Tag Archives: food security

Buying Local, Sustainable, Ethical Meat

by Julia Smith

Blue Sky Ranch, Merritt, B.C. 

Seems like everyone is selling “local, sustainable, ethical” meat these days. It’s big business and even companies like Walmart and McDonald’s are cashing in on consumer demand for products that are produced using methods that take issues like animal welfare and the environment into consideration. There are all kinds of certification and labelling systems designed, in theory, to bridge the gap between production methods and consumer knowledge. But, for all these efforts, the waters just seem to be getting muddier and muddier, and increasingly words like “local”, “sustainable” and “ethical” are being diluted to the point where they don’t mean much any more.

One hopeful thing I’ve noticed is that, in general, farmers are quite forthcoming and trustworthy when it comes to communicating about their practices. The problem seems to be with the middle man and their inevitable team of sales people, marketers and spin doctors. So if you are a consumer who cares where your food comes from and wants to make responsible choices that reflect your values, here are a few pointers.

Find the Farmer

I’m in a unique position being both a consumer and a farmer which has allowed me to realize that you simply cannot believe everything people tell you, especially if they are not the farmer. I see meat that I know was produced using conventional methods being marketed as “grass-fed”,” natural”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “ethical” every day. That’s the bad news. The good news is that farmers will generally tell you the truth. So before you buy from a retailer, restaurant, etc., find out where they get their meat.

A lot of places get their meat from a distributor, so you may have to go through a second level of screening at this point before you can get the name of the actual farm. Most distributors source from a number of different farms that employ a wide range of standards and practices and it can be difficult or impossible to pin down from where the meat you are interested in purchasing really came from. In that case, you should assume that your meat is coming from the farm that has the lowest standards because they tend to produce much higher quantities than the smaller farms with higher standards.

Ask the Farmer Questions

In this golden age of technology, getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth can be as easy as typing the name of the farm into your smartphone. Many farms have extensive web sites that can answer most of the questions you are asking. If you can’t find the answers you are looking for online, contact the farm directly. Here are some good questions to ask.

  1. Do the animals get to go outside? 
    If the answer is “yes,” ask for more information about how and when and what the outdoor conditions are like. A tiny door in the end of a giant barn that is sometimes open and leads to a small concrete pad might not be what you had in mind.
  2. How much space do the animals have?
    This should be a fairly straightforward math problem. Take the size of the enclosure and divide it by the number of animals in the enclosure.
  3. Are the animals physically altered in any way?
    Practices such as de-beaking & toe-clipping birds and tail-docking of pigs are often employed in situations where large numbers of animals are housed together in a small space.
  4. What do they eat?
    “Grass-fed” doesn’t mean that the animals didn’t spend the last 4 months of their lives consuming huge quantities of grain in a feed lot. “Organic” doesn’t mean local ( and remember that “local” is only useful as a geographic reference). Commercial feed comes with a huge footprint so a general rule should be – the less commercial feed the animals eat, the better.
  5. Any “Hidden” Confinement Systems?
    Remember to look at ALL parts of the system. Are calves removed from their mothers shortly after birth and confined in tiny pens alone? Are mother pigs kept in gestation crates? How are the hens who laid the eggs that hatched into chickens that ultimately become meat or egg laying birds raised? Are the cattle pictured on a web site in open grassy meadows sent to a crowded feed lot for finishing?

A Word About Third Party Certification

If the farm participates in any kind of certification process, research that certification. You might find that what passes for “animal welfare” in some of these systems, is not in line with your personal values.

This post reproduced with permission.


Food Security in the 21st Century: A Global View

by Stan Hirst

The Suzuki Elders’ Educational and Community Engagement Working Group have identified food security as one of several focuses for its ongoing educational programme.  Two salons on the subject have been held in recent months (summarized at this link and at this link). These meetings were structured as community events and so understandably had a major focus on food issues, concerns and policies in Canada and more specifically in Vancouver and the B.C. lower mainland.

We live in an increasingly connected world. Canada is far from immune to offshore trends, changes and impacts as recent religious conflicts, refugees, pandemics and economic shifts have made clear. It is therefore useful, possibly informative, to examine briefly the hugely important concern of food security from a more global perspective.

Most people in Canada seldom worry about where their next meal is coming from. The most recent statistics indicate that in 2011–2012 only about 5% of Canadian children and 8% of Canadian adults lived in food insecure households. This means that they did not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money. Nunavut currently has the highest rate of food insecurity (36.7%), over four times the Canadian average (8.3%).

In 1900 two in every five Canadian workers laboured on a farm; now the number is more like one in 100.  Statistics Canada data show that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries, a figure strongly suggesting that Canada is a long way from food sufficiency (and/or that our appetites are considerably wider in scope than what is produced by our own farms).

Other parts of the globe are not as fortunate or as affluent. According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) some 2 billion of the world’s current 7.3 billion people do not have enough to eat. Some countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, to name just a few, depend heavily on handouts of food from international donors such as the UN’s World Food Programme.

By 2050 the global population is projected to reach 10 billion. Add this to the rising demand in the Third World for meat, fish, milk and eggs which require extra fodder to produce, and the extra food needed by 2050 is estimated to be about 70% higher than was produced in 2009 (when the calculation was last made).

Where will all this extra food come from? Indications are that in developed countries the productivity of many staples such as rice and wheat has reached a plateau. Neither new strains nor expensive agrochemicals are raising yields significantly. Unfarmed land that is suitable for agricultural production is no longer available in economically viable amounts in most countries.  To make the situation worse, large agricultural areas in poor tropical regions are now becoming significantly less productive due to increased droughts and increased hail and flooding damage brought about by global climate change. Positive changes in the agricultural potential of northern areas wrought by the same climate changes are thus far too slow and globally insignificant to offset the losses.

What to do now?  Two avenues still remain open for positive change – the development, application and dissemination of new technologies, and the implementation of rational and appropriate government policies.

Agricultural technology is changing at an ever-increasing tempo, much of it driven by corporations and rich-world farmers in North America and parts of Australia and South America.  Crop breeding and cultivation techniques, especially genome-based breeding that can create crops with special properties almost to order, has been applied at increasing rates in the West for a quarter of a century.  They are now being adapted to make tropical crops such as cassava and some rice strains more productive and more nutritious. Such ‘smart’ crop breeding, in combination with genetic modification could conceivably break through the present yield plateaus. It could very well produce crops with properties such as drought- and heat-resistance that will mitigate the effects of global warming. Drought-resistant maize created in this way is already on the market.

Technology is of little use, however, if it is not adopted. In the developing world agricultural innovation applies to existing farming techniques as well as to the latest advances in genetic modification. So far yield plateaus have been a significant phenomenon only in the most intensively farmed parts of the world. Extending the best of today’s agricultural practices to the smallholders and subsistence farmers of Africa and Asia would get them quite a way down the road to a 70% increase in output, which is the figure cited to avoid future widespread famine. Improved infrastructure like better roads and markets would also encourage productivity and growth.

The FAO estimates that about a third of food is lost globally during or after harvest. In rich countries much of that is thrown away by consumers. In poor countries it never reaches consumers in the first place. Bad harvesting practices, poor storage and slow transportation mean that much food is damaged, spoiled or lost to pests. Overcoming such waste in Africa and Asia is largely a matter building things like secure, pest-proof grain storage silos.

The Suzuki Elders have thus far not addressed food security issues on scales larger than urban (Vancouver) or regional (British Columbia lower mainland).  The first step in widening the scope could well be a sensitisation of members and supporters to the magnitude and gravity of the situation.  Hopefully this post will contribute towards that.


Food Security in the 21st Century: Are we prepared?

April  18,  2018.  Fifteen elders from the North Shore ElderCollege Society and the Suzuki Elders sat around paper-strewn tables in the Capilano Library, North Vancouver, and considered a topic of great importance to elders and to everyone else.  How secure is our food supply and what should we be doing to ensure its security in the forthcoming years?

We were guided in the deliberations by three experts on the topic:

  • Grant Rice – Education and Planning Coordinator for Burnaby Food First, a group of community members and local agencies working together to bring food security to Burnaby, B.C.
  • Karen Morton, President of EcoUrbia, a not-for-profit organization advocate for local food and organics, extended producer responsibility, ethical e-waste recycling and waste reduction strategies.
  • Tara Moreau, Associate Director, Sustainability and Community Programs, UBC Botanical Gardens.

After some hours of deliberating and scribbling notes on scratch-pads we found ourselves the proud possessors of a trove of questions,  answers to some of them and, perhaps most significantly, a series of themes on food security which urgently need to be addressed in the coming months and years.

This was the Suzuki Elders second effort at a community deliberation on food security (the first is described at this link).  It has become apparent to us that the subject is complex, multifaceted and often misunderstood.  It urgently needs to be discussed and teased out a lot more.

In the interest of establishing a baseline of questions and items which need to be acknowledged and explored further, we proudly present here…..ta daaaa …. our itemized notes.



We would much appreciate questions and comments on what we’ve achieved so far.  It is our intention to keep the community focus on the theme of food security.  Without it, we won’t get too far into the future.


Food Security in the 21st Century: Are We Prepared?

by Stan Hirst

The question of food security has long been an item of debate amongst the Suzuki Elders. Based as we are in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, we often hear concerns over Canada’s exposure to impacts to the food supply system from factors such as loss of B.C. farmland from urbanization and industrialization, and the threats to our crop imports posed by climate change.

Canada’s food supply

The Canadian food supply system is complex and sometimes paradoxical. Statistics Canada reports that ¾ of the food bought in Canadian stores is produced domestically. But StatsCan data also shows that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries. The records show that the US is the source of more than half of all our imported food.

Is our food supply at risk?

Its a simple question, but one which is difficult to answer clearly from the available statistical data. Just within the past two years California, Brazil, North Korea, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Zimbabwe have had major droughts which has measurably impacted their agricultural outputs and the local food supplies.

Climate monitoring in many parts of the world, including British Columbia as well as in some regions in the U.S. which are the source of foods exported to Canada, has revealed significant changes in parameters such as rainfall, soil moisture and groundwater availability which could be influencing agricultural crop production. But it is not easy to draw firm conclusions on the effects on food production because there are so many other factors besides climate which affect production and marketing, e.g. market prices, trade tariffs, competition, marketing strategies, etc.

A salon on food security

On 24 February 2016 the Suzuki Elders took a step towards a better understanding of food security in B.C. and especially the lower mainland by hosting  a salon on Food Security in the 21st Century: Are We Prepared?   The Elders wish to record their appreciation to the four speakers who provided keynote addresses to the salon:

Janine de la Salle, principal of Urban Food Strategies, a consultancy focussed on planning, engagement, design, and implementation projects for healthy communities and resilient regional food and agriculture systems.

Ross Moster, founder of Village Vancouver, the official Transition Initiative for the city of Vancouver and a hub for communities throughout the B.C. Lower Mainland in taking actions to build sustainable and resilient communities, cities and bioregions.

Heather Pritchard, Farm Program Manager  for FarmFolkCityFolk, a non-profit society working to cultivate local, sustainable food systems.

Rick Barichello: Professor, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, specializing in agricultural economics and public policy analysis.

How is ‘food security’ defined?

The generally accepted definition is that published by the FAO in 2001 in its policy document The State of Food Insecurity 2001:

Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life

What characterizes the current food insecurity situation in Canada?

Environmental factors

Intensive farming on  industrial scales has led to widespread loss of topsoils and a reduction in the diversity of food crops produced for the market.

A number of causative factors have impacted bee populations and reduced the availability of bees to perform crop pollination.

Climate change is affecting agricultural crop production in many areas, and poses an even greater risk for the future. We have passed the point of no return to any previous situation; climatic thresholds have changed.  The costs of climate mitigation are too costly for the poorest sectors.

Economic factors

Control of agricultural food production is now dominated by corporate interests with a primary concern for the bottom line and a reduced sense of responsibility for community welfare. Food production has become a business rather than a social or health enterprise – this affects marketing, ingredients, use of GMOs and other issues. Monocultures and uniformity of growth, season of cultivation and crop conformation are typical preferences of corporate agro-industries.

Agricultural land has become expensive and is subject to usurpation by industrial and urban demands.

The rising prices of agricultural inputs such as energy and water are impacting crop production.

Rejection of science & technology by large segments of society affect the levels and rates at which science and technological innovations are implemented.

Society’s incessant striving for income growth has been leading to more GHG emissions and more demands for improvements in nutrition.

Social factors

Modern society is characterized by unhealthy food habits. Society has a poor knowledge of food origins, composition or nutritive values. Society seldom connect the food back to its origins. Decisions on food purchase are poorly made. Children are often ignorant about food and its selection.

Locally grown foods are usually touted as an alternative to store-bought items. These may not always meet nutritional requirements, especially for proteins.

The farmer cohort is getting older and smaller in numbers.  Agricultural land is coming under the control of younger, less interested ownership.

Economic instability has led to a situation where many people can’t afford food. Urban food deserts are a feature of many metropolitan areas. The ratio of food expenses to family income is a standard metric for food security.

Government Responses

Governments typically cannot afford the luxury of just one food policy. There are too many driving factors, too many competing demands.

Canadian government responses to the challenges of food security has been variable but also progressive. A healthy food system is one component of the Healthy Built Environment programme managed by B.C. Provincial Health Services.

Typical federal responses to the challenges of ensuring food security include institutional adaptation, attempted elimination of trade barriers, directing funds to support public goods, encouraging incentives and providing economic growth to the poor sectors.

Salon Participant Reactions to Food Security

The most important thing I learned today was………

  • food security is complex but not impossible to understand
  • there are trade-offs involved in implementing food security
  • much is being done by individuals and groups to secure our food but they don’t seem to feel very positive about their efforts
  • how complex the problem is, but also how vital it is to solve the problems of economic insecurity, foreign ownership, corporate control without responsibility, education, spending money wisely, supporting local communities, and supporting agriculture
  • we may be facing the end of easy food
  • there are threats but also opportunities: young people are interested in food security work and in farming;  they just need a chance!


Genetically engineered crops are here to stay.

by Stan Hirst

Genetically-engineered crops and foods derived from them have been in commercial production for just under 20 years. That’s a surprisingly brief period considering the intensity of the debates and the assessments that have raged around their development and commercial deployment.

Here in Canada the use of terms like ‘genetically modified’, ‘genetically engineered’, ‘GM’, ‘GE’ and such-like when applied to products on supermarket shelves or to fruits and veg in the bins usually produces a knee-jerk negative reaction. The pages of our journals, newspapers and blogs (this one included) still routinely contain a variety of concerns raised around safety, linkages to ecosystem effects, links between GE crops to herbicide misuse, and the corporate behaviour of the agrochemical companies who develop, sell and promote GE crop seeds.

Perspective is important in the world. Nobody knows that better than Elders. So its often instructive to step back once in a while and take a broader look. That’s the underlying motivation for this particular post. Where have GE crops and foods gone since their introduction? Where might they be going in the future?

When they were first planted commercially back in 1996, GE crops covered an estimated total of 1.7 million hectares, most of that in the U.S. By 2014 GE crops (or ‘biotech’ crops as the agricultural industry prefers to call them) covered 181.5 million hectares in 28 countries. That’s an average rate of increase of 30% per year.

The USA has always led the surge to use GE crops . Currently they have about 73 million hectares planted (40% of the global total). About 93% of all corn crops in the U.S. are now GE, soybeans are 94% and cotton is 96%. Brazil ranks second in the GE list and Argentina third. Canada is ranked fifth internationally with 11.6 million hectares under canola, maize, soybean and/or sugar beets.

Credit: India Water Portal via Flickr

Credit: India Water Portal via Flickr

Developing countries, by comparison, still rank fairly low in the GE-adoption scales. India leads with nearly 12 million hectares of GE cotton under cultivation. China follows with about 4 million hectares of GE cotton, papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet peppers.

Why, when there is so much negativity on the part of many western urban consumers towards GE products, do increasing numbers of farmers around the world plant GE crops? A simple two-word response dominates the conversation. Production and profit. Jennifer Schmidt, a farmer in Maryland in the US cultivates both GE and non-GE corn on her property. In response to recently blogged questions on the comparative costs and efficiency she produced a summary balance sheet for her farm which indicated that in the 2014 season she spent (per acre) 75% more on GE seed than regular seed, but 90% less on herbicides. Production from the GE corn was 19% higher than from non-GE corn, and her net income per acre was 68% higher for the GE crop. Such data would seal the argument for the majority of commercial corn farmers.

The economics and perspectives on GE crops are different for the developing world with much denser and generally poorer rural farmers than in the highly mechanized west with its relatively low farmer-to-land ratios. The costs of GE seeds will always pose a significant problem for Asian and African farmers, but the increasing human populations and loss of productive land on those continents are factors underpinning a move to increased deployment of GE crops.

In 2014 more than 7 million small farmers in China and 8 million in India chose to plant over 15 million hectares of GE Bt cotton because of the significant financial incentives. GE maize is now cultivated in the Philippines and Vietnam. Bangladesh has introduced GE brinjals and is examining the feasibility of introducing biotech potatoes, cotton and rice. Indonesia has plans to introduce drought-tolerant sugarcane, Brazil has an HT soybean and a home-grown GE virus-resistant bean ready for planting in 2016. Biotech drought-tolerant maize was first planted in the US in 2013 and has been offered to selected countries in Africa faced with increasing periods of severe droughts.

Ironically, the most promising GE crop in Asia remains commercially unviable because of massive local and international resistance. Golden rice is produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, and is intended to be grown and consumed in areas where a shortage of dietary vitamin A kills 670,000 children each year.

In 2014 the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) commissioned a global meta-analysis of 147 studies of GE crop production undertaken over the last 20 years. Their findings included the conclusion that GE technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Biotech crops were credited with increasing crop production to the value of US$133 billion, saving ~500 million kg of pesticides over a 16-year period, reducing CO2 emissions by 28 billion kg (equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year), saving 132 million hectares of land, and alleviating poverty for ~16.5 million small farmers and their families totalling >65 million people, including some of the poorest people in the world.1306548890823

People in Canada, Europe and other parts of the western world will almost certainly continue to come out against the production and marketing of GE crops and GE-constituent foods. But, for very obvious reasons, they’re here to stay.

We’d better learn to accommodate them.



To eat or not to eat….organic foods

by Peggy Olive

A recent Stanford study has received a lot of attention because it finds that organic foods are no more nutritious than those grown “conventionally”. Apparently this comes as a surprise to many, although there have been similar reports in the scientific literature over the years. Leaving aside the fact that until the 20th century all food was grown organically, does this mean that we’re wasting our money paying extra for organically grown foods?

It’s not obvious to me why crops grown organically should contain more vitamins and minerals. That’s determined genetically for the most part. Popeye eats spinach and not green beans because of the higher vitamin and mineral content of spinach. The level of vitamins is also closely tied to the time since harvest. Vitamin C levels drop precipitously in many vegetables held at room temperature or even some kept in our refrigerators for a few days. If concerned only about nutrition, eating freshly-picked vegetables from your local gardens makes more sense than buying organic foods from afar.

Food safety issues are no different for organic and non-organic foods, although many people think the higher price paid for organic foods should make them safer to eat. There’s also no reason to believe that organic meat comes from animals that have been treated more humanely than animals fed hormones or antibiotics.

So why should we choose to eat foods grown organically if they aren’t more nutritious, they aren’t safer to eat, and the animals haven’t led happier lives?

An excellent reason to eat organic foods is because they are grown without the use of pesticides, additives, and hormones that we should avoid for health reasons. Just as important, organic refers not only to the food itself, but how it was produced. Organic foods are grown using methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity, considered key elements of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Monoculture and intensive farming methods using petroleum-based fertilizers depletes the soil of important organisms that supply nutrients to growing plants. Soil degradation has been of concern for a long time in Canada and elsewhere, and ultimately conventional farming practices result in reduced crop yields, now exacerbated by climate change.

The argument has made that organic farming methods cannot increase agricultural productivity because they are too inefficient. However, the UN Environmental Program reported in 2008 that organic farming practices in Africa outperformed industrial, chemical-intensive conventional farming, and improved soil fertility, retention of water, and resistance to drought. Scientific studies support the conclusion that organic farming methods are better at retaining soil productivity than conventional methods.

Ten benefits of organic farming/ organic food

  • Better for our environment, by definition: A production system that integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
  • Not treated with pesticides, hormones, or potentially toxic additives
  • Safer for farm workers (limits exposure to toxins)
  • Safer for farm animals
  • Safer for crop pollinators
  • Better for soil (fosters biodiversity, water retention, productivity)
  • Animals not fed animal by-products
  • Not genetically modified (when labelled 100% organic)
  • Not treated with antibiotics so organic meat contains less antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • More likely to be farmed locally (fresher)

The major disadvantage of organic food is the price you will pay at your supermarket checkout, typically 10-40% higher. Organic foods are more expensive because production costs are higher. Production costs are higher because farming methods are more labour intensive and there is potentially greater crop loss from pests. Because the price is higher, the choice to eat organic foods is not always available to those on limited incomes, and this could be viewed as a social equity issue. Certifying that the organic food you buy has actually been grown organically and is chemically free is an ongoing concern. To counter this problem, Canadian organic food now bears a logo but more oversight is required.

Fortunately, not all the foods we eat need to be grown organically if we want to significantly reduce our exposure to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group, a U.S. based non-profit organization specializing in research and advocacy to protect public health and the environment, has given us a list of the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables that are likely to present with the highest levels of pesticides, so it makes sense to use your “organic dollars” to buy these ones. Now, if only my aging mind could remember which ones are best to buy ‘organic’ when standing in front of the vegetable displays and fruit bins.

It is true that some of the benefits of organic food might be accomplished by no-till farming methods and by the use of genetically modified foods (GMFs) that are naturally pesticide-resistant or tolerant to environmental stresses. No-till methods will improve the soil, but many GMFs are grown to be resistant to the drugs used to kill the weeds or pests, and we, like honeybees, are not resistant. The potential of GMFs to add new toxins, allergens and genetic hazards to our food supply is a concern for many consumers and the paucity of studies on the long-term safety of GMFs has been reported in the scientific literature.

As demand for organic food grows, economies of scale will reduce cost to the consumer and cost to the farmer who implements organic farming practices. Before we complain about the price of organic foods, we need to be reminded of how little of our income we actually spend on food. In 1961, Canadians spent on average 19% of their income on food, but by 2005 this had dropped to 9.3%. In comparison, Europeans spend about 15% of their income on food, South Americans about 30%, and Africans more than 40%. Also, we shouldn’t forget how much food we waste. Total losses and wastage in the food chain can reach 50% in Western countries, so we would pay much less for our food if we simply reduced waste. With the benefits of organic foods listed above (which do not include nutrition per se) and the low relative cost for food in this country, price alone becomes a poor excuse for not choosing to eat organic foods.