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All Things Considered: May 2009

A Growing Movement


April 27, 2009
By Jim Knisley


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Michelle Obama is putting in a vegetable garden. Generally that would
merit a “that’s nice.” But this is the first time since the Second
World War that a section of the White House lawn has been turned to
vegetables and it is being seen as a symbol for changes in the American
food industry.

Michelle Obama is putting in a vegetable garden. Generally that would merit a “that’s nice.” But this is the first time since the Second World War that a section of the White House lawn has been turned to vegetables and it is being seen as a symbol for changes in the American food industry.

Trendsetter that I am, I’d like to believe the Obamas are following my lead. I’ve been growing spices for years. Admittedly it was more because they are easy and because I find them attractive than to enhance my feeble culinary skills. But last year I added four tomato plants. Giving them all the care they needed, which means I ignored them, I pulled in a veritable flood of fruit.

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This year I think I’ll add beans to the mix and put in a grapevine down by the wild raspberry patch. I don’t know if the grapes will work out, but it is worth a try.

Meanwhile, the guy next door grows everything. He has a couple of date palms that he stores every winter and replants with a backhoe, every summer. This year he’s threatening to try kiwi fruit. Across the road we have our livestock producer. He had half a dozen chickens until his dog died and a fox got in and wiped out the chickens. He now has a couple new dogs and I expect new chickens will soon follow.

This, I suppose, is local, organic, sustainable food at its most elementary and amateurish level. But it is a serious and growing movement.

In February, Tom Vilsack, the new U.S. secretary of agriculture, took a jackhammer to a patch of pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic garden. This is a guy from Iowa who was better known for full-throated support of giant agri-business than backyard gardens.

If that wasn’t enough to convince everyone that things have changed, Kathleen Merrigan, of Tufts University and a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture, has been appointed as Vilsack’s top deputy.

The sustainable-food movement is based on the belief that the U.S. is efficient at producing cheap, abundant calories that generate profits for agribusiness, but are unhealthy for consumers and damage the environment.

Sustainable food supporters argue that instead of funnelling billions of dollars a year (a minimum of $7.5 billion this year) to corn and soybean growers the money should be spread more equitably and used to encourage farmers to grow a diversity of crops, to reward conservation and to promote local food networks.

The local food movement is certainly resonating in Ontario where it is being pushed by Ontario’s Egg Producers. They have a resolution they’ve sent to Ontario municipalities that asks local councils to support local food. While it is in part a resolution aimed at derailing the cage-free egg movement, it seems to resonate with local politicians. Recently Haldimand County passed the resolution.

I report on Haldimand County council for a local paper and when the resolution came up for debate cages weren’t even mentioned. What was mentioned was the desire of councillors to have local consumers support local farmers by buying locally produced food.

To some degree the councillors were speaking to the already converted. Local farmers’ markets down this way are growing and new ones are springing up. From what I’ve read this is happening nationwide.

Even in Toronto, people are checking labels and looking not just for the Product of Canada designation, but an actual farm name or at least the county the food came from.

Part of this shift to local food also seems to be tied to the organic food movement. But there is an emerging problem on that front. Organic, and even free-range or cage-free, may make some people feel good about themselves, but it comes at a cost.

At a time when incomes are shrinking and no one seems sure they will have a job tomorrow people are scared and keeping a close watch on their money. For poultry and egg producers this is not a bad thing. Eggs are an inexpensive source of protein, turkey is cheap and frozen whole chickens are routinely on sale.

But the organic or free-range versions are anything but cheap. A couple of days ago a dozen, large Grade A eggs was selling for $1.97 in my local discount supermarket. This works out to just over 16 cents per egg – a true bargain. Meanwhile, higher up on the shelf there were some specialty eggs selling for more than 40 cents each.

Forty cents probably isn’t outrageous given the nutritional benefits of eggs. But unemployment here is just under 10 per cent and rising fast. Since there seems to be no great health benefit from the pricier eggs, $1.97 a dozen is a whole lot more attractive.

Given the state of the economy I can see local food doing well, I think sustainable agriculture has traction, but I’m not so sure about imported organic or other “specialty” products.


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