Food forum puts initiatives on the menu

Published in the Times Transcript, Moncton on March 19, 2010

“The grain grown to produce fuel in the U.S. (in 2009) was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels,” Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute, told the Guardian newspaper, underlining the level of folly related to our world food system.

When the economy contracts like in 2008, it affects people. More people are unemployed, but still need food. We can view “the food system” as an economic issue — it costs us $152 on average each month to retain our weight and not starve. Given the population of New Brunswick, that’s $1.4 billion per year we spend. For a family of 2.2 persons, that is $4,012 per year out of your budget. Of course, these are averages and can vary.

For farmers, the business is changing. The 2006 census figures show 2,776 farms in New Brunswick, down more than eight per cent from 2001. Farmers say that the average age of those feeding the people is becoming critical. We know it’s important to look at demographics, and especially the farm scene, before it’s too late. Across Canada, statistics also tell us that the size of farms is growing, becoming more focused on the industrial agriculture export model. Even with this productive model, there are a billion people in the world who are food insecure.

Looking forward, can an industry that relies on cheap oil to plant, harvest and transport food large distances to market be really sustainable when oil production declines?

I just read a report from Kuwaiti professors who indicate peak oil will happen in 2014. Some say we’re already there. When the cost of oil rises again, what will it mean for farmers who are already financially stressed? What will the industrial agriculture export model do? Will sending food around the world be practical? Where will our lettuce and tomatoes come from? If the world’s population cannot be supported by the present model without oil, is there an alternative that will enable us to adapt?

There are groups who are resisting the commodification of food. Henry Saragih, General co-ordinator of La Via Campesina, a group that represents small farmers around the world, says “in our model human beings work the land to produce food to satisfy the needs of local communities and at the same time protect our common goods like land, water, native seeds, and also our local culture and our history.”

All over the world, conflicts between the industrialization of food and the family farm are playing out. So far, industrialization is winning.

Against this backdrop is the local food concept. Can we have a stronger and more resilient local economy when we produce more food for a local market? Can we encourage urban dwellers to produce some of their own food either on their own land or in community gardens? How can municipalities help? Can we strengthen our local food systems so farming is chosen by more young people? In addition to the resilience that such a change would bring to our communities, the partnerships of farmers and eaters builds community links, something lacking in our society that identifies us only as consumers.

Some of the partnerships possible are CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) where citizens contract with local farmers to buy produce, taking on some of the risks but also some of the benefits. A second type of partnership might be governments using creative financing or leasing land to young farmers to reduce the entry barriers for them.

There’s a local food forum planned this Sunday 12:30-4:30 p.m. at the University of Moncton’s Student Center, free admission. The purpose is to share information and build strategies on local food and issues related to food security. It will be of interest to farmers, restaurant and tourism operators, NGOs, and local interest groups. The general public is also welcome.

The food forum was a great success bringing together a diverse group to talk about the problems and solutions that are possible. / RRM

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