In many ways food systems guide the shape and boundaries of culture.  For decades anthropologists have noted the connections between food systems and carrying capacities to social and cultural forms of expression and organization.  Anthropologists often cite the development of agriculture in Mesopotamia and the simultaneous population growth and urban developments.  But less often do we hear how combinations of environmental, political factors, and over exploitation led to the eventual collapse of robust urban centers even in ancient times.  Through an exploration of our own food systems a better understanding of our own cultural limitations can be garnered.

 

For many years there has been growing awareness and conflict surrounding the food we eat in Canada and the processes by which food is grown, harvested, and distributed.  For a long time our food system has been identified as detrimental to our environment and population’s health, but rather than change this system entirely people have been putting their energy and focus on making that same system work better.  I will briefly explore policies and beliefs as well as material factors limiting system change here in Canada.

 

Growing up on a grain farm in northern Alberta, I have experienced the difficulties and obstacles family farms are facing today in Canada.  With more and more grain elevators shutting down across the prairies and more farmer’s having to haul their grains long distances by truck rather than rail, it is difficult for many farmer’s to even conceive of food system change.  While more and more farmers, especially in horticulture, are turning their practices towards a more profitable organic market, this transition is for any farm, let alone family run farms, extremely expensive.  While policies differ organic certification is very costly and in order to qualify lands must have been organic only for a number of years, free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. While organic farming benefits the soil and surrounding environment it is also less productive, and for many small farms the prospect of not making a significant income for even one or two years is not desirable and with many budgets not possible.  The process for organic certification is very complex, a discussion of preliminary descriptive policies can be read for free at   http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2009/2009-06-24/html/sor-dors176-eng.html  while the actual manuals outlining requirements can be bought for an additional $175.33.  Through a quick glance at the online outline, the language is already daunting.  Even with four years of post-secondary education I struggled to get through this initial description.  As with any other market population, many farmers are not highly educated in the areas of government policy and regulations, and have limited access to resources such as the internet even here in Canada.  While many farmers are embracing the organic systems of farming, for many others this is not a viable option.

 

Since the early nineties genetically modified organisms have become a hot topic.  The debate though considerably less inflammatory then years ago continues to rage on between people wary of the damage GMOs might have on our health and impact on our natural environments, and those who are determined to see the benefits in greater productive capacities and decreased input.  While people have been genetically modifying crops through selective breeding for millennia, it is not until relatively recently that genes have been genetically manipulated on such a basic level.  Here in Canada, likely the most central and prevalent GMO is canola seed. Canola is modified to be resistant to specific herbicides that farmers then buy from companies like Round-Up a brand of the extremely controversial U.S. based Monsanto corporation.  Some benefits of genetically modified canola can be found here http://www.canolacouncil.org/facts_gmo.aspx . Yet these benefits have been widely contested in mainstream media.  For example the documentary Food Inc. (2008) looks at one farmer’s lawsuit against Monsanto for the contamination of his fields by herbicide resistant canola seed.  Details on this lawsuit can be found on Schmeiser’s website here http://www.percyschmeiser.com/ .   Most other grains grown in Canada such as wheat, barley, and peas are not genetically modified in this same way, but are not organic because of the frequent use of herbicides.   While herbicides are extremely detrimental to local plant populations and accidental environmental contamination is frequent, not to mention soil damage, herbicides do allow for increased productive capacities and decreased emissions in planting and harvest.  This profit incentive is no doubt a major driving force in the continuation of herbicide dependent farming.   Yet in my experience there is also the prevalent belief that this kind of increased efficiency is beneficial to everyday Canadians by keeping food costs down.  While this is likely true, the detrimental effect of this overall system on the environment is not seen as immediately problematic.

 

One recent government policy that has been alleviating some of this environmental damage without costing family farms their livelihoods is the encouragement for grain farmers to use lower tillage.  Cultivators damage the soil and decrease natural nutrients in the soil from decaying remnants of harvests.  Decreased tillage results in healthier soil resulting in more productivity and less chemical run-off.  This also means less hours in the field for farmers.  A comprehensive article on the benefits of zero-tillage on Canadian farms was written by Attah Boame and can be found at http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/Statcan/21-004-X/21-004-XIE2005006.pdf .  While dependency upon modified seed and herbicides continues to be prevalent among Canadian farmers there have been positive developments towards decreased environmental damage without decreasing the productivity of lands or the livelihood of small scale farms.

 

While organic farming greatly reduces the amount of chemically produced herbicides and fertilizers in local environments, in many ways these farms are still operating within this same larger food system of specialization and mass production.  Our farming systems in Canada focus on producing the highest yields at the least costs, but the environmental impact of this form of agriculture and consequent social organization is damaging our future.  While high yields have become important in supplying an ever expanding global market, and the consequences of a sudden shift would likely be disastrous on social and economic spheres, the consequences of continued expansion of our agriculture system are also daunting.   The Occupy movement has challenged these basic systems.  There has been a popular expression of discontent that is calling for systemic solutions.  Yet while we struggle to balance environmental, social, and economic concerns related to agricultural systems, the complexities that arise in solving system flaws and instigating change cannot be overlooked. When we call out on the damage of herbicides and GMOs on the Canadian landscape we cannot blame a single group of people, we must not forget that the social and economic pressures of larger systems are guiding and limiting the decisions of everyone.