Recognition of changing consumer demands for nutritional value, animal welfare and environmental protection is cause to be hopeful that food production can change for the better, says columnist. (Stock photo)

Recognition of changing consumer demands for nutritional value, animal welfare and environmental protection is cause to be hopeful that food production can change for the better, says columnist. (Stock photo)

Column: Sustainability, resilience needed in food systems

Imbalance between people and planet requires complete overhaul, says columnist

BY MARJORIE STEWART

Now that we are living with COVID-19 and may be emerging from aspects of lockdown, the hot topic is the economy, jobs and incomes.

The inertia of the old normal pulls us back to the practices that produced the pandemic, including a banking system that is incapable of distributing fair shares to all who produce profit and an industrial agriculture system that is one of the culprits in the destruction of wildlife and habitats, along with urban sprawl and encroaching megaprojects.

The instability of the three-pillar model of enviro-socio-economic development (people, planet and profit) fails because economy/profit is a subset of social/ people activity. The imbalance between people and planet requires complete overhaul of the behaviour of people to avoid further catastrophe. Catastrophe already came with COVID-19, as suddenly as a highway pile-up.

The changes in how we are feeding ourselves (that is, those of us who are not starving) still depend on commodities produced with old normal methodology. Cheap fast food take-out trundles on as soon as simple protective measures are in place. Big technology is simply getting bigger with vaccine races, research into 3D and other ersatz foods. Charity will continue to treat results rather than causes.

‘The Future of Food and the Primary Sectors,’ a discussion paper out of the New Zealand Centre for Informed Futures, has some laudable goals and practical suggestions but it is the result of conversations between “industry leaders, scientists and stakeholders,” therefore likely to be too little and too late. Still, the idea of a national approach to the food sector as “an interconnected whole, encompassing agriculture, horticulture, aquaculture and fisheries and ranging from production through distribution, marketing, selling, consumption and disposal” has some merit. The paper holds out some hope that “Farmers and producers are already shifting to position themselves for a future based on the values of sustainability, resilience and [guardianship].” And recognition of changing world consumer “demand for ‘credence attributes’, such as safety, nutritional value, animal welfare, carbon footprint and environmental protection” holds out some hope.

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Swedish organic farming specialist, Gunnar Rundgren, debunks the claim that peasant operations produce 70 per cent of the world’s food, noting that peasant farmers are dependent on staples such as salt, sugar, vegetable oil and other commodities from industrial sources. But then he states that there is “no need to inflate the figures to prove that small farms can produce sufficient food” because of “research in the U.S. which shows that yield per hectare also for a staple crop like corn is more or less the same in small farms as in bigger ones” and describes how in Sweden, “the farms of 1949 used considerably less fossil fuels, artificial fertilizers, tractors and imported soy to produce almost twice as much milk. In some regards they were much more efficient than the prevailing production.”

This reminded me of my husband’s memories of how Island small dairy farmers sold their milk, cream and butter into a distribution network that supplied everyone.

Marjorie Stewart is past chairperson of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@gmail.com.

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