By Jamie Reaume, Executive Director of the Holland Marsh Grower’s Association
“We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time… Governments have a duty to protect people from malnutrition, unsafe food, and exploitation, and to protect the land and water on which we depend from degradation. (FoodDeclaration.org)
I was recently asked by a City of Toronto politician why it was important that the city fathers consider agriculture important. My response was clear: “Do your constituents eat?” People, regardless of where they live, require four basic things: air, water, shelter, and food.
Canada needs a commitment on healthy food and farming, something like our American brethren came up with in the Food Declaration. We are out of touch with what is happening in the countryside. Today’s farmer is doing more, in Canada, with less, than ever before. There are fewer, but older farmers, less farmland (which, in itself is a problem that will need to be addressed in the future as we continue to pave over all of the best growing lands in Canada), and no prospects for a future generation interested in taking over the reins.
Farming has always been brutal, hard, bloody, and difficult – at the best of times. That must be understood by a society that has seen dramatically altered perceptions over the past four decades of globalized food acquisition. Conventional and organic fruit and vegetable production are still reliant upon labour at harvest time. If the sun is out, and strawberries are ready to be picked, they are out there – both organic and conventional workers.
So how do we value local food production and the whole range of ecological services that farmers undertake – but that the public doesn’t see? There are hundreds of books, movies, and multi-media items about the “industrial” farm and its take over of our society but it is simply not the case in Canada. More than 97 per cent of all farms in Ontario and Canada are family owned and operated. And their farmers have an interest in looking after the land, air, and water. Farmers are entrepreneurs, business and community leaders, and environmentalists, activists, and socialists. They are fighting not just for themselves but for their fellow Ontarians; their fellow Canadians. They are feeding an exploding global population.
A new attitude is needed – specifically one that affirms what many of us already know: this is a vibrant, exciting business desperately needing a focus rather than excuses. Ontario, and Canadian, farmers are actively looking for new ways to handle production; new ways to add value to what they do; and new opportunities to move what it is they produce. There is nothing wrong with that – except they are continually stymied by ineffective rules and regulations that were developed at the turn of the century – the 20th Century not this new Millennium. Times have changed and outdated and outmoded legislation has done nothing but keep farming, as a business, on the backburners of our society.
Governments – all levels – must quickly come to the realization that Canada is one of the very few countries that could be sustainable unto itself. As a resource-based nation, we are blessed with overwhelming access to that which other countries can only dream about, and we need to speak up and re-establish agriculture as a vital ministry within the governments. Agriculture is the only industry found in all provinces and territories.
Being a net importer of food begs the question, when the borders are closed and the countries whose names we can’t pronounce stop shipping their cheaply produced food to us in order to feed their own citizens, what will Canadians eat? A country that cannot feed itself cannot be considered a country. And yet, the entire Canadian food system could wind up turning to 1.5% of the global population to ensure that there is food for 33-million Canadians.
Farmers need to get out a key message that can be used by all stakeholders, including government: farmers are the stewards of the land – they provide more than food – they are conservationists, protectors of the land for future generations, returning enriched oxygen to a carbon-filled atmosphere. Farmers are making contributions towards energy, biomass conversion, protecting water sources, developing environmental farm plans that showcase and highlight the conservationist nature of the industry, while, at the same time, providing food and fiber. And that’s just the tip of it.
By linking marketing, development, environment, and a program that ensures farmers of today are able to look at handing off their operations to future generation, agriculture will survive, thrive, and prosper.
On its own, each farm is an entrepreneurial effort. Collectively, agriculture and agri-food becomes the number two economic driver in this province, providing more than 730,000 jobs. Again, a message lost in the chaos of day-to-day life.
Finally, there is a way for government to contribute. Is it too much to ask that local, seasonal food be served to this province’s guests for fancy dinners? Or at any other government run facility and cafeteria? Token samples and displays are flights of fancy – and most of us see through them. If local consumption starts from the top down, more and more of our citizens will begin to see the value our province can provide – not just from agriculture but also from all economic sectors.