Issue 233: October 2005

in

 Food Secure Canada

For more than five years, people involved in ‘food security' in Canada have been trying to get together to create a common voice. It's not an easy task. As food banks have become institutionalized as a regular part of the food system, and as farmers' real incomes have dipped below zero, the questions of how to feed all Canadians (not to mention issues of trade or genetic engineering) have tended to drive activists into separate solitudes, if not outright conflict. Last year at the second national Food Security Assembly, a first step towards unity was taken in the recognition that the three distinct areas of concern are, in fact, linked. Ecological sustainability, economic justice, and the integrity of both the food system and the food itself are essential if the goal of “zero hunger” is to be achieved.

The organizers of the third Assembly, held at the end of September in Waterloo, Ontario (notably Ellen Desjardins and Sanjay Govindaraj) aimed to move beyond this high-minded rhetoric, by ensuring that all delegates participated in sessions addressing each of the three themes identified at the previous Assembly: zero hunger, sustainable food systems, and safe and healthy food. Canada's role in trade, aid, biotechnology and international agriculture and rural development formed a fourth theme. The goal was to emerge from the conference with a clear set of policy priorities for a new national organization, tentatively named Food Secure Canada – and it worked! While Food Secure Canada is not yet a formal organization, the Assembly ratified a Constitution, agreed on the formation of a Steering Committee, and accepted several policy proposals, including development of a ‘report card' on food security, an agreement to join the International Alliance Against Hunger, and designing a broad initiative for ‘food localism'.

In fact, there were 81 specific recommendations from the workshops, reflecting the broad diversity of the participants, which included rural, urban, northern and indigenous people. It would not be an exaggeration to say that everyone came with their own agenda – things like

• mandatory labelling of GMOs
• a campaign to oppose factory farming
• a ‘local' label to increase the market for locally produced food
• championing the concept of the ‘right to food' in domestic and international policy
• a campaign against advertising junk food to children
• joining the ‘Ban Terminator' campaign
• ‘environmental tax credits' to support sustainable agriculture
• regulatory regimes that support community-focussed, low-impact agriculture
• support of indigenous access to traditional lands.

Some of these received wide-spread support while others sparked strong debate. The resulting conflicts were avoided to some extent by a commitment that the Steering Committee will develop a policy document which will include all the recommendations, organized according to which are most urgent and achievable. The spirit of collaboration was also enhanced by the leadership of the conference, particularly Mustafa Koc from Ryerson University in Toronto, who spoke passionately and persuasively about the absolute necessity of working together.

While there is still much organizational work to do, the critical steps have now been taken to establish a voice for civil society in Canada which can address food policy at the federal as well as the regional and local levels. The positive energy generated by Waterloo will help as the group works in the next year to include all its constituents in a meaningful way in developing that voice.

The Giant Made Visible

I have to wonder what the Cargillites think when Invisible Giant and I turn up in yet another corner of their empire, the latest being Argentina. “Gigante Invisible - Cargill y sus estrategias transnacionales,” the Spanish edition of Invisible Giant, was published in Argentina in October as a cooperative effort of GRAIN, REDES-AT (Friends of the Earth) in Uruguay, and Grupo de Reflexi ó n Rural (GRR) in Argentina. In honour of the occasion, Cathleen and I burned up some of our airmiles and after attending the founding conference of Food Secure Canada in Kitchener, Ontario, we flew on to Buenos Aires. Actually, we were all set to go to Argentina four years ago just as the economy collapsed. Our friends advised us not to come at that time, being unsure what might happen. Memories of the dictatorship (1976-1983) were all too powerful.

“The armed forces applied harsh measures against terrorists and many suspected of being their sympathizers. They restored basic order, but the human costs of what became known as “El Proceso,” or the “Dirty War” were high. Conservative counts list between 10,000 and 30,000 persons as “disappeared” during the 1976-83 period.” – US State Dept. Background Note, 9/05

What the US refers to as “terrorists” were virtually all the progressive student, union and political leaders in a country of (now) 38.6 million people.

Our 9-day visit actually included two days in Montevideo, Uruguay, which is a three-hour fast-ferry catamaran (70 km/hr) ride from Buenos Aires across the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. In Montevideo we met with leaders and staff of the World Rainforest Movement, REDES-AT, and RA-PAL (Pesticide Action Network Latin America), trade unionists and a representative from the organic farmers, as well as presenting the book at a public meeting.

Our first night in Buenos Aires was spent at the Cooperativa Bauen Hotel. This hotel was privatized and operated for about ten years, during which time the owner did not make any payments to the government. Finally the hotel was to be closed but the workers formed a cooperative and took over management under legislation brought in after the 2001 collapse. It is now a workers hotel and the locus of many social justice activities and organizations. We met some of our hosts in the hotel café .

After several days of meetings and interviews about my book, the food economy of the country and possible alternatives, as well as some sightseeing around the city (and enjoying the compulsory tango show, excellent beef and vino tinto ), we headed by car 300 km north up the Parana River to Rosario, the third largest city (pop.1.3 million) in Argentina, a hub of agroindustrial activity and a deep-water port. After emerging from the sprawling city, we travelled the flat land of the Pampas looking at hectare after hectare of brown stubble – including most of the road verges – on a warm spring day when everything else was turning green. The fields had all been ‘burned off' with glyphosate herbicide in preparation for the planting of transgenic soja (soy). Much of the glyphosate comes from China at a much lower cost than Monsanto's Roundup (the patent has expired, enabling the generics to come in).

Traditional agriculture on the Pampas was a sustainable alteration of five years in pasture for beef and some sheep and five years of cropping (which they refer to as ‘agriculture') without fertilizers or pesticides. Now the vast plains of central and northern Argentina, all the way up through Paraguay, are dedicated to a perpetual monoculture of transgenic herbicide-tolerant soy, pesticides and imported (by Cargill) fertilizers. (The people who get “fumigated,” as they say, by the aerial spraying are not as “tolerant” of glyphosate as the transgenic soy.)

At two well-attended meetings in Rosario we followed our now-customary pattern of presentations: Carlos Vicente of GRAIN, Adolfo Boy of GRR, and myself. My role was to describe Cargill's operating strategies and practices since the company is building a very large port and soy processing facility in what was a residential/agricultural area on the south side of Rosario. The land Cargill is building on was zoned agricultural and growing vegetables, but with the promise of paying a good price for it, Cargill (typically) got the farmer who owned it to get the zoning changed to industrial rather than trying to get it rezoned itself. Then Cargill bought it and proceeded to start construction of a loading/unloading pier 300 metres into the river and the sprawling storage and processing facility with only the flimsiest of environmental assessments. The local fishermen are particularly concerned about the effects of the pier on the river and the fish. At this time, Cargill has permission to build the plant but not to operate it. Needless to say, it is not investing a reputed $200 million without the assurance of being able to operate the plant, which will employ only 165 people.

Meanwhile the nearby residents and many others are trying to win concessions from Cargill and the government, such as relocation of the road serving the port that will have to serve 500 trucks a day delivering soy so that it does not go through a residential area of the city.

Monoculture GE soy may be satisfying the demands of Argentina's creditors and enriching the few transnational corporations which are processing and exporting it, but it provides a poor diet for Argentinians. Around San Pedro, for example, where we stopped for lunch on the way to Rosario, our host Adolfo Boy told us that when he was working there as an agronomist, sweet potatoes were the major crop. Of course they were a highly nutritious food, consumed locally, and easy to grow. Farmers did not need to buy seed, he told us, because the sweet potatoes would grow if you just dropped a piece of one on the ground. They also grew peas and oranges, most of which were replaced by lemons – for export – and now soy, for export.

The moral of the story: Industrial agriculture is bad, from beginning to end. Argentinians, who used to be among the best fed people anywhere, are now being, quite literally, forced to consume soy in place of milk, meat, vegetables and pulses such as lentils which were once produced in abundance on the small farms that have been overrun by large landowners growing soy. Lentils are now imported from Canada, of all absurdities. One does not even want to wonder how many of the ubiquitous garbage pickers on the streets of Buenos Aires were once small farmers.

Now it is GE soy, from roadside to horizon. Such monoculture production is degrading the land, is responsible for poor nutrition and high food costs, and is expressing its environmental impact on the roads and waterways. Changing course back to a sustainable, local food system becomes increasingly difficult as corporations such as Cargill gain increasing control through their massive investments and skilful political policy work.

Gone forever are my romantic images of the Pampas as rolling green fields and herds of range cattle.

 

#233: October 2005 TOC
Food Secure Canada
The Giant Made Visible
Argentina and soja (soy) -
 statistics on production 
Cargill Argentina -
 a thumbnail history 
Herbicide-Resistant Weeds -
 Horseweed and Pigweed have both been found to resist glyphosate 
'Co-existence' impossible -
 GM crops contaminate the countryside for up to 15 years later 
Small Scale Producers -
 a helpful conference statement 
Priceless? Not any more -
 selling breastmilk 
Fair Trade Nestle? -
 the food and drink giant will now sell one line of Fair Trade coffee 
We Don't Need Genetically Modified Foods -
 a statement from Ghana