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Batten Down the Hatches

Earlier today I logged on to edit my “events” calendar and announce that the Liberal MP sponsored talk “Food Safety and Truth in Labeling” – scheduled for this morning – was being rescheduled.  The talk was to be about the need for both better labeling – our current system tells us squat about where our food comes from and you can actually find “product of Canada” items that were grown in China – and the need for local food systems.

When I read about this event, my first reaction was: “Great!  Just what we need!  How wonderful that the government is actually being proactive for once and opening dialogue before the public recognizes that we are in a crisis situation.”

My second thought however – which immediately crowded out the first – was: “Why is the government trying to appear proactive?”  Sorry to be suspicious but the government typically operates with knee-jerk reactions to crisis situations and public pressure.  I can’t think of any cases where it does something ahead of when it feels it absolutely needs to.  As far as I can tell the public does not yet realizes just how precarious our food situation is, and I couldn’t help but wonder what’s going on.

Now I think I know, and it was exactly what I had feared: We are in an even more precarious position than I realized and the government knows it.  What they are doing is indeed a (far too little, far too late) knee-jerk response.  And the greater public is about to find out. 

So what’s going on?  Well, for one, the price of food is about to blow through the roof.  Flour just doubled in price this week (wheat jumped from $5 to $20 a bushel) and is still on the rise.  Bread and all flour-based products will be quick to follow.  Other staples are falling in step, and we are going to feel the pain very soon.

At the US Department of Agriculture’s annual conference it was announced that “a strong wave of food inflation is heading towards the world economy” such that consumers are going to be hit with “cost increases that we’ve never seen in our business.”

One of the bigger concerns (of government and corporate) I gleened from this article is that these price increases won’t just be in the produce section – where wealthier people tend to shop – but will also hit cheap processed food(-like products) that a large portion of the population depends on for their daily calories.  Nearly every processed item on the shelf contains wheat, soy or corn – in one form or another – as low-cost filler, and these commodities are all going up.  This means that the impact of food prices will be felt across all demographics and that is never a good thing for the powers that be.

Why is this happening?  There are many factors.  First, the average North American uses more oil to eat than to drive their vehicles or heat and cool their homes.  Most of us have no clue just how much oil goes into keeping us fed.  And while the average item travels something like 2500 miles to land on our plates, this goes well beyond food miles.  Nearly all food found in grocery stores is industrially produced and that means grown with petroleum based fertilizer and pesticides, with the earth tilled, the crops sprayed and the final products harvested by armies of giant gas guzzling machines. 

Notice the price of gas lately?  

The increase in oil prices directly impacts our food prices, but it indirectly affects it as well, leading to a more than linear increase.  The increase in oil and gas prices coupled with the demand for greener sources of energy, has led to a stampede towards ethanol production.  Ironically, industrially produced commodities grown for biofuels require just as much oil as food crops, so much oil in fact that the end product is a 1:1 ratio of oil to biofuel.  In other words, these products are of no help whatsoever and are simply being pushed by the government as a way to appear green without actually upsetting industry.  

Growers all over the globe – most of whom are on the brink of bankruptcy or beyond and desperate to survive – are quickly shifting to produce for this government subsidized fad, meaning they are not growing – you got it – FOOD!

Oops – yet another lack of foresight on the part of the government.

No wonder Glen Pearson and the Liberals were trying to appear proactive.  Nice try guys, but we needed to talk about this 20 years ago when you (well, actually the Conservatives led by Brian Mulroney – but no one has bothered to fix what they did in the interim) decided to dismantle our food system in favour of an export-based economy and decimate our farms in the process.  And now that we’re about to be slammed with skyrocketing food prices (and possibly food shortages) – a crisis being driven by at least 20 years momentum – you want to talk about building local food systems?  Great idea, but there aren’t enough farmers left with which to build them. 

This is not something we are going to be able to fix overnight.  Not only have we paved over most of our local agricultural land and run our farmers out of business, but we’ve let the corporations take over most of what farming is left to such an extent that they hold the knowledge, and the capacity, to grow food.  And we are left unable to feed ourselves. 

Right now I’m thinking the $465 I committed to secure a share in the CSA I joined was a really good investment!  

So what do we do?  Well, certainly buying local will help the few farmers we have left survive so that they can continue to do what they do best.  Plus their food should not carry the cost of oil like industrial food does.  And that will hopefully encourage others to get into farming.  

Furthermore, we can grow quite a lot of food in our own yards, and that can help significantly offset the price of groceries.  Just this morning I was looking at my backyard and contemplating pulling up half my paving stones to plant more veggies.  After reading a few articles in today’s news, I’m doing more than just contemplating.  

I have posted a list of organic and heritage seed websites on my resources list for anyone who is looking for seeds to plant this spring.   

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3 Responses

  1. The other filler in processed food, apparently, is wood pulp, particularly popular in low-fat food (the wood pulp is what makes you feel full). This is what an engineering grad from UofT told me after he took a food engineering course. Maybe a course like this is something that you should do sometime?

  2. I found your site on google blog search and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Just added your RSS feed to my feed reader. Look forward to reading more from you.

    – Jason.

  3. Wood pulp?! How horrifying! Although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as they do similar things to bulk up pet food. A food engineering course would be very interesting – good idea!

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