Speaker Series: Food Security in a world of climate crisis

event archives

Date: Wednesday June 9 @ 7PM

Food Security In A World Of Climate Crisis
with Host Chef Albert Ponzo, and panellists Keenan Sprague of Sprague Foods, John Thompson President of the Prince Edward Federation of Agriculture, and Stephanie Laing of Fiddlehead Farms

This is a speaker series event:
In our monthly speaker series we invite experts in their fields to present and discuss ideas that address our climate & community, both locally and nationally. These events are an open invitation to the community -not just to action – but to inquiry and discourse.

event notes (english):

I thought back to our “Variants and Vaccines” event, in March. At the time I made the comment that I try to sit back and synthesize my impressions. For Covid, it was that we were in good and safe hands and truly fortunate to live here, in Ontario. Having listened to our speakers on “Food Security in a World of Climate Crisis” I cannot say the same.

There is good news! Keenan Sprague, a processor; John Thompson, a farmer; and Stephanie Laing, a market gardener are all doing the right things:

  • Keenan (Sprague Food) is producing nutritious, low-carbon-emissions food (Canadian-sourced beans and lentils), for which there is a growing market and packaged in traditional cans and jars, without plastic.
  • John is practicing regenerative agriculture with 3-crop rotation, cover crops, and returning chicken manure to the land to improve his soil.
  • Stephanie and her partner, Heather (Fiddlehead Farm), feed 400 families with fresh, healthy, organic produce (50 different crops) from a small, 10-acre farm.

But their challenges seem daunting:

  • Keenan showed food processing is the second biggest manufacturing sector in Canada but the sector has lost 40,000 jobs over the last decade and has been vastly outpaced by U.S. manufacturers (the U.S. food sector is heavily subsidized by government).
  • Canada had no food policy until 2019, despite the fact that it is integral to the wellbeing of communities, public health, and environmental sustainability.
  • Both John and Stephanie mentioned the financial risk taken by producers – it is hard to get financing because margins are low and it’s challenging to build a profitable business.
  • The retail end (supermarkets) is highly concentrated and, until recently, had little interest in building robust local supply chains. Michael Medline, Sobey’s President and CEO, commented that food supply chain relationships in Canada are “repugnant” – suppliers are bullied, including farmers and independent retailers. Things are changing – Keenan mentioned buy-local programs by Sobeys, Metro, and Costco.
  • Stephanie and Heather employ foreign workers – while there is a growing market for local food, Canadians are unwilling or unable to work agricultural hours for agricultural wages.

Canada’s traditional approach to food security has been through supply management (for dairy, poultry, and eggs), which John talked about – he produces organic chickens under the system. Supply management reduced his financial risk of building and equipping a new facility and prevents the boom-and-bust cycles that are common in agriculture. As well, it helps him farm sustainably by investing in regenerative practices.

However, others in the supply chain don’t benefit and the system is often criticized. Supply management was also used in the U.S. until it was replaced by direct government subsidies but these just bring a different set of problems, including: extreme vertical integration and concentration of ownership, eg, Tyson Foods for poultry; the increasing size of farms; and the creation of “agri-business” instead of agriculture. India is currently attempting structural changes to its diverse (and “inefficient”) farming sector and Brazil is relentlessly expanding ranching into the Amazon. Even the UK’s exit from the European Union was partly motivated by its wish to shed EU agricultural rules and subsidies. But in all of this, it appears that nowhere in the world have we really begun to confront the impact of global heating and its impact on systems designed for cheap food or how to change them to increase their resilience and the security of our food production.

As for Greens (people not vegetables) it’s often assumed that we can grow more of our food locally. Fiddlehead shows us we can but it’s not easy. Stephanie and Heather’s small scale is incompatible with the regular system – they can’t use (or afford) large equipment or provide the quantity of produce that would be of interest to retailers. Their business model is therefore to bypasses normal distribution by selling directly to consumers – so called “Community Supported Agriculture” – a subscription food-box. Fiddlehead, though, is incredibly nimble – it can make changes quickly and easily and provides a level of resilience that conventional growers cannot match.

John gave a good overview of regenerative agriculture – the need for no-till (also used by Stephanie and Heather) and cover crops to increase soil organic matter as well as sequestering carbon. John also mentioned the importance of animals on the land, particularly ruminants – they produce methane but at the scale of grazing, and considering their improvement to soil health, it’s a balance that John feels can be sustained. He mentioned that regenerative agriculture has the potential to cut total greenhouse gas emissions by between 10 and 20 percent.
Perhaps the most important part of the food system is you, the person reading this summary. When you make a food choice, do you look for: “organic” or “local” or “Canada” or do you just choose the lowest price? I understand that many have no option but if you do, remember there is a hidden cost to whatever choice you may make. 

Finally, many thanks to Chef Albert Ponzo who did an outstanding job of introducing the speakers and handling questions. I’m sure I can speak for all of us in wishing Albert every success as Executive Chef at the Royal Hotel in Picton on its opening, in the fall.

les notes de l’événement (français):

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