In early July, as fresh produce was beginning to appear in markets, I went to my local Loblaws superstore. Standing in front of the vegetable section, I was offered the choice of snow peas from Guatemala, sugar snap peas from Central America, and regular peas from the United States. (This just happened to be the same week that consumers were warned to wash all imported fruits and vegetables with soap and water, due to an outbreak of the parasite, cyclospora.) I went to find the produce manager. When asked why the store wasn't stocking local peas, he offered a surprisingly uninformed reply: maybe they weren't in season yet.
Irritated, I phoned Loblaws head office to find out why their professed policy of buying local produce didn't seem to extend to Ontario peas in early July. The response encapsulated many things that are wrong with our food system. Snow peas from Guatemala? Because Loblaws thinks consumers don't like the look of Ontario snow peas, which tend to be a bit plumper and less straight than those grown in southern climes. Sugar snap peas from Central America? Because Ontario farmers don't produce enough volume for Loblaws to supply all 200 stores, and uniform bulk purchases are what Loblaws is all about. Regular peas from the United States? Oops, they were mislabelled. The store's produce manager didn't know where the produce was from, but head office assured me they were indeed Ontario peas. What other foods were mislabelled, I wondered?
I found out a week later when I went back to Loblaws. There in the produce section was corn on the cob, labelled "Product of Canada". Strange, I thought, where in Canada is corn ready for the supermarket this early? When I asked the store manager, he admitted that the corn was mislabelled (it should have said "Product of U.S.") and he got that steely, customer-is-a-royal-pain look when I pointed out that we still have labelling laws in Canada, and that the store's disregard for proper signage was not simply sloppy, it was illegal.
Perhaps my pestering of the produce people seems a bit, well, over the top, a petty flexing of weak and flabby consumer muscles, but I suspect that the authors of Real Food For A Change would appreciate my hissy fits. If there's one overriding message to the book, it's that consumers need to connect-intimately, intelligently-with food, and that means interrogating corporate food sources, prodding governments, and examining our own food choices.
What the authors reveal, when they look at North American food choices, is a system that is unhealthy and unsustainable. Consider some of their supporting evidence: 6,000 varieties of chemicals are sprayed on food, yet farmers still lose about twenty per cent of their crops to weeds and insects, the same proportion as was lost in the 1930s, prior to widespread chemical use; the U.S. Surgeon General's 1988 Report says that up to seventy-one per cent of North American deaths are related to diet; forty per cent of our food is lost to waste; in the 1960s, supermarkets bought seventy per cent of their stock within a radius of 120 miles, but today, the makings of the average North American meal have travelled 1,500 miles; half of our basic fruits are imported from other countries; and-the ultimate mark of unsustainability-our food system "requires more calories of energy to grow, process, distribute, cook and eliminate food than there are energy calories in the food itself." Each of these statistics on its own would have massive implications for the environment (trucking distance contributing to global warming, for example) and impacts on our own personal health. Combine them, and it's no wonder the authors label the food sector "one of Canada's heaviest and dirtiest industries."
This is disheartening, often alarming stuff, and it's enough to put one off one's morning Wheaties. But the book is much more than an indictment of North America's food system-though even if it were solely that, it would still be a thoroughly useful and necessary book. Where the authors-all of whom have enviable activist and academic credentials-really soar is in their eminently practical and immediately doable suggestions for action. This is a consumer guide worth its weight in cholesterol-free, protein-rich beans-much more valuable than gold. (Besides, you've got to love a book that calls us "eaters", not consumers.)
Accompanying the authors' critique of the food system are dozens of suggestions for smarter, healthier, and more sustainable eating. Examples of such actions include buying or growing organic food; buying locally produced foods in season; cutting out the "middleman" by buying directly from farmers or food co-ops; participating in community gardens. In other words, the shorter the distance between production and consumption, the closer the connection between earth and table, the better. In case this sounds far too naive and idealistic for a society based on the four major food groups of sugar, salt, grease, and caffeine (the authors' insight), they have also included dozens of stories about farmers and consumers who have made the switch and are doing far better as a result, economically and healthwise.
I suspect that all of us have exclaimed at least once in our lives, and possibly every day in summer, how much better homegrown tomatoes taste than those pale-red, round things we buy in February. The authors would define that organic homegrown tomato as "Real Food"-"fresh, local food grown without toxic chemicals and processed without harmful additives." And they argue, convincingly, that something as simple as that tomato-multiplied thousands of times by all of us in the food choices we make-can form the basis of a "new life ethic" that is based on four vital, key elements: health, joy, justice, and nature. Few would debate the notion that food has an impact on personal health; but it takes a brave, visionary book such as this to focus on the transformative power of food at every level-social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and environmental. Read it, and a trip to the local superstore will never be the same. Indeed, you might decide there's little reason to go there anyway, excellent reasons not to, and sensible alternatives right around the corner.
Lorraine Johnson has written about the food system and agriculture in her book, Green Future, and about biotechnology for various publications.
Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology by Brewster Kneen is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the food we eat-and that would be all of us, right? Kneen is one of Canada's most rigorous critics of biotechnology and his work in four previous books and in the journal he publishes, The Ram's Horn, is characterized by impeccable research and clear-headed analysis. His targets in this book are the corporate promoters (hand-in-hand with governments) of biotechnology and their attempts to control crops and food. If the punning title seems apocalyptic, and chapter titles such as "Undertones of death" and "Moral blackmail" strident, Kneen convinces the reader that, unfortunately, they're more than appropriate.
For Hunger-Proof Cities: Sustainable Urban Food Systems, edited by Mustafa Koc, Rod MacRae, Luc J.S. Mougeot, & Jennifer Welsh, explores the potential for urban and rural cooperation in relation to the food system. With one-third of the world's population living in cities of one million inhabitants or more, and with hunger an increasing problem worldwide, this exploration is urgently necessary. Contributors range from farmers to professors, activists to policymakers, and the emphasis is on solutions.
Lorraine Johnson (Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada
Authors Roberts, MacRae and Stahlbrand are uniquely positioned to write this book.
Wayne Roberts holds a Ph.D. in economic history and is the author of several books including the bestselling Get A Life!: How to Make a Good Buck, Dance Around the Dinosaurs and Save the World While You're at It. He appears regularly on radio and TV and speaks to audiences across North America on the subject of creating jobs and green economy. Rod MacRae has a Ph.D. in sustainable food and agriculture policy, and is currently the co-ordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council. Lori Stahlbrand left a career as a prominent CBC journalist to write this book. She has a Masters in Environmental Studies and a lifelong interest in healthy eating and cooking.