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Change is in your hands - Maybe it's time for a food and farming revolution

March 28 , 2016

Leave it to our American brethren to come up with a document that we, in the food sector, should have arrived at long ago. In the vein of Thomas Jefferson and echoing the sentiment of the three most famous words ever written, "We the People" - is a similar document found on a website that is demanding change to the way society interacts with farming and eating.

In essence, it is a declaration for healthy food and farming - and while I may not agree with the document in its entirety, I can say that there is validity in what the authors were trying to get across to an often confused and befuddled North American consumer.

"We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time."

What are those challenges? ". . . rising energy and food costs, a changing climate (note, we no longer talk about global warming), declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity."

But it is the line that follows a brief dialogue that should make people take note: "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"

Is that a fair statement to make in today's society - and specifically, a North American society that has no understanding of the agricultural sector, its processes, or where its food really comes from? I think that the validity of such a statement falls upon the education that is required by farmers to their fellow urban citizens in both Canada and the United States.

I was once asked by a City of Toronto politician why it was important that the city fathers consider agriculture as important. In fact, his question was, "What does Toronto and agriculture have to do with each other?" Aside from the Hogtown comment that I blurted out, embarrassingly, I might add considering he didn't know the history of the city's nickname, my response was clear: "Do your constituents eat?"

Pretty straight forward. People, regardless of where they live, require four basic things: air, water, shelter, and food. And there is a three rule that goes with it: you can live (generally) three minutes without air (oxygen) before dying; you can live three days without water (generally) before dying; you can live three weeks (generally) without food; and depending upon the season, you can live three months (generally, again) before dying.

So how do farmers factor in all of the challenges outlined in the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture - yet keep it real?

First, 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. There is no simple way to say it, regardless of what methodology is used for growing purposes. Conventional and organic livestock are still killed for food. Conventional and organic fruit and vegetable production is still heavily reliant upon labour at harvest time. There is no second place ribbon for the farmer who waits for optimum conditioning for himself, his family, and his many workers. If the sun is out, and strawberries are ready to be picked, they are out there - both organic and conventional workers.

There isn't a big factory hidden in the backwoods of rural Ontario producing perfect produce and food products from a Star Trek-like replicator.

Second, those listed challenges are already being undertaken by farmers - who have done more than their fair share about environmental issues for years. But, as most consumers are now three generations removed from the agricultural scene, it has become difficult to make people aware of how agriculture is, indeed, working for them. 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. More than 98 per cent of all farms in Ontario and Canada, for that matter, are family owned and operated. Many, like small business and entrepreneurial operations everywhere, are incorporated for taxation purposes.

Here is the reality for those unaware of how big a century makes. In the year 1900, there were approximately 1.7-billion people globally according to information from the United Nations. In Canada, there were 5.3-million people - which, in today's population aren't even half of the total population of Ontario. Speaking of the province, in 1900, there were 2.18-million Ontarians. Total. Period. The world was organic. Chemistry had not yet begun and life was hard for both rural and urban populations.

In the 114 years since, the population of the world is now hovering above 7-billion - more than four times the population of human beings in a century- which has never occurred in the entire period of recorded history. There is only one reason for that - the availability and productivity of food. People were able to eat. And each generation has been able to outlive the next. Since 1900, the average age a person lived to then was 47 while today, life expectancy is around 78 (depending on surveys). Not only are there way more people - but they are living longer. Again, diet has had a major impact upon the lifestyles of human beings.

So, the underlying issue that needs to be resolved is conventional, organic, or something in-between. There are alternatives, such as Local Food Plus, a third party certification organization that acknowledges that farmers are doing it right- but that again seems to fly in the face of what, exactly, is a farmer.

Old MacDonald and the painting, American Gothic, have long passed the standards of time - and that time was at the turn of the century, the last century. 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.

And today's farmer is doing more, in Canada, with less, than ever before. There are less 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 (pun intended) taking over the reins. Farmers are up to any challenge that is thrown at them, and respond with the same candor that they do in the face of Mother Nature - and she's the baddest on the block.

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.

Things are not going to go back to the 1860s or even the 1960s. More importantly, governments -all levels - must quickly come to the realization that Canada is one of the very few countries that is sustainable unto itself. We, as a resource-based nation blessed with overwhelming access to that which other countries can only dream about, need to speak up and re-establish agriculture as a vital ministry within the governments and not something that gets token appreciation when a photo op is required. Agriculture is the only industry found in all provinces and territories.

At some point, whether it is due to a pandemic crisis (swine flu and the WHO) or something other that closes borders both ways for food import and export, Canadians will still require food. But, with Canada being a net IMPORTER of food, it beckons the question, when the borders are closed, when 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 - yet the entire Canadian food system could wind up turning to the less than 1.5 per cent of the population to ensure that there is food for 33-million residents.

But farmers themselves must get out a better message - perhaps even use the activist approach, like so many NGOs do when promoting their own agendas. Farmers need to get out a key message that can be used by all stakeholders, including government: farmers are the stewards of the land - an old phrase, but one more appropriate today than ever before. It is vital to show the true value farmers bring to both Ontario and nationally. They can show that through the environment. Build upon the concept that farmers provide more than food - they are conservationists, protectors of the land for future generations, returning enriched oxygen to a carbon-filled atmosphere. Link the progress of farmers in ensuring that their environmental good is at the forefront of a society being traumatized by daily media reports about climate change. 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. Farmers are contributing to the construction of new, eco-friendly automobiles. It should be noted about things like the hemp industry's inroads into developing panels for the interior of cars; ethanol production that is sprouting up throughout rural Ontario; and wind generation units and geo-thermal energy as alternatives to fossil fuels and coal-burning electricity.

Farmers are doing it all - and it needs to be marketed as such.

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. That is not the case right now.

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. Farmers are growing crops in the shadow of most of the cities in Ontario and Canada. There is even a new phrase for it: near urban agriculture. It is what happens when the rural-urban divide meets. It's called the Holland Marsh, the Niagara Pennisula, and represented even in Peel and Hamilton by dozens of groups dedicated to ensuring future farm prosperity. These are the folks whose farms have been greenbelted so that there are farmlands available for use in the future by generations who will likely have forgotten how to beat swords into plows. Is it too much to ask that local, in-season food be served to this province's guests for fancy dinners? Even a common meal for breakfast or lunch at Queen's Park? Or at any other government run facility and/or 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.

"We have a duty to respect and honour the labours of the land without whom we could not survive." Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture

Jamie Reaume is CEO of Country Heritage Park - a venue that is a celebration to the Yesteryears of Memories, Linking to our Prosperous Farming and Food Future.

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