and FSN has worked closely with farmers, fishers, researchers, interested citizens, health officials and government representatives. Through FSN’s collaborative approach to understanding and addressing food security issues, Jameson has come to understand the province’s food system and spoken about the issues that we face within the province.
Like Fox, Jameson called on audience members to support the creation of local food economies by seeking local options. She also indicated that provincial consumers are increasingly interested in purchasing local foods but that we currently do not produce enough to create a sustainable local food economy.
…provincial consumers are increasingly interested in purchasing local foods but…we currently do not produce enough to create a sustainable local food economy.
The audience was given insight into the status of the province’s agricultural sector as a result of Jameson’s discussion. There were 558 farms listed in the 2006 census, which is less than what was recorded in the previous census year. Jameson also noted that Newfoundland and Labrador is home to an aging farmer population. When it comes to the economic rewards of these activities, it was revealed that an estimated 45.8% of farmers hold part-time jobs. Agricultural fees are quite high, and it has been reported that “Newfoundland and Labrador’s total gross farm receipts was $107.0 million in 2005 while operating expenses reached $91.9 million.” Narrow profit margins, difficulty securing land, and physically demanding working conditions seem to make farming a challenging career to enter.
Jameson highlighted some of the questions that her organization is asking, which include: How do we make farming an attractive career for young people? How do we ensure that those who produce the food we eat will be paid a living wage? At the end of the discussion, audience members also asked about the prospect of a local food system that can meet regional demand.
Creating a Just and Sustainable Food System
According to Jameson, creating a sustainable and equitable local food system will require greater support for careers in food production, the protection of agricultural land, and increased access to grants for young people who are interested in becoming farmers. Just as Fox asserted that local food consumption is one action among many that citizens might take in order to address global hunger, Jameson also indicated that the complexities of these problems require deeper attention and wider response.
For me, the event brought back memories of the Dominican Republic and caused me to think about the need to consider how globalized food trade feeds us here. Purchasing fairly traded sugar, or writing letters to food suppliers seem like good ways to address the issues that I learnt about as a high school student. Eating locally is one way to address problems within food systems. The event also gave me the sense that, if we are to improve working, living and environmental conditions along the food chain, and increase access to fresh, healthy, local food in Newfoundland and Labrador, we must eat thoughtfully, and push to make sustainable food production a priority among decision-makers and developers.
My next column will feature Sarah Crocker, who is part of an organic farming collective called Seed to Spoon, located in Portugal Cove.