Death of the Canadian pineapple
Why local farming can’t support local people
Not the giving tree: Quebec farming can’t feed the masses. graphic vivien leung
No matter how many people start cultivating string beans on their balconies in Montreal, the city will never be able to feed itself. The challenges of food sovereignty and food security has been a topic of increasing interest in Montreal, where an argument can be made for buying green peppers from Quebec and Ontario instead of Chile and Brazil.
Home grown hungry people
Food security—where everyone in a society has enough to eat—is a myth in Montreal. Montreal cannot produce enough to feed all its citizens without importing food from other regions of the world.
“We’re talking about food insecurity. There’s a big difference,” said Zakary Rhissa, head of Harvest Montreal—the biggest food donation organization on the island that feeds 112,000 people per month—who believes that Montreal is far from being secure when it comes to the food on our plates.
Serge Lussier, faculty lecturer at McGill’s Macdonald College in the Farm Management Technology program, also said there is no way for Quebec to become self-sufficient. “We were much closer to it 30 years ago,” he said. “But it would be nearly impossible to go back now.”
Rhissa said convincing people to buy local and organically-grown food as much as possible is a plausible solution. Not only would this support local growers, he argued, but buying local produce would feed more people in need. The high cost of transportation for foreign produce can make the price of fruits and vegetables prohibitive.
Steve Aitchison, the owner of vegetarian restaurant Burritoville on Bishop Street, said if everyone were to buy local, demand would increase. The result would be lower prices, therefore creating a new market equilibrium.
“[This would allow] people with lower incomes access to better-quality foods than those in the middle aisles of the grocery store,” he said.
Though there aren’t many people who would give up sugar, bananas, pineapples, coffee and alcohol in order to live on a local diet, the panellists are strong advocates for buying local where we can, and as much as possible.
Frédéric Paré, coordinator of Equiterre’s Ecological Agriculture program, insisted that the government has an important role to play in protecting agriculture—specifically horticulture—from foreign markets.
“Everyone in the food business is in competition with each other, no matter what their ideals and morals,” he said. “The state has to step in and regulate the system.”
There is a delicate balance to be struck between keeping our international trade partners—mainly the United States—happy, while protecting local producers with subsidies and higher tariffs for imported goods, said Paré,
In terms of what we can do at home, apart from really making an effort to buy local produce, Paré suggested “rattling fences and protesting on Parliament Hill” to those who want to do more.
Or, of course, we could always go...
Back to the land
Sabrina Martinez and Michel Pépin own and operate an organic farm on the Ontario/Quebec border, near Hawkesbury.
They produce their own electricity and operate greenhouses, as well as raise ducks, chicken and pork. They have been doing this for 15 years and are insulted the government labelled them a “hobby farm,” refusing to give them any benefits.
Since the 1970s, 61 per cent of farmers have quit agriculture and moved to the cities, making the average age of a Quebec farmer between 56 and 58. Martinez said if young people knew about organic sustainable farming and how much land was available in the country, they would move to the sticks and start driving tractors.
“Small farms like ours need to show the government that we can feed our areas, that we are economically viable,” she said.
According to Martinez, farmland is virtually free for anyone who wants to work it, and she believes that farmers can revive a struggling industry if they work together.
Ben Hammond, owner and operator of Benallen Farms in Lachute, Que., said local farmers feeding those in their surrounding areas is a wonderful idea—theoretically.
“It would be great if farms could produce enough to feed the town, but it just wouldn’t work anymore,” he said. “People don’t want to eat what we produce.”
Benallen Farms is one of the biggest dairy producers in Quebec. Although the family owns more land than the town of Lachute, it’s an expensive investment with no guaranteed payoff. Hammond wanted Martinez to let him know where he could find “virtually free” land out in Hawkesbury, as that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often.
“It costs millions of dollars to start from scratch in the farming business,” Hammond said, “and even then it’s not a sure bet.”
Feeding a population at the lowest cost while supporting a dwindling number of farmers is an issue that the federal and provincial governments have been wrestling with for years.
Though buying local is environmentally viable and would support a local, accessible market, it would be impossible to prohibit non-local foods that we have all grown to love and eat a strictly local diet.
While many crops acquired from tropical countries can be produced in greenhouses here, the cost and energy waste associated with keeping greenhouses warm during Canadian winters would be much higher, and would therefore be unsustainable.
“We are competing against places that have three harvests a year,” said Pépin. “We have only one. It’s just not the same ballgame.”
If other industries in Canada—like dairy, beef and poultry—are heavily regulated by the government and doing well, perhaps the produce sector could fall into the same system, suggested Paré.
“Dairy and poultry are the two industries making the most money in Canada right now, and both are governed by a quota system,” said Lussier.
This system lets the federal government sell the rights to produce something—whether by quantity of butterfat in the case of dairy or by square metre of barn in the case of poultry. In return, dairy farmers get a guaranteed price for their product and both receive a degree of protection from cheaper foreign imports.
“One kilo of quota of butterfat goes for around $20,000 right now,” said Lussier, “which is a pretty big deterrent for farmers who are just getting started.”
Most young people can’t raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the right to produce milk in the first place.
Another problem lies in the difficulty of convincing vegetable farmers who have prospered to go to a new system, said Paré. “They are making a lot of money without any government interference.”
Food for the future
There is a reason young farmers have been leaving the country: it’s a huge amount of work for very little return. At least according to Travis Corrigan, a 21-year-old dairy farmer in Shawville, Que.
“The younger generation want to move more towards automation or expand to be able to do the same amount of work with a little less effort,” he said, explaining that buying new labour-saving machines is a huge expenditure. “The older generation is wary of this because they are focused on getting out of debt, not further into it.”
Justin Poirier is a 20-year-old pork farmer in Richmond, Que., who plans on switching over to the dairy business.
“A big reason why young people are leaving farms is the cost associated with the business,” he said, explaining that the capital necessary to start up a successful farm is intimidating and often prohibitive.
“Most farms are multimillion-dollar enterprises. That’s a big investment to start with and that doesn’t mean they will make money.”
The good news, according to Lussier, is that there is a gradual shift towards more sustainable agriculture among the younger generation.
“Farmers have traditionally bragged about the number of tons of corn they could grow. Now their sons and daughters are looking at their bank accounts and seeing that they can make the same amount of money, or even more, with less effort when they move towards more sustainable practices,” he said.
No-till or less-till, or the practice of not ploughing fields, reduces soil erosion and saves both the wear and tear on tractors and the wages of the people who operate them.
All the science and the technology in the world cannot change the reality that Montreal will never again be able to feed itself. Since we’re accustomed to a certain food demand, despite seasonal produce, most people would not be willing to live on potatoes and rutabagas alone during winter months, nor would they be willing to make other sacrifices that would encourage a self-sustaining market.
We are caught in a downward spiral of non-local buying: food prices are high, which means people cannot afford quality produce, which means farmers cannot turn a profit and are forced to leave their land.
Even if we cannot achieve self-sufficiency, there are things we can do to help reduce these trends and help support our farmers. The answer lies in the laws of supply and demand: if we provide a market for local produce, we can encourage farmers to increase the supply. When a balance is reached, prices will drop, making local, healthy produce more accessible to everyone—which will further increase the demand for more.
Even if we cannot achieve self-sufficiency, applying the rules of supply and demand can encourage lower buying costs and can help support our farmers.
Neither farmers nor consumers can do it alone; the government must step up by implementing rigid policies that will help this process along. In the end, Canadians will reap the rewards of greater food security, lower prices and higher quality of life.