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.
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.