Paying the price for cheap food

Interesting article in today’s BBC about the impact of industrial farming on Poland, a pristine country that is unique in Europe for its environmental health and traditional farming methods.

As the newest member of the EU, Poland is quickly being exploited by foreign-owned conglomerates in order to provide cheap food for supermarkets in the rest of Europe.

“The price on the shelf is only part of the real price – there are other costs which are difficult to pay,” said Mr Kryda (Marek Kryda of the Animal Welfare Institute).

“You have the environmental costs, like liquid manure which causes pollution. Then you have the farm neighbours who cannot sell their homes because the stink is so bad – then you have the health problems,” he claimed.

“Small farmers have the whole cost in the price on the shelf, because they are not polluting, not poisoning anyone, not making anyone unemployed. The food is more expensive, but the hidden costs are less.

Continue reading “Paying the price for cheap food”

Hey Vancouver, listen up!


Unless someone invents a real "food replicator" a la Star Trek, British Columbia is going to end up incapable of producing its own food, simply because its best farmland (the land that represents 60% of BC’s agriculture production) will be underneath housing developments and industrial parks.

It’s not too late to act before the developers persuade (ie. bribe, confuse, or bully) your local government to remove Canada’s most productive farmland from the Agricultural Land Reserve. Attend the public meeting with the Land Commisson this coming Thursday night, and help make common sense prevail. Don’t leave it to the farmers to fight a battle that we all could lose… there are lot more city slickers to speak out than there are farmers, and we all have to eat.

Pass this on to anyone you know who lives in B.C.’s Lower Mainland:

A public information meeting regarding the removal of 920 acres of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in Abbotsford

Thursday, November 25, 2004 from 7PM to 10PM

  Salvation Army Cascade Community Church, 35190 Delair Road, Abbotsford, B.C.

The outcome of this application, while important in itself, may also influence future decisions on exclusion applications by other BC municipalities. Municipalities and landowners are already preparing more proposals to remove over 2000 acres of farmland from the ALR for non-farm uses such as industrial development.

For more information:

Past blog entries on this subject:

Newspaper articles:

Who needs farmers anyway?

Apparently this is a question that is being asked in other Western nations besides Canada. As this article from the BBC points out,

“…instead of farmers trying to grow food on expensive land in overcrowded islands, wouldn’t it be better to turn the countryside over to recreation and leisure?

Why not just import the food we cannot grow profitably at home, especially now that the European Union has expanded to include countries like Hungary and Poland, which produce high quality food for far less money?”

Though the article does go on to redeem itself by promoting the idea of sustainable economics through the local production of food, this crass statement does highlight the fact that people have a frightening naivety when it comes to food. And a frightening faith that other countries, less short-sighted than themselves, will always make sure there’s enough to go around for everyone.

Interesting. Once farmland is lost, it is essentially lost to agricultural forever. “Forever” is a long time. What happens if other countries we rely on to grow food decide they should build housing developments and shopping centres and industrial parks on their farmland as well? What happens if other countries continue to misuse their farmland to the extent that it all becomes useless? (see my post on the looming water catastrophe in Asia, “Planet Dustbowl”).

My friend Dave Sands is deeply involved in trying to save some of Canada’s best farmland from suburban development. This land, the most productive in Canada and perhaps some of the best farmland in the world, is rapidly being lost to developers making a quick buck, and local governments who are sorely tempted by the possibility of reaping higher taxes than they could ever get from farmland. As Dave says, “because people will eat forever, we must plan to farm forever”.

Again, to quote Dave:

“As consumers, with the shelves at our food stores always full, we often forget the importance of our farmlands and the farmers who have given us food security. It is difficult to think this will ever change, but unfortunately, food supplies for Western nations are becoming seriously threatened — a sad reality in many parts of the world. These concerns are intensified with desertification occurring at an alarming rate. The UN reports that one-third of our world agricultural lands are at risk at a time when the net population of the world is growing the size of the city of Vancouver every two days. To add to these concerns, the USA, which is responsible for Canada’s additional food supplies throughout the year, is losing 50 acres of prime farmland each hour, and is expected to be a net importer of food within 40 years.”

Who needs farmers and farmland? Why should we concern ourselves with being able to feed our own population? Check out this article:

Our fragile food supply
The capacity of the world’s commercial agriculture to produce sufficient food faces some severe tests

So who’s gonna grow the food?

Here are some interesting factoids about Canadian agriculture from the Canadian Agriculture Museum Website

  • every day, each of us consumes or uses something produced on farms
  • there are approx. 280,000 farms in Canada
  • today, only 3% of Canadians live on farms; in 1930, Canada became more urban than rural (i.e. more than 50% of the population lived in cities)
  • in 1900 one farmer could produce enough food to feed 7 – 10 people; today a Canadian farmer can feed 90 people or more due to more efficient production methods
  • we export 40% to 50% of our gross agricultural produce
  • major exports are grains, red meats and oilseeds
  • major markets are USA, China, Japan and the former USSR
  • major imports are fruits, vegetables and nuts
  • Canada’s food prices are among the lowest in the world
  • more than 98% of all farms in Canada are family owned and operated.

So we import most of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts, eh? The food we eat? That doesn’t surprise me. All of Canada’s good quality farmland — the kind that produces the food that nourishes us — is located in a narrow strip along the southern border. Settlers were attracted to these areas for exactly that reason, however now small settlements have grown into huge cities that are chewing up first class farmland and spitting out suburbia and highways. This is a huge problem in Ontario, and is particularly serious in the lower mainland of B.C., where suburban growth is exponential and most of the province’s miniscule 1% of good farmland is being eyed for housing developments. The region’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) policies have been somewhat successful in holding back the tide of suburbia, though vulnerable to corruption (in BC politics??? no!!!) and powerful development interests.

For an idea of how “the other side” rationalizes in favour of development, check out this article from the “Planning and Markets” Website:

In terms of stated policy objectives, Vancouver’s ALR was quite successful. The rationale was that it was important to protect prime agricultural land in the Lower Mainland because 3 percent of the agricultural land produced 40 percent of British Columbia’s agricultural output. But is this rational? Given that there is a world food market that is easily accessible to wealthy nations and regions, and that British Columbia accounts for a trivial proportion of world food output, why should a rapidly growing metropolitan region (a projected 65 percent increase by 2021) need to have any agricultural production at all? The only answer, and perhaps it is an acceptable answer, is that 85 percent of the electorate approves of the ALR. The only objection to this position is whether the electorate was fully informed about some of the costs of the ALR, in terms of higher house prices and other costs. If the remaining ALR was abolished, it could accommodate 3.6 million more people at current incremental densities!

Apparently, ordinary common sense is not a requisite for a good education, as this writer very nicely illustrates. Yes, let’s all depend on someone else to take care their good farmland and supply us with food, and pray that they don’t follow our own example. God help us.

Fortunately, there are good people who do have some common sense, and who are fighting a battle that shouldn’t have to be fought. In Abbotsford, on the lower mainland outside of Vancouver, Dave Sands is helping lead the charge. Dave was a speaker and panel member at a public forum in June called “Our Foodlands Under Threat”, and as he said, “We shouldn’t even be having this seminar. We shouldn’t even have applications for our farm land.”

…tomato grower Dave Ryall caught many people in the audience off guard when he made an emotional plea to cities to preserve the local farm land.

“We don’t have to live on soil that can be producing food. With the stroke of a pen, the power of a bulldozer, we can destroy what took nature millions of years to develop,” he said. With just three per cent of Canadians working as farmers, they have no political voice left, so “it’s up to urban residents to protect food lands,” he said.

It’s worth repeating: With just three per cent of Canadians working as farmers, they have no political voice left, so it’s up to urban residents to protect food lands.

Think about it.

Soy confused… A fatal bean?

I’ve been rather proud of myself lately for taking better care of my nutritional intake (well, aside from a sudden and unfortunate taste for home-baked Pilsbury croissants, hot, with raspberry jam…yum). I’ve stopped, for the most part, eating meat — not a small accomplishment considering that I’m living in meat and sausage-loving Bavaria. Every Thursday I treat myself to a roast chicken from the Munchner Freiheit farmer’s market, and on the occasional visit to a beer garden I’ve been known to devour a juicy side of pork ribs, but other than that, I’m pretty much a veggie. Most mornings, I whip up a “smoothie” — yogurt, fruit, soy protein powder, and milk. I recently eliminated milk from the concoction and replaced it with soymilk. You know the story… milk is full of the antibiotics and drugs that are pumped into cows to increase milk production… milk is bad. Soy, on the other hand, is good. High in protein, low in calories in fat, full of important amino acids, a good source of thiamine, niacin, folic acid and a fair source of riboflavin. Even the venerable Dr. Weil recommends one to two servings per day.

Or so I thought. This morning, scanning the news with righteous soymilk-fruit-smoothie in hand, I tumbled over the dark side of soy.

It started with this article from the BBC:

Soya Boom Threat to South America

The spiralling foreign demand for soya beans could mean the loss of millions of hectares of forest and savannah in South America, conservationists warn.

…soya plantations (have) contributed to the near disappearance of the Atlantic Forest in southern Brazil and eastern Paraguay.

…millions of hectares of Argentine’s Chaco and Brazil’s Cerrado – the world’s most diverse savannah, home to animals found only in South America, like the anteater, jaguar and maned wolf – have also been converted into soya plantations.

The article goes on to say that habitat loss could be reduced “if soya producers leased pasture land from cattle ranchers and integrated their crops with cattle ranching in rotation.”

“Gosh, I hope they do it”, I thought. The article says that demand for soybeans is expected to increase by 60% in the next 20 years. Very disturbing, habitat loss.

Curious, I googled “soya crops”. What I found made me put my smoothie down.

<a href="; target=resource window“The Catastrophe of GM Soy” (CropChoice News)

Argentina, once boasting a diverse agricultural sector, is being transformed into a land of soya-bean monoculture. In the last 10 years, the amount of soya grown has nearly tripled, according to World Bank’s figures, and it is almost 100% genetically modified (GM).

The countryside is being left empty as the farm workers’ role in nurturing the land and crops is displaced by aeroplanes and agribusiness infrastructure. Migration to the cities has risen at an alarming rate: 300,000 farmers have deserted the countryside and more than 500 villages have been abandoned, or are on the road to disappearance. Agribusiness GM soya farming requires agriculture without culture or people. As a consequence, the villas miseria on the outskirts of the cities are mushrooming with the arriving unemployed agricultural workers.

Dusty ashes are left as the earth is intoxicated with agrochemicals to harvest Monsanto’™s patented seeds, which are genetically modified to be resistant to the company’s herbicide, Round Up. Previously unknown illnesses are appearing as people are exposed to highly toxic herbicides, which include Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US military to devastate Vietnam during the 1960s and ’70s, and others that contain paraquat, which can corrode metal, and glyphosate.

Floods without precedence are taking place as forests are cut down to make way for soya crops. In the high-mountain provinces of Salta and Juyuy, on the border of Bolivia, the subtropical Yungas region is being deforested to make space for soya plantations. Greenpeace has warned that in five years, the ancient cloud forest will be extinct.

It gets worse… if possible:

The GM soya grown in Argentina has never been independently scientifically tested for its safety. Monsanto’s GM beans have been highly exposed to agrochemicals containing glyphosate. Glyphosate is soluble in water and in order to make it penetrate the plant, a surfactant is added. Glyphosate is therefore present in the very core of the soya bean. Washing the bean is not sufficient to prevent the consumption of glyphosate. Glyphosate can be harmful to the eyes, causes skin inflammations and is linked to a variety of lymphoma cancer.

In Argentina, soya products are not labelled as GM. It is promoted as a healthy alternative to meat, so even the middle classes, worried about cholesterol levels, are turning to the fatal bean.

Another article from Canada (“Soy Concerns Mounting” – InFact Canada) raises the alarm about the use of soy in infant formulas.

Anxiety about the safety of soy as infant formulas and as ingredients in complementary foods continues to be expressed in the scientific literature. Recent theoretical evidence by the Kyoto University of Medicine indicates increased potential for childhood leukemia, adding new fuel to the mounting concerns.

And so it goes. And as if all that’s not bad enough, here is the icing on the cake:

Clash of the titans – Biotech’s giants go to war over engineered crops

COMPANIES spearheading agriculture’s gene technology revolution are not only up against consumer opposition to engineered crops. They have also started fighting amongst themselves.

Monsanto, the American biotechnology giant that has invested millions of dollars in soya crops genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, which it sells as Roundup, could find its profits slashed now that British rival Zeneca has found that the plants are also resistant to its own herbicide, Touchdown. The two companies are locked in a bitter legal battle in the US.

Pass the (organic) milk, please.

The Toxic Snowblower

I’m in Collingwood, recuperating from a grueling move out of Toronto at the warm and welcoming home of Lynda. I spent much of the morning laying in a lawn chair, wrapped in a sleeping bag against the slight chill of the air, soaking in the scent of lilacs and apple blossoms and the avian sounds of spring. I pointedly ignored Jake, who kept flipping a Frisbee on my lap and nudging my arm, until he finally gave up and curled peacefully under my chair. It takes 13 years for a border collie to resign himself so quickly.

The property is surrounded by trees, well back from the road and quite protected from noise. The faint roar of industrial machinery did not register over the sound of squabbling birds and neighbour’s riding mower until the noise became quite loud and ominously near. I finally lifted my head to get a better angle on the peek-a-boo view of the orchard, playfully imagining that perhaps a bulldozer was on a collision course with my comfortable position. In a way, it was.

What I saw shocked me. A giant machine, not unlike a snow blower, prowled the aisles of the apple orchard across the lane, pouring some kind of toxic white fog out of a giant curved chute over the tops of the trees. I’m sure Mr. Apple Farmer would insist that this chemical soup spread over dozens and dozens of acres just across the driveway was quite harmless, but, my thoughts went instantly to the local herbalist, who lives safely above the spray on top of the escarpment. She once told me that the cancer rate is extremely high in Beaver Valley residents because of the chemicals used on the orchards. In fact, Laird’s mother, who lived many years in this house, was taken from us far too soon by cancer, just a year and a half ago. As the fog drifted through the trees and settled on the ground, it struck me that this was the air she breathed, and the water she drank from a well dug in this earth.

Angry thoughts flashed through my mind. “How is it that someone can do something like this without warning anyone?”, I raged inwardly. “How is that I am legally protected from having to breathe someone’s cigarette smoke in a restaurant, but not from the spew of tons of chemicals into the air right next to my door?”.

I grabbed my dog and escaped into the relative safety of the house, and spent the rest of that lovely afternoon indoors. I couldn’t help but ponder the irony of a city slicker like me escaping to the idyllic peace and clean living of the country, only to have chemicals unceremoniously dumped on my head. In the midst of that fog, the real price we pay for cheap and unblemished produce became painfully clear.

Organic food has always seemed like a good idea to me, but a very expensive one, and the cheaper option usually ends up in my cart. Well, my close encounter with the toxic snow blower has certainly changed my thinking, bulldozing an abstract concept into painful reality with a thump.

Buy organic. The alternative is far too costly.