Agricultural ingenuity needed

Food Matters

Jacques Diouf, Food and Agriculture Organization director general, while crediting the Green Revolution of the 1960s with saving the lives of over a billion people, now admits that the initial success was bought “at the price of degraded fertile land and depleted groundwater, pest upsurges provoked by vast tracts of crops, lost biodiversity, and polluted air, soil and water.”

In a nutshell, Diouf says, “The present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.”

The FAO is now promoting ‘conservation agriculture’, which is, in fact, a rejection of the industrial agriculture that fills our supermarkets with cheap food from far away.

The latest buzz words are ‘sustainable crop production intensification’ (SCPI), which sounds to me to be the same as what we locally call small plot intensive, or SPIN farming.

It is ironic that, through our contributions to the FAO, we will be promoting SCPI to reverse the visible failure of agribusiness in developing countries, while our national governments, federal and provincial, still pursue the ‘trade-first’ policies of globalization from which global experts are backpedaling.

It seems obvious that if the countries which currently export the foods we expect to find in our stores are being encouraged to turn their policies from exporting to smallholder crop production in order to feed their own populations, then it is none too soon for the developed countries to turn our attention to how to replace those imported cheap foods with locally-grown food, sustainably produced.

Only the other day, I happened on an editorial in a local paper that stated we could never produce all the food we need. This is hogwash – what we cannot produce is the vast arrays of junk and exotic foods to which we have become accustomed over the last 60 years.

In my youth, fresh pineapple was unheard of, and the only mangoes we saw were in the expensive jars of chutney we bought now and then to embellish curries. There were plenty of spices, arriving by sea, to enliven flavours, and easily-grown herbs, too.

The same editorialist pooh-poohed the allotment gardens of the Second World War, suggesting that they had failed to feed the 50 million of us. I suppose the writer meant that the little gardens did not produce all the food.

But the country had to be self-sustaining for six years, due to the blockade by German submarines. Most people’s diets actually improved during the war.

Poor people received improved nutrition (on rations), and wealthy people reduced their over-eating habits. Childhood bone deformity caused by rickets disappeared. And I have no recollection of feeling deprived of variety, as the same writer declared.

Perhaps I sound cranky and stuck in my memories. I don’t expect the clock to be turned back.

I rely on our ingenuity to figure out how to bring in exotic delicacies. In fact, I expect we’ll be growing crops on Vancouver Island previously thought to be only tropical or sub-tropical as global warming proceeds.

But we ignore history at our peril, and old fogies like me are here to remind us that there was life before the rather alienated society we have today.

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Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Foodshare Society and president of the new multi-stakeholder co-op, Heritage Foodservice. She can be reached at: marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.