Importance of Natural Resources

Agro-ecology and the Future of Food | Jeff Liebert | Walrus Talks


[Applause] My name is Jeff Liebert and I’m a PhD
student at Cornell University where I focus my research on agricultural
ecology. My grandfather was an orchardist in British Columbia and I
used to love going there in the summer to pick cherries straight from the trees.
Driving through the Okanagan Valley, I remember how sweet the air smelled—you
knew what was in the season because you could almost taste the fruit when you
rolled down the windows. We all have our own personal relationship with food, as
well as shared experiences, and if we’re going to have a conversation about the
future of Canada, we have to talk about food and agriculture. Food is something
we interact with on daily basis, it connects people to each other and to
nature. Food can be a common language between two people that don’t otherwise
share one, and it’s at the heart of most cultures. But how do we value food in
Canada, how do we value our farmers? Disembedded from place, food has become
largely anonymous; something we pluck from shelves and seasonal supermarkets. I
want to address some persistent myths about the food system that have profound
influence on the ways food is discussed and understood, on the food and
agricultural policies that are enacted and upheld, and on the growing corporate
control over what it is you’re eating and who gets to eat at all. Most people
are aware that the human population is expected to increase to around nine billion
by the year 2050. In order to feed an additional two billion people, you might
have also heard that we need to dramatically increase food production
with the most common estimate at around an increase of seventy percent. However,
there are some highly problematic assumptions that underpin this estimate.
To put it plainly, these assumptions mean that the calls to double our food
production are pushing us towards one way of growing, distributing, and eating
food. Based on recent history, it is, to be sure, a disastrous way to continue.
We currently produce more than enough food to feed everyone on this planet, yet of
the roughly seven billion of us alive today, nearly one billion suffer from
chronic hunger, two billion are afflicted by some form of micronutrient deficiency,
and over two billion are overweight or obese. Paradoxically, as Raj Patel
famously put it, we are both stuffed and starved. There are a lot of
interconnected reasons for this, such as poverty, lack of access to healthy food,
unequal and exploitative agricultural policies, food waste, and a diet high in
animal products. As the human population increases, some people are also becoming
much more affluent—although not the majority—and accompanying this increase
in wealth is an increase in meat consumption and processed foods. Right
about now is when most people politely nod, feign interest, but in their mind
they know what’s coming: I’m going to say something about the need to reduce meat
consumption, or worse, I’ll say that we all need to eat kale three times a day
to save the world. The former is irrefutable based on a huge amount of
research across a wide array of disciplines. If the price of meat in the
grocery store accurately reflected the true cost of production—that is both
environmental and human health costs— meat would return to what it was once, for our
agrarian ancestors, an infrequent centerpiece to special occasion meals
only. It is also widely claimed that genetically engineered crops are feeding
the world and that without them we will never be able to achieve global food
security. However, the most widely planted genetically engineered crops primarily
end up as animal feed, refined and processed into highly manufactured foods,
turned into biofuels, or used as fiber. Simply put, these genetically engineered
crops take an awfully long and costly way to end up on our plates and many of
them never do. In fact, it’s actually small and medium-sized family farms
around the world that pretty sixty to seventy percent of the world’s food, not
large-scale industrial farms. Most agricultural scientists and governments
are advocating a very narrow approach to addressing global food insecurity and
that is increasing crop yields. The problem with this approach is that there
is no attempt to address systemic shortcomings of the current
industrial agricultural paradigm, yet it is this very same corporate food regime
that ignores all ecological costs and has entrenched inequalities throughout
our agricultural system, ensuring that some of us are stuffed while others
starve. In other words, we pay the price while large agribusinesses reap the
benefits. Why then do we expect that a slightly greener version of this
industrial model will address food insecurity in the future when it has
failed to do so now and in the past? But it doesn’t have to be this way, we do
have a choice in Canada. If we truly desire a better country then we must
boldly reimagine what agriculture and a sustainable food system should look like.
When I envision an alternative food system in Canada, it is one that is
socially just, ecologically regenerative, and equitable. These values draw us to
food sovereignty, which is defined as the right of peoples to healthy and
culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and
sustainable methods. More importantly, food sovereignty is also about the right
to define and thus control our food and agricultural systems. Through this
declaration food sovereignty positions itself in direct opposition to the
corporatized industrial food system. It also goes beyond food security in that
it defines healthy food as a human right and it describes how food should be
produced. In Canada, food sovereignty will reflect the diversity of our people and
landscapes. For example, Indigenous foods sovereignty on the coast of B.C. often
emphasizes hunting, fishing, gathering, and trading or sharing traditional foods. On
Prince Edward Island, a grassroots food sovereignty movement would developed
quite differently, representing the distinct soils, climate, farming, and
fishing traditions that exists here. To be clear, food sovereignty is not just
some abstract academic concept; La Via Campesina, which represents over 200
million farmers worldwide, is an international movement that defined the
term food sovereignty in the 1990s, and the National Farmers Union Canada was
one of the founding members. Food sovereignty is a framework for
transformative social change and at its core it is a participatory democracy. It
demands that decisions about the foods system be in the hands of farmers and eaters, not agribusinesses [applause]. Throughout Canada, we can already see inspiring and
successful contributions to a new vision of food sovereignty. Organizations are
helping new farmers acquire land, community-supported agricultural
programs are becoming more common, and school gardens are teaching kids how to
grow food while replacing some of the unhealthy food in cafeterias with fresh
and nutritious fruits and vegetables [applause]. To scale-up these efforts, we will
eventually need to work with those in government, which is why it’s really
important that we create a really strong and united voice. Although food
sovereignty might look different across Canada, we will find solidarity through
shared values. Farming will be based on the principles of agroecology; consumers
will become co-producers of the food system; gender and racial equity, social
justice, and autonomy will be defended; stronger connections between urban
residents and rural communities will be forged; and Indigenous peoples rights
will be acknowledged and upheld. There is enormous potential to realize food
sovereignty in Canada, but there are some critical questions that we have to ask
ourselves. Do we desire a food system that ignores the immense, irreversible
degradation of the environment? Do we desire a food system that is based on
monocultures, thus making it highly vulnerable to the effects of climate
change? Do we really want a food system that perpetuates social and economic
inequality? Or, do we desire food system that promotes social justice, ecological
sustainability, and the production of healthy food that is affordable and
accessible to all? If we truly desire a better country we must work together
to create one. Thank you. [Applause]


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