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Harriet Friedmann, Professor at the University of Toronto, advocates food system change.

Plan B organic farm is less than an hour’s drive (outside peak traffic) from the centre of metropolitan Toronto. As its name implies, it intends to be around when everyone understands that Plan A is failing. Plan A is industrial agriculture, whose costs are now exceeding its manifest benefits. 

This is the consensus of a UN assessment of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology that is not getting the attention it deserves. The report’s assessment of best available evidence concludes that food security, sustainability, and livelihoods are threatened by industrial farming systems; the better direction to support all three goals is to foster farming systems which are knowledge-intensive and which redirect scientific research towards a partnership with farmers, rather than displacing farmers and their experience of adapting to changing conditions with one-size-fits-all systems based on machines and agrochemicals. 

Even the benefits of industrial farming are increasingly in question. The industrial system has succeeded, even exceeded, at producing vast quantities of wheat, maize, and soybeans, so much so that efforts to use up the latter two in particular have ended in a spiral of poverty, environmental degradation, risky dependence on a shrinking genetic base for food crops and animals, and chronic diseases. This has made it more rare for mixed farms to produce nutrient rich vegetables and fruit. Supermarkets have taken over from farmers’ markets, and even High Street shops, and find it convenient to source large quantities no matter what the distance. The result is a two-tiered food system, with lots of unhealthy foods available at the lowest prices and healthy foods more and more difficult or expensive to get. Even the cheap food, however, is vulnerable to the complete dependence of industrial farming on fossil energy, not only to drive the machines but also to make the industrial fertilizers and pesticides. Prices of maize, soybeans, wheat and especially rice spiked in 2008, mostly due to financial speculation, but consumer prices have not fallen in line with prices on international commodity exchanges. 

The new issue arising from this new pattern of abundance and scarcity is health, and the new health problem is obesity. In countries like the UK and Canada, the poor, not the rich, are fat, and fat is no longer a sign of affluence (remember the kings of England who died of “surfeits” of various rich or rare foods?) but of poverty. As popular books and films are increasingly making the public aware, excess quantities of maize and soybeans have led to industrial livestock operations, where they are used for feed. These systems degrade the lives of animals, their wastes are unmanageable pollutants rather than lovely fertilizers, and their concentration of animals requires antibiotics and inspires growth hormones. These operations circle back to create ever growing demand for monocultural fields of maize and soybeans. 

By-products of animal feeds make sweeteners and fats available in large quantities, and these, plus salt, appeal to the decultured eaters in focus groups for food industries. The result - prepared foods with the new basic food groups: fats, sugars and salt, plus residues of agrotoxins necessary in single crop systems, and various multisyllabic chemicals to keep these edible commodities stable during shipping and storage. 

To complete the circle, industrial farming displaces farmers with centuries of experience and practical knowledge, and commitment to a long view: maximizing production and income, even for capitalist farmers of the 18th century, took second place to “improving” what used to be called “the heart of the soil.” As farmers move into other occupations, more steps of transporting, selling, preparing, shopping, cooking and shared meals have become profit centres. The jobs they hire people to do are less rewarding on the whole (even acknowledging the unfair burden on women of doing much of this for no pay at all). Food manufacturing and services offer mostly poor pay and conditions, contributing to the decline of good jobs throughout so-called rich countries. The result: many people have less time and money to shop and cook healthy foods, and buy the edible commodities on offer. 

Where do the rich get nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and increasingly, fish? The global South is becoming a “farm” supplying these to the rich of all countries. This means they have less and less access to these foods themselves. Farmers who used to grow many foods in diverse farming systems are stuck if they specialize in selling one variety of cucumber to a UK supermarket chain, which then for any reason fails to accept or collect them. Cucumbers may be rich in nutrients but no one would recommend them as a dietary staple. Even less fresh cut flowers. 

People are being pushed off the land in favour of “efficient” farming more or less like that of the North. While most one- and two-dollar a day people targeted for international aid (whether or not it is forthcoming), live in rural areas, they are more likely to be able to access fresh fruits and vegetables directly or through local markets than people forced to enter “the planet of slums.” As wealth shifts around the world, another force contributes to the “global enclosure” of the remaining small farmers of the world. Land deals between governments shift huge areas of farmland in South America and Africa away from local markets in favour of export to countries only beginning to source as traditional countries of the North have done, mainly China, India, and the Gulf States. 

 

The “nutrition transition” is the name for an extraordinary shift in human diets brought about by industrial foods across the world. The image of rich countries getting fat while poor countries stay thin is no longer accurate if it ever was. Now equal numbers of people in the global South suffer from “over-nutrition” as “undernutrition.” Of course, even more suffer from over-nutrition, now called obesity, in the global North. The South is “catching up” to the North’s appalling preventable diets of nutrient poor foods because more people have to shop for foods where price trumps health, and markets are dominated by supermarkets, even in cities of Africa, Asia, and especially South America.  

This is where Plan B comes in. Plan B is not alone. Many exciting initiatives are building a new food system in the cracks of the industrial system in Ontario, the largest province in Canada. These include box schemes, creative ways to link aging farmers with young farmers-in-training, and most exciting in an age of cultural diversity, renewal of the crops and cuisines of cultures settling in kaleidoscopic mixes in global cities, and even in small towns, villages, and countrysides. As the cracks widen, policies are coming into focus to shift the whole system towards a tipping point. 

Three policy initiatives are beginning in Ontario, focused on the “Golden Horseshoe” – the most densely populated region with the richest farmland and the largest city (Toronto) in Canada. Toronto and Ontario have always looked to Britain, since Tim Lang (then of the London Food Commission) came to talk to the founders of the Toronto Food Policy Council in the early 1990s. Now Sustain Ontario, inspired by Sustain in the UK, is at once the result and the centre of one of these initiatives. Still, every place has a unique social, economic, geographical, and policy context, so there is much to share. 

The top official in the Toronto Public Health department, Dr. David McKeown, plans to present to Toronto City Council, in June, a Food Strategy, which will embed food system thinking throughout municipal government. After almost two decades of work by Public Health staff and volunteer members of the Toronto Food Policy Council, all sorts of initiatives are suddenly coming into view and into mutual connections. The Food Strategy focuses on healthy citizens and healthy communities. Its proposals range from municipal organic waste recycling, to making healthy food available to all regardless of income, to making “food friendly neighbourhoods”, to creative food economies, to food literacy in the schools. The Food Strategy builds on existing initiatives in public, private, and social sectors, showing how to leverage them to fill in the policy cracks through which food often falls, and to join up to work towards a tipping point for healthy food policies. 

‘Menu 2020’ is the result of a sustained effort by the charitable Metcalf Foundation to support food system change. It sponsored a report called “Food Connects Us All” in 2008. Based on that overview of issues and initiatives, Metcalf created a new organization, Sustain Ontario, and made a call for proposals to study specific obstacles and opportunities for food system change. Those studies in turn are now being integrated into the Menu 2020 report, which is subtitled “Ten Good Ideas for Ontario.” This study is not restricted by the jurisdictional boundaries of Toronto. Its findings complement the Food Strategy, widening it to emphasize the farming part of the food system. It suggests ways to recreate local infrastructure of vegetable and fruit processing and abbatoirs, which have been displaced by supermarket supply chains reaching towards large suppliers; to make supply management accessible to small farmers and local markets; to support sustainable farming by paying farmers for environmental services; and to encourage urban and peri-urban agriculture. On the community side, it suggests ways to educate for food literacy; to create Community Food Centres modelled on a successful pioneer CFC; to expand public procurement; to relink food with health, and to plan for these and other changes that will arise as these are implemented. 

FoodShare Toronto, the oldest social venture in food security in Canada, is leading a campaign among a wide alliance of private, public, and social groups for food education in the schools. Called ‘Recipe for Change,’ it seeks to make food literacy mandatory at all levels in the public schools, and to make this practical as well as abstract. Gardens and cooking will be part of this. The efforts of community gardeners, chefs and others, including FoodShare, to pioneer school programmes, have built examples and allies within schools and communities. Obstacles related to land, kitchens, teacher training, and of course, funding, are many, but the time is right. This initiative makes space for initiatives like Plan B to deepen their educational activities.  

A different food system is possible.