Farmers need a sustainable future, too

(February 12, 2020)

FEBRUARY is “I Love to Read” month, which is good for the farmers who are finally able to take a breather before the spring thaw arrives — probably in early March, this year.

To offer them (and you) some food for thought, I want to look at sustainability issues for agricultural producers, in the midst of a climate crisis fueled by a warming atmosphere and rising levels of greenhouse gases.

To begin, you can’t expect the provincial government to help. By action (and inaction), Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated the agricultural sector is exempt from initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, it was news that grain-drying operations will not be subject to his Manitoba version of a carbon tax. This was coupled with a promise (without specifics) to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline and biofuel in diesel.

If I were an agricultural producer concerned about the direction in which the planet was headed, with its implications for my farm as well as my family, these kinds of political armwaves would be trivial to the point of being insulting.

Unless farmers live in an alternate universe, they share the planet with the rest of us, and therefore share the same responsibility for changing how we live together. In fact, any farmer who has inherited the family farm or who intends to pass it along to the next generation is likely more invested in sustainability than the city person who has never seen a live chicken.

Right now, it seems the Manitoba government is ignoring sustainability issues in the agricultural sector, in the apparent belief that Progressive Conservative votes in rural areas can bought like (dry) beans, for a bit of purple gas and a boot shine.

The PC party may have a firm base in rural areas it will never have in the city of Winnipeg, but if that’s true, then those rural areas should use their clout to at least get the current government to do something constructive for everyone.

For example, when Greyhound went out of service in western Canada, Manitoba (alone, I think, compared to all the other provinces where it operated) did nothing. So all those rural voters now have to drive, if they can, everywhere – and given how much secondary and tertiary health care is delivered only in Winnipeg or Brandon – they need to do it when they are sick, too.

To be fair, the provincial government does not seem to care much about public transportation in Winnipeg, either, despite the fact the largest source of Manitoba’s greenhouse gases, by sector, is transportation — in other words, those vehicles that burn the ethanol and biodiesel additives Pallister was intending to increase.

Cuts to subsidies for transit in Winnipeg mean New Flyer is now making electric buses for other places, when they could be making them to be used here, running on Manitoba’s hydroelectric power and providing more jobs to Manitobans.

Anyway, back to the farm. Expect no help from the provincial government, and likely little more from the feds, who prefer to play big-picture games. Look to your rural municipality for the kind of co-operative assistance you need to figure out what climate change is going to mean for your own area — not the lines drawn on the map, but according to the watershed in which you operate. Floods affect everyone — and so does drought. Plan together for both.

Sustainability literally begins at home. A sustainable future for your farm depends on you doing what is greenest for your own situation. There are various carbon-counting tools available on the internet – figure out what parts of your operation produce the most greenhouse gases, and see what can be done to reduce your outputs. It could be as simple as not burning stubble, for example. Every gallon of purple gas, even cheaper, produces GHGs. Find ways of burning less – better for the planet, and for the bottom line.

New equipment? Share it with a neighbour – or figure out how to borrow or loan it instead of purchasing.

On the other side of the ledger, figure out how much carbon is sequestered or put down in the soil by different kinds of crops or farming operations. Perhaps plant trees, to balance off carbon-intensive farming. Create your own carbon budget, aiming for a negative number at the end of the year.

If the provincial government wanted to help, it could both provide incentives for doing this, and assess penalties for ignoring GHG emissions (anyone listening?).

One other suggestion: sell local. Relying on markets elsewhere for your main income is unsustainable in the long run, and makes you vulnerable to geopolitics, pandemics and other things entirely beyond your control.

Successful farmers today have to be smart. It makes sense to use that aptitude for green, because sustainable farming is a large part of a sustainable future for everyone.

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Sustainability question more than just food for thought

(February 27, 2019)

We are what we eat.

Every day, a new headline reminds us of this fact in some way.

Recently, Canadians got a new version of Canada’s Food Guide, requiring grade-school teachers to redo their health curriculum, but likely having little effect on how we eat compared to before. General guidelines like these either repeat what people already know, or mystify those whose dietary choices are driven by other things than directives from Ottawa — things such as prices, availability, marketing and what the kids’ friends are eating at school this week.

What we eat — and therefore who we are — is also intertwined with social-justice issues. For those with little money (for food or for transportation), if they are living in an urban “food desert” where the convenience store is a one-stop shop, healthy food choices are a fantasy.

In northern communities, where pop, chips and hotdogs are readily available and preserved forever, fresh vegetables are exotic, expensive and unfamiliar. Governments prefer to medevac people south for medical treatments that are the consequence, at least in part, of poor diets, instead of supporting efforts to make good food locally.

Then there are the too-frequent stories about produce, in particular, contaminated with harmful bacteria. It might seem like carelessness is the culprit, but such contamination is a fact of life in the factory farm system, where food is grown in mass quantities, often in distant places that have lower hygiene standards or where a lack of clean water undermines what the system requires.

When there is a problem, it is harder to pinpoint the source, and it can affect entire industries across the whole North American continent (romaine lettuce, anyone?).

We could use computer tracking to absolutely identify the origin of every piece of fruit and who sprayed or picked it, where and when, but we don’t. Allowing individual consumers access to that kind of information makes large food manufacturing and distribution companies — especially their marketing departments — uneasy.

Marketing is intended to persuade us to buy what we should not eat, in greater quantities than we can use, at prices we can’t afford. And by starting with the kids, marketing has been doing a marvellously effective job of undermining that school health curriculum for at least a couple of generations.

These issues all compound larger and more troubling ones, spreading across the planet, only periodically breaking out into headlines that flag what lies ahead.

The global population continues to rise. That means we will need more food, often in places where there is already not enough to eat. Political instability, combined with water shortages because of climate change or pollution, makes it hard for the small farmer to harvest a good crop of what he (or, most often, she) has planted. If you can’t make a living on the land, then people everywhere move into cities — in the developing world of the global South, these mega-cities make Winnipeg look tiny and well-planned.

Around the world, in places a lot like Winnipeg, we waste enough food every year to feed a billion people. Given the huge amount of fresh water that goes into food production, and the equally massive greenhouse-gas emissions involved in moving it onto our dinner table, this has equally huge implications for managing climate change.

From the standpoint of sustainable ecology, we simply can’t afford to produce this food, in the quantities a growing population requires, if it will be wasted. Combining malnutrition with obesity (as they often are, in the West), those misdirected calories could also mean the difference between life and death for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t have food to eat every day.

Yet behind that story, there is another, as well. We are what we eat, but what we eat first has to be grown and harvested or produced. The Earth’s biosphere is at risk right now, because of our continued assault on ecological systems that have maintained a balance for millions of years — until now.

Some belated response (likely too late) was made to ban the use of neonicotinoids that have helped wipe out populations of bees and other flying pollinators. But there is a bigger story, in recent studies of the catastrophic die-off of all kinds of insects, with industrial agriculture and its use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides identified as a primary culprit.

As a result, the soil on which we depend, in too many places, is literally dying. If we are what we eat, then the resulting loss of soil micronutrients will affect both our own health and that of our children, regardless of whether or not we follow Canada’s Food Guide.

We need action, from government, industry and ourselves, to change all these things. It’s not good enough to consider these concerns just food for thought.

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