Day 2, pm – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

After lunch, I was finally able to move from the auditorium into the more small-group friendly rooms for the day’s second breakout session. Titled “The Capacity of the Alberta Food System”, I was disappointed that the content didn’t actually provide more information about the capacity of the Alberta food system.

Candace Vanin, an agrologist with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation, Administration, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada provided some interesting facts:

  • 8% of land in Canada is suitable for food production, with over 80% of that farmland positioned on the prairies;
  • Edmonton has a fairly good agro-climactic zone (rated 2H on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being excellent for agricultural activity), and has 143 frost-free days due to the geographic “bowl” the city is situated in; and
  • there are 170 census farms in Edmonton, and that 80-90% of all broccoli, cauliflower and beets in Alberta are grown in the Edmonton area.

Paul Cabaj of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal talked about the results of a survey he conducted, but didn’t have anything particularly of interest to contribute except a mention of a social enterprise project. Apparently a group in Edmonton would like to start a greenhouse on the lands around the Alberta Hospital site to sell half of the produce to local restaurants, and use the profits to be able to provide the rest of the produce to low-income families.

Someone at the end of the session asked the obvious question – “What is the capacity of Alberta’s food system?”, and while neither presenter had an answer (partly because the answer would change yearly and be completely hypothetical), local economist Mark Anielski, who had participated in a panel discussion earlier in the day has estimated that Alberta would be able to support less than 10% of its population on its current agricultural production.

The last breakout session of the day was my favourite of the entire conference – the “Realities of Farming” offered two producers the opportunity to talk about their firsthand experience. Gene Brown, a small rancher with 170 cattle, was so honest and so well-intentioned that I wished that more people could hear him speak.

He talked about some of the changes they had implemented on their ranch over the last few years to make their farm more environmentally sound, including rotational grazing and water pumping. They also adapted some methods to reduce the stress on animals, like utilizing plastic nose paddles for seven days prior to separating the calf from its mother (meaning that they cannot receive milk from their mothers, but they have the security of being by their side for a week longer), and planting shelter trees along the side of their farm that borders the highway. Gene was very positive in his assessment of their farming business, saying that it was a lifestyle he would not give up, as it allowed him to be close to nature, and have flexible days. He closed his presentation with this: “Of all the crops we’ve produced, the ones we are most proud of are our children.” Aw.

Gwen Simpson, of Inspired Market Gardens was up next. She heavily emphasized how difficult it is for farmers to make a living in the current climate. She provided an example of her counterparts at Sunshine Organic Farm, who only make $2 per organic, pasture-raised chicken, and that doesn’t include the wages they have to pay to employees, insurance, certification, or transportation to farmers’ markets. Other notable facts:

  • Alberta lost 7.1% of their farmers (since which year, I didn’t note down). The average age of a farmer in Alberta is 52, and in the last 5 years, the province has lost 25% of farmers under the age of 35.
  • Canadians surveyed by the OECD ranked communication and health the #1 and #2 things they would be willing to pay top dollar for. Food ranked #11.
  • In 1988, 1.44kg of pork cost $6.88. In 2002, 1.46kg of pork cost $9.54, with the difference collected by the retailer and the processor, and not the farmer.

Gwen introduced the idea that perhaps farmers should be seen more as our doctors, as what we eat has a direct impact on our health. She noted that people should be willing to pay more for good food, especially if one considers proper nutrition as a means of disease prevention.

 

Gwen Simpson

We had another open space discussion prior to dinner, but for the life of me, I can’t remember which group I huddled around – being reliant on the notes in my Moleskine is a detriment to some extent.

I returned from dinner refreshed and ready for the final portion of the evening – a lecture from Carol Off, journalist, host of a CBC radio show, and author of Bitter Chocolate, a book that exposed the human rights violations of the cocoa industry. Immediately after her presentation, I was a bit disappointed with what I thought was a lack of content, but now, a few days later, I think it was a well-rounded case study of a commodity, peppered with people that she met throughout her visit to the Ivory Coast to investigate the situation.

“Food is the biggest story of our time,” Off opened. She gave a brief history of cocoa, and how it eventually became a prized commodity in the Western world. Her lecture then centered around the three factors that in her opinion led to the destruction of modern Africa and cocoa production: the greed and corruption of Africa’s leaders, the Structural Adjustment Programs heralded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, and corporate amorality by the multinationals that now “own” cocoa, and are able to drive down the price with their monopoly. On this last point, she explained, as farmers cannot afford to pay their employees because of the low rate they receive, they turn to the cheapest labour available – slave labour of children. Sadly, she even saw mothers purposely sending children into the Ivory Coast from neighbouring Mali – mothers that were hoping that being employed in cocoa plantations would guarantee them food they would not otherwise have. She herself does not eat anything but fair trade chocolate, or chocolate that contains cocoa sourced from anywhere but Africa, and reminded the audience, “When you take a bite of chocolate, just remember who’s life you’re eating.”

One of her suggested “solutions” to the problem was empowerment – of the cocoa farmers (to be able to organize, and to be aware of the true value of their product), and of us. She introduced the idea that would be rampant on day 3 of the conference that people need to stop viewing themselves as “consumers” – “The power to change lies with citizens and not consumers,” she said. Citizens can force the government to legislate the needed change – for example, introducing a bill that bans companies from importing cocoa farmed by children (in 2001, Senators Hawkin and Engel in the U.S. tried to pass what is known as the “Cocoa Protocol” to have done just this, but cocoa lobby forced their request to become voluntary only).

 

Carol Off

I was pretty beat by this time, but stopped in the cafeteria area to sample some included wine (from enSante, who, I am happy to announce, were granted an extension of their farmgate license and will be allowed to sell their wine at farmers’ markets this summer!) and cheese (from Sylvan Star Cheese, among others).

One thought on “Day 2, pm – Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference

  1. Glad to hear En Sante will be at the market going forward. We are planning on taking a field trip out there to check out the vineyard and do some fun tasting come spring.

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