The Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference kicked off this evening at the Barnett House. The roads were sleek, and the icewalks (I mean, sidewalks) even more so, and though regretting my decision to walk to Barnett from Westmount Centre, I made it there soaked but in one piece.
Two things of note with this conference – they are striving to be a “paperless” conference, so attendees were not given any paper agendas (with organizers opting to project it onto a screen for everyone to see), and were expected to bring their own notepads for notes. Also, the majority of the keynotes and sessions will be filmed, so those who weren’t able to make it to the conference can see what they missed on the website.
Thomas Pawlick, author of nine books, including his most recent The End of Food, was the Conference’s opening keynote speaker. I have to say, one’s reception of his address has as much to do with the perspective of the listener as much as his words.
Having been introduced to the world of food security through Michael Pollan, I have to say that I probably wasn’t as receptive to Pawlick’s anecdotal-based speech. He talked a lot about small farmers he knew personally facing hardships due to competition with corporate industrial farms, and not being able to comply with provincial health regulations geared at shutting them down. He called it the “collectivization of Canadian agriculture”, and compared the current situation with what happened in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign.
He did bring some statistics into his lecture, including a brief overview over the “food tables” he had looked into – lab results analyzing the nutrients in everyday food items over the last 50 years. 100g of a whole tomato now, for example, has 22.7% less protein, 30.7% less vitamin A, 16.9% less Vitamin C and 61% less calcium than compared with the same quantity in 1963 – due largely to industrial farming methods that, among other things, do not breed for nutrients, do not allow time for optimum growth, and use only very basic fertilizer missing several essential nutrients (this really summarizes his point; Pollan elaborates much more in The Omnivore’s Dilemma on this latter subject).
Pawlick ended his talk with a call for action in the form of membership in two specific organizations – the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the fairly new Landowner’s Association. Non-farmers can join the NFU as an associate member to show support for their farming counterparts, and start city-wide chapters. The Landowner’s Association is meant to be more inclusive, but the scenario he described (which involved almost one hundred shotgun-wielding farmers surrounding police that had threatened to shut down a neighbouring farm) sounded too activist-oriented for my tastes.
As a whole, I was looking for something more concrete than stories. The Canadian context was great, but having Pollan and his statistics-based rhetoric in my head didn’t help matters either.
Next, we were invited downstairs to the cafeteria area for what they called a “Taste of Alberta”. It turned out to be an assembly of Alberta-based producers and food companies, all offering samples of products. The organizers had warned attendees that it wasn’t a full dinner, and to ensure that a meal was had elsewhere, but I am certain I could have filled up on the samples alone.
enSante Winery was there, offering five different samples of their wine. I tried one of their raspberry varieties, and it wasn’t as sweet as I was expecting – perhaps I will stick with their Adam’s Apple for a sweet glass. Le Cafe Entres Amis was offering a chocolate-orange crepe – one slice was definitely rich enough for me. 2 Greek Gals from Calgary offered an entire plate of food – Greek salad, spanakopita and chicken souvlaki. I’m not usually a fan of feta cheese, but I didn’t mind it at all in their salad. D’Lish and Sandy’s Country Kitchen were also offering samples, with the latter offering to pack up her homemade cinnamon buns for attendees to take home! My favourite dish of the night went to Rose Ridge Land & Cattle for the Beef on a Bun – so tender, I should have returned for seconds. My only quibble with the tasting event was that reusable cutlery, instead of plastic cutlery, should have been used to continue with the conference’s environmentally-friendly mission.
We ended the night with one of three simultaneous film screenings. I chose The Real Dirt on Farmer John (based on the title and nothing else). It turned out to be a documentary about John Peterson, the founder of Angelic Organics, an Illinois-based Community Supported Agriculture farm. It tells of his life growing up on the farm, his family’s history tending to the land, and his own struggles with supporting a farm in the current market. Being an eccentric person with an interesting life history definitely added some spice to the film, but what I enjoyed most was seeing how John related to the land, his community, and most of all, his mother.
Based on the first day, I am optimistic for how much more I can learn at the rest of the conference!