A flawed food system
SUDDENLY, a crisis in agriculture: 380 jobs down the chute as the Maple Leaf Foods poultry plant closes in Canard. Hog farmers on the brink too, and Maple Leaf’s meat-packing plant in Berwick also in question. Is there more to come?
In Nova Scotia and elsewhere, the figures have accelerated recently on their decades-long trend: farm incomes sharply down and farm debt sharply up, while the handful of huge corporations that control the system get more and more profitable.
These tremours in what remains of Nova Scotia agriculture are symptomatic of deep and worldwide fault lines. You may have noticed, especially since the mad cow disease crisis of a few years ago, more and more stories about the sinister side of food: E. coli in the broccoli, a rash of peculiar cancers in the P.E.I. potato fields, the obesity epidemic, tropical forests razed for cattle and soybeans, loss of biodiversity, genetic meddling, fears about terrorists hitting over-centralized food systems, and so on.
These are the echoes of a deeper rumble that I expect to come to the forefront of the news within the year. It has to do with outing the perverse and unsustainable food system that has evolved over the past 40 years – the same one that stocks your supermarket shelves so beautifully, at a price you usually can afford, but the workings of which agribusiness expects you to stay dutifully ignorant lest you get queasy.
Consider elements of a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which the New York Times called "striking and alarming." It said that livestock is responsible for 18 per cent of the global warming effect – more than transportation’s contribution. Could we of the First World, notorious for the enormity of our consumption, be eating – and wasting – too much meat?
Or consider this effect: Manure, which should be the prime ingredient of sustainable agriculture, has been turned into a pollutant by concentrated megafarms. Or the new strains of E. coli which have apparently evolved in feedlots, where cattle puddle their lives away in their own manure. It goes on. In short, now that we appear to have got serious about the environment, it follows that we’ll have to do the same with one of its main ingredients, the food system.
And not just with regard to production, but to its next step: transportation. According to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, the average food item in the U.S. travels 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres before it gets to the table. In Nova Scotia, on the fringes, it could be more than that. As in most other places, where we produced about 80 per cent of our food some 50 years ago, now it’s the reverse – we import about 80 per cent.
In terms of twisted effects, there’s also the consumption part. Some 30 years of advertising to kids by junk-food conglomerates has led to what is being called an epidemic of obesity and early-onset diabetes. Here I have to give the Rodney MacDonald government a rare pat on the back for its law banning junk food from the province’s school cafeterias. I’m surprised the manufacturers haven’t put on the usual propaganda campaign. Maybe they’re embarrassed. This is a good sign.
As for our Nova Scotia crisis: Alas, from an immediate public policy point of view, the option at hand is mostly to subsidize or not to subsidize. The hog farmers have already been extended $10 million and obviously there’s a limit. As for the poultry plant, if Maple Leaf wants to consolidate in Ontario, there’s not a lot the government can do. Bribing it to stay would not be good policy either, although getting the rival ACA co-operative to pick up the slack might bring some relief.
So the only option in the short term is mostly to try to cushion the blow. In the long term, however, the system of control by a few agricultural behemoths must be broken in favour of local agriculture. This will require some new thinking. Some people are at it now. Reading my current copy of the Coastal Community News, the New Glasgow-based magazine of rural Nova Scotia, I found a report on a recent international conference in Vancouver hosted by the Food Secure Canada coalition, in which healthy and safe food, a sustainable food system and zero hunger were proclaimed as goals.
I was interested to learn that, along with several other Nova Scotians, it was attended by a representative of the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, Jamey Couglin, who was quoted as saying: "It was really inspiring to see the diverse and creative partnerships using food to promote sustainability, health and wellness, social justice, economic development and livable communities." The article described Nova Scotia as "an emerging leader in the national movement" which is "leading the way" with its school nutrition policy.
So maybe we have something to work with here. Keep an eye on this issue. It’s big. I’ll be back to it myself.
Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.