The Politics on Our Plate

Should we push away from globalized food production, or just keep digging in?

 

In April, the LRC and Diaspora Dialogues hosted the inaugural edition of the Spur festival in Toronto and Winnipeg. At one extremely lively Winnipeg session, locavore Sarah Elton met her rhetorical arch-nemesis, Pierre Desrochers, a dedicated globavore.

They waged a verbal battle over what each has called, respectively, our “destructive” large-scale farming practices and the “elitist” local food movement. The moderator, local reporter Bartley Kives, challenged Elton to imagine the drudgery of surviving Canadian winters on nothing but locally sourced rutabagas. Then he forced Desrochers to face his aversion to life on the farm, cultivated during a childhood spent surrounded by corn fields.

The result was a witty, informed discussion about how to feed a growing number of mouths with the economy and the environment at stake. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the event.

 

Bartley Kives: I want first to allow Pierre and Sarah to start off in a debate. Each of them is going to make a five-minute presentation, roughly, and then they are going to go at it. Let’s start with Sarah.

Sarah Elton: To research my new book, Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet, I travelled around the world. I met with scientists and economists and farmers and all sorts of people who are looking into the answer for how we feed the growing world population. The scientific consensus is that climate change is having such a profound impact on the Earth, as well as on the biosphere, that the way we grow our food now in the industrial food system is just not suited to the climate of the future. I open my book with a story of a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, Dr. Lewis Ziska, who looks at how plants respond to higher temperatures and to higher levels of carbon dioxide—the conditions that will increasingly become the norm with climate change. His work has found that it is actually the weeds that are growing the best. They are going to fare the best in these extreme conditions of climate change. The lambsquarters in his climate change test plots grew to be two times the size of those on the farm, and that would be three-metre-tall lambsquarters. Weeds are already a huge problem for farmers. Farmers use herbicides today to kill weeds, before they grow, but the science shows us that as carbon dioxide levels increase—as they do with climate change—these chemicals are no longer as effective. That means weeding giant, herbicide-resistant weeds by hand. It is like Little Shop of Horrors come to life in the field.

Not only is modern conventional agriculture not equipped to feed us in the future, but it is also now contributing significantly to climate change and the destruction of our natural environment. For one thing, it is draining our groundwater aquifers. The toxic chemicals and fertilizers we use to grow food in the monocultures of the industrial food system are polluting the soil and the water, and the oceans, too. Meat production is responsible at least for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

I know we are gathered today for debate. And in the spirit of freedom of expression, I am all for debate. However, when it comes to our food system and the future of the planet, we are past the point of debate. Now it is about choice. We can choose to debate the merits of industrial food until we can’t see each other through those three-metre-tall lambsquarter plants anymore, and then we can watch our food system collapse. Or we can choose to take action now. Today I bring you good news: there is a global sustainable food movement that is working right now around the world to build food systems that are not only more environmentally sustainable but also just and ethical.

A sustainable food system is one that provides for us today as well as tomorrow. What this looks like in practice is the antithesis of the industrial food system. It is farms where the soil is healthy, where the nutrients are managed responsibly, where farmers steward the water, where they pay attention to biodiversity both in the soil and in the hedgerows—the pollinators, the birds.

The second major characteristic of a sustainable food system is that it is one where farmers can earn a living. A sustainable food system also involves rethinking the economics of food, figuring out a way for family farmers to earn a living wage and also a way for rural communities to thrive.

There will always be skeptics of any social change. This social movement is building our safety net, and the future really is just a blink away. The industrial food system has run its course. It must be replaced to ensure that those who come after us can feed themselves just as well as we can today.

BK: I know Sarah just said there shouldn’t be a debate, but we are going to let Pierre speak.

Pierre Desrochers: Sarah, that was pretty scary. I should perhaps tell you a little bit more how I came to write about food. I grew up in the countryside. My parents had an apple orchard—a sugar shack, I mean. We kept chickens in our backyard before it was cool, or before it became cool again. We had rabbits. My brother and I would not eat them, because we liked our rabbits very much. Every fall we would trade them with our neighbours, so that we would eat the neighbours’ rabbits instead of eating our own rabbits.

My first paying job, although Revenue Canada never knew anything about it, was working for the raspberry producer across the street. I worked for the Quebec Farmers’ Union at one point. My job was to go to downtown Montreal with a bus driver to pick up new immigrants who would actually do field work that French Canadians did not want to do anymore. Like many country kids, I left at 15 and I thought, I’m done. I am moving to the city. I do not want to have anything to do with food anymore.

So I became an economic geographer. Part of my job description is to understand why businesses locate where they do and why economic activity is organized across space the way it is. Over time I also specialized in energy and transportation.

A few years ago, my department invited a prominent environmental studies professor to speak. He is known for having developed what is called the ecological footprint. One conclusion of his analysis is to say “If you live beyond your local foodshed, you are essentially an ecological parasite. And look at my data—by far the most parasitical people in the world are the Japanese.” My wife’s name is Hiroko Shimizu. She grew up in Tokyo, and she was sitting right next to me that evening. She is not very tall, but she is kind of feisty, so she was about to raise her hand and embarrass me in front of my colleagues.

I had to promise her that evening that I would explain to the world why the Japanese are not parasites. They just do not have enough land to grow their food, so they have specialized in other things. And they import food from locations that have better growing conditions. Overall, we argue, the world is a better place for that.

But the problem is that at the turn of the 20th century, the United States began to close its door to Japanese imports. When the food ceased to come to Japan, Japan went to the food. They invaded Taiwan to grow rice; they invaded Manchuria to grow soybeans. And there were all the horrors of the Second World War. Hiroko wanted to explain the benefits of a global trade system not only in terms of providing more abundant, cheaper and more diversified food than before, but also in
terms of promoting food security and world peace.

At the same time, I was, to be honest, a bit fed up with people who do not see anything good in the way we grow and trade food today, when we live much longer than ever before, we are taller than ever before and we are fatter than ever before. Poor people are fat today. This is a remarkable development by historical standards. Yes, our system is not perfect, but the case we tried to make in our book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, is that the problem that we have with our food system today is not that it is too globalized and killing all sorts of stuff, but rather that it is not globalized enough. Whatever problems remaining with our food system can usually be attributed to subsidies, barriers to trade and issues like that.

SE: I don’t know quite where to start. Well, I will start with the issue of the historical narrative that brought us to where we are today. It was a series of historical events, like colonialism, trade routes and political decisions, that led us to the point where, after the Second World War, the mega machine that is the industrial food system was assembled pretty quickly. But it had been coming for several centuries before that. I think what motivates writers like Michael Pollan, and what motivates me as a journalist, is a desire to point out something wrong in society: our food system is destroying our planet. There is a scientific consensus about this, that the food system contributes greenhouse gases that cause climate change. In fact, it has been proven in a 30-year, side-by-side trial by the Rodale Institute in the United States, where they planted conventional and organic fields beside each other. Organic agriculture had 40 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions. It is quite an unethical system that we have that creates this dichotomy—these cheap calories making people unwell, as well as drawing on the planet’s resources to such an extent.

BK: I am going to localize this conversation. This is Winnipeg. We just got out of winter now that it is almost May. How would you propose that people in this immediate environment eat local all through a winter that lasts from the middle of October usually to the end of March, early April? Would you be proposing greenhouses, or we all live on rutabagas all winter?

SE: There is a greenhouse outside of Winnipeg that I learned about today, and it is a passive greenhouse where the farmer manages to grow Asian vegetables all year round, even in winter. So there are ideas—we just have not explored them because the focus has been on stoking the fires of the industrial food system.

PD: That is not a new idea. If you look at Paris in the late 19th century, about a sixth of the greater Parisian area was devoted to food production. This was in the days before the car, so people were producing vegetables in greenhouses or under cloches, which are the things you put over the vegetables. In the 1820s they succeeded in growing green asparagus year round. And in the late 19th century they began to grow other things year round, including pineapples. They used to grow pineapples in greenhouses in Paris.

Eventually, the system fell apart when the railroad came along. It became possible to import things from southern France, Italy, Spain into the Parisian market. So the food supply became more abundant, and a lot cheaper. These people gave up on farming year round in greenhouses around Paris because it didn’t make any sense. Southern Manitoba is very good at growing canola and a few other things, and you have better yields here than elsewhere, so it makes total sense that you would specialize in that. There are such things as economies of scale. Small is often beautiful, but bigger is typically better.

SE: In fact, small farms produce more than large farms. There is a term I am sure you know—from geography—called the inverse relationship between farm size and output. The World Bank uses IR when building development projects. Small farms tend to grow more food. They think it has to do with the labour. It seems like labour is used more efficiently on a small farm than on a large farm.

Pierre, you keep talking about going back. I think that nobody in the global sustainable food movement wants to go back to a time where people are subsistence farmers who have to knit their own socks and eat potatoes for three quarters of the year. (I like to knit socks!)

However, I took several trips to write my book. I went to the south of France and spent time with farmers who used to be into industrial agriculture. They cut themselves out of the industrial food system and have been building up their connection with nature, and building a stronger, more sustainable food system. The man who has led this effort is André Valadier, who told me, “I always remember the words that my parents told me. My parents always said that if you go out into the fields in the winter and the snow is blowing, and you can’t find out where you’re going, you get lost, and you have to retrace your steps.” Then—he was 78 years old when I was with him—he said, “But I do not need to wear my old sabots de bois”—he does not need to wear his old wooden clogs. He can move into the future and adopt new technology and new ways of thinking and innovation while being mindful of what people did in the past. It is this blending of perspectives that is moving people into the future.

PD: Where did the shoes of Monsieur André come from?

SE: His new shoes? He was actually wearing rubber Crocs. And just before you say so—

PD: A petroleum product.

SE: It’s hilarious, yes. I totally recognize that irony. But it is not about states that do not trade with anybody. It is about figuring out what is a new way that is sustainable. In fact, the Laguiole cheese that those farmers produce is traded. You can get it in the United States at Whole Foods. We do need trade. No one is arguing against trade.

PD: That’s the thing. People say, don’t drink a whole bucket of arsenic, it’s not good for you. Here, have a little glass. I am sorry, but a bad thing is a bad thing—the scale does not matter. What really kills me with local food activists is that they will have their smart phones, they will use software that was developed halfway around the world, if they can export their products they will, their clothes are made halfway around the world, but food is somehow different. But if you think about it, the only real difference between those people and subsistence farmers is that today, in advanced economies, we live in a world where we are able to get people off the farm so that they can become software engineers—so that they can become chemical engineers and can design things like crops. You cannot have your cake and eat it too in that respect, Sarah.

SE: But I am concerned about climate change. Pierre, are you concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and a warming climate?

PD: I’m concerned about the weather. I mean, historically! Seriously, two bad harvests in a row and you would have a famine, and before the carbon age came long, Sarah, people were starving—

SE: Do you believe in human-caused climate change?

PD: I believe we have an impact on the climate, but I still believe we are better off trading food over long distances. For example, when we have a drought like the one in Ontario last summer, nobody starves because we are able to move in food from other regions that have great summers to grow food. I am more than willing to trade off having a little bit more carbon emission but more long-distance trade, which brings more resilience.

SE: Do you believe in anthropogenic climate change, yes or no? The mainstream scientific community says that humans are causing greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore disturbing our climate—do you believe in this, yes or no?

PD: I believe that we are having an effect on it, but that there has not been any change in the global temperatures in the last 15 years, so the fears are greatly exaggerated, in my opinion.

BK: You grew up on a farm, Pierre. How much of your thesis is just contrarianism and not wanting to go back where you came from?

PD: Part of it is. I look at the kids I went to school with—the school was surrounded by a cornfield. I went to school with kids whose father was driving a dairy truck; others were growing potatoes and various other things. The last time I checked, two of them stayed on the farm. All the others left. And that is typically what you see in the countryside today. The farmers’ kids have left and you have young idealists from the city moving back and buying land from people whose kids are gone. I would argue that it is not so much being a contrarian and reacting; it is that cities are better for jobs. Many of the kids I went to school with now have car dealerships. One has a tractor dealership. One became a lawyer, another a broker, a nurse. That’s the life they chose. And they knew the alternative. The fact is, Sarah, you can typically get food that is very comparable for a third of the price at a supermarket. People should become welders, electricians—jobs for which the market is willing to pay a good price—rather than go back to the countryside and produce food that is overpriced for people who cannot afford it.

BK: What about the idea that some of your Quebec high school buddies left the farm because of the low profit margins involved in industrial agriculture?

PD: I have never heard a farmer who was happy about prices. I don’t know if people are different in Manitoba, but where I grew up, I don’t remember a farmer saying “Prices are so good this year, I’m so happy I’m going to make a killing.” But that is the market sending a signal. You have got to grow your operations to become competitive, and food today is much cheaper than it ever was. We have had price spikes since 2007, and there are a number of reasons for that, but in 2005, the same basket of goods cost you only about a third of the price that you would have paid five decades before. The same comparable bread, tomatoes, potatoes, what have you. A third of the price. And I think that is a good thing.

BK: Thanks very much, Pierre and Sarah, for being here.