Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Environmental Time Bomb We Never Talk About

There are major food security threats building around the world and yet there's very little public discourse over what it is, what it means, what we can do about it and what may befall mankind if we don't act.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a grim warning in March of this year that, globally, farmland is being rapidly degraded through industrial level agriculture and, unless we implement radical changes, most of it may be gone - yes, gone - within 60-years.

Here's the thing.  The FAO report has been the subject of research and analysis over the past several years.  Studies from botanists, agronomists, horticulturalists and others have been piling up and they're still coming in.  In the poorer, least food secure countries the soil degradation seems to be happening faster but, according to one study I came across last year, even in the developed world our best farmland is already experiencing some degradation.

This predicament was addressed today in an opinion piece in the Toronto Star.

Moving away from producing vegetables and towards cereals and oils has been made possible by trading agreements that allow us to import the vast majority of our fruits and vegetables from places like California. This is a fine system when it works, but the low Canadian dollar and the drought in California mean that our food prices, and in particular the price of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, are rising much faster than inflation.

As a result, our domestic food supply looks pretty dismal. As most of us know, nutritional guidelines suggest about 50 per cent of our diets, when measured in dietary servings, should be fruits and vegetables. However, when we convert the food we have in Canada into dietary servings, we discover that only 11 per cent of our food is actually fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, about a quarter of our food supply are oils and fats (which should only make up about 3 per cent of our diets) and another quarter of our supply are sugars, which we should be cutting back on.

While it would be tempting to simply blame consumers’ love of fat and sugar, or farmers’ chasing high corn and soy prices, for this situation in many ways these issues are linked to policy.

One of the negative consequences of the large trading agreements that our federal government has embraced has been a loss in our food processing industry. Because our vegetable farmers are relatively uncompetitive when compared with California, New Mexico or Florida, liberal trade agreements have allowed North America’s fruit and vegetable processing industry to move south. This means that Canada has lost more than 143 food manufacturing plants and shed 24,000 jobs since 2008. It also means fewer markets for vegetable producers.

...over the past 10 years, we have seen Canadian farmers plant significantly more corn and soybeans (up by a third in terms of hectares between 2006 and 2013) and less forage crops and vegetables (we lost about 6,000 hectares of vegetable production). From an environmental perspective, therefore, we are losing crop diversity and this means poorer soil health and more agrochemicals. According to the UN, pesticide use in particular has risen between 2006 and 2010 (the last year for which data are available).

The California drought illustrates how we may be setting ourselves up for a hard fall through our engineered vulnerability to crop failures in other areas. The kicker to this is that, in the process of this industrialized, free trade agriculture, we're actually harming our limited stocks of productive farmland.

To the Whole Foods crowd it's out of sight/out of mind. They find what they want on the well-stocked aisles, perhaps grumble a bit at a hefty price here or there, and then load up the SUV for the trip home.


Toby said...

Here in the Okanagan we used to be food self-sufficient and we used to specialize in fruit. Free trade caused farmers to rip up their gardens and chop down their trees to plant grapes. The big agriculture crop here is now wine, good for parties but not for nutrition.

Canada needs to be food self-sufficient as a whole but also every community. Depending on the corporate food chain makes us particularly vulnerable.

What ever happened to zucca melons?

Anonymous said...

Canada needs to get its head out of its Arse.

Dana said...

Canada's head *is* an arse.

Purple library guy said...

I must admit I like the Okanagan wine thing. But I do think it's getting a tad out of hand, it's like there's hardly any orchards left. Want "bread and roses", but you gotta have the bread.
Meanwhile, one question is: With global warming continuing, for how long will widespread irrigation in the Okanagan remain practical, whether for orchards or fruit?

Anonymous said...

Ayong said: Since February, food prices have risen 40% and continue to rise. What comes to mind are those retired people and others who are living below the poverty line. But who cares about that? We'll get rid of those 75-85 somethings after all, if they didn't have the brains to make more money then it is their fault. The big question is why aren't food producers recognizing what they are doing? Or, do they receive thousands more producing grapes for example. That ingrained belief money is the be all is the crux of the problem especially big corporations and the government playing along with them. Does Mr. Harper ever get up in the morning think about where the world is heading regarding the environment? Every Canadian needs to think about that.

The Mound of Sound said...

It's troubling to hear of the displacement of Okanagan orchards and market farms to make way for vineyards. Viticulture is moving northward and some of that is inevitable but we're coming into what could be a difficult century, one in which staple food production will have to be given priority. I'm convinced we'll be doing a lot of things because we "have to."

You touch on something, Anyong, that's not given enough attention - the rise of Big Agra and the demise of the family farm. They fully recognize what they're doing whether it's taking the best farmland out of food production to grow corn for ethanol or replacing orchards with vineyards. The corporation's interests are different, at odds even, with the interests of the state and the public need. Foodstuffs will still be available but at a market price that reflects the opportunity cost. If I can make an extra $10-grand a hectare by establishing a vineyard, I'll still grow fruit and veg provided I can get an extra $10-grand a hectare out of that crop also.

Anonymous said...

Anyong Said: I have cousins living in Newfoundland. They recognize they must still produce their own vegetables and fruit native to NL. Good for them. One family of cousins has a dairy farm which produces organic grass feed cattle for milk. 90% of it is sold to Nova Scotia. They make me proud as they know how important good food is to keep NL'ers healthy. If a survey were to be taken, it would not surprise me to learn, that the majority of NL'ers still raise their own food. Bake apples called cloud berries everywhere else for example, contain 90% nutrients for everyday health needs. They grow on marches. The Government was going to drain the marches to grow grass for hay purposes. The people objected...that idea stopped as the population said they would vote the government out. Marches are an extremely important part of the eco system. Harper is much disliked in NL which hasn't received any attention from the Conservatives since 2011. Main reason, Harper has taken away everything to do with the fishery including documents from years past, many written by my father. They are no where to be found...oops that is not quit correct, the scientist looking into whether Cod spawn close to shore, has found two reports. And yes they do spawn close to shore...that I know is true. However, since Cod are an endangered spices, and no longer come close to shore due to acidification, and warmer water, people today don't know that answer. Actually it might be a God send NL is considered not worth much except for off shore oil. If there are oil spills, the Caribbean gets the oil.

Toby said...

The Okanagan wine industry is not as local as we like to think. Big companies are buying up small wineries but continue to operate under the local name. As an example, Jackson-Triggs is owned by Constellation Brands of Victor, New York.

Orchardists chop down their trees and replace them with grapes because the Canadian government made deals that allowed in Washington State apples cheaper than can be produced here. Curiously, Washington orchardists are converting to grapes because Chilean apples are cheaper. This is not sustainable for anyone.