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Dear Justin - Can you give us a sign?

Posted by Theresa Schumilas Nov 26, 2015

bring food home buttonMuch of the buzz at last week’s Bring Food Home conference was about the ‘fresh air’ and possibilities  for food system change given the new federal government.  In many of the sessions agencies and food movement leaders talked about their hopes and the opportunities .  But this nouveau Trudeau-mania wasn’t shared by all.  At the grassroots of the food movement, skepticism prevails.  People are not sure if it is devil or God in the details of the new ministerial mandates,  and they are waiting for action to follow rhetoric.  

Pretty much everyone I talked with could recite parts of the PM's ‘mandate letters’ like poetry they memorized in grade school (“Someone came knocking at my wee small door.  Someone came knocking I’m sure sure sure…….)  Don’t get me wrong - I’m a cheerleader at heart when it comes to democratic processes and the promise of change. (The fact that we now have a Minster of Democratic Institutions gives me goose bumps.) Indeed, everyone should read the new mandate letters.  There is some inspiring language there.  But the foodies I spoke with while grazing at refreshment tables and waiting in bathroom lines are not sure that rhetoric will guide action. They are walking a line between over-celebration and cynicism with regards to the opportunities in the current moment.

For example, a woman I met while drooling over some delectable scones the first morning noted that  the Agriculture and Agri-Food mandate letter directs  “your overarching goal will be to support the agricultural sector in a way that allows it to be a leader in job creation and innovation”..  and “attract investment and create good jobs in food processing”.  But exactly what is a ‘good’ job in a processing factory she wondered.  A woman beside us responded with a quote from the Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour letter,   “I will expect you to contribute initiatives to promote good quality jobs and decent work in Canada in response to the federal report: Fairness at Work: Federal Labour Standards for the 21st Century”.  Not convinced this signaled a road to change, the first delegate re-quipped with another quote,  “Promote Canadian agricultural interests during future trade negotiations”  as proof that this government continues to see food as a commodity to be bought, sold and traded in order to enhance wealth for some,  versus as  a  public good that doesn’t belong in trade negotiations at all. The mandate letter does not say,  for example,  that the responsibility of the food and agriculture ministry is to support a food system that ensures food sovereignty and reasonable food worker livelihoods. 

no gm fish pictureSomething’s fishy….

I listened to a second volley of mandate letter citations while waiting for a bathroom cubical to open up. The first woman was decrying the language about innovation that surfaces in the mandate letters such as, “invest in agricultural research to support discovery science and innovation” in order to put “more healthy, high-quality food” on our tables.  She wondered if ‘high quality food’ meant GMO.  She noted that the ink isn’t even dry on the letters and we are battling to ensure GM fish is not approved for human consumption in Canada. The US has approved plans for the world’s first genetically modified GM food animal, a GM Atlantic salmon.  The eggs will start out in PEI, and then be shipped to Panama for growing and processing for the US market.  Maybe this is what is meant by, “Promote Canadian agricultural interests during future trade negotiations”. The woman in line with me went on to justify her cynicism by citing the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change mandate letter that says, “Enhance protection of Canada’s endangered species by responding quickly to the advice of scientists and completing robust species-at-risk recovery plans in a timely way”,  and  the direction to the Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard which says,  “Use scientific evidence and the precautionary principle, and take into account climate change, when making decisions affecting fish stocks and ecosystem management”.   The woman wondered:  Which species recovery plans and which fish stocks is he talking about in these letters?  Not salmon obviously.  And how can we say the  precautionary principle is being applied when GMO fish eggs risk contaminating our waters and our fisheries?  In fairness, I pointed out, it was the previous government that approved the Atlantic salmon eggs in late 2013 and the GM fish issue is still before the Health Minister awaiting approval.  If this is indeed a new era of openness and democracy, it will matter that most Canadians don’t want GM Salmon.  It doesn’t bring consumers anything new -  it only results in faster growing fish and higher profits for large corporations. Sign the petition!!.

Not everyone I talked with was this cynical.  I joined in a conversation (at the lunch line,  where else?) with some Public Health Nutritionists who were positive about the new ministerial mandates.  For them, the letter to the Minister of Health had some Chirstmas presents like: “introducing new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children… bringing in tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats and to reduce salt in processed foods… and improving food labels to give more information on added sugars and artificial dyes in processed foods… and update and expand the Nutrition North program”.   I couldn’t resist pointing out that, given their excitement about improving food labels,  there is nothing in any letters about the labeling of GMOs.  GMO labeling is favoured by 88% of Canadians – way more people than ever read the percentage of your daily recommended fibre intake in a slice of bread. Further,  its hard to consider tougher regulations on fats and salt in processed foods as a sustainable food solution when there is no requirement to declare the use of  pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or destructive soil practices.  

In the end, most of the Bring Food Home participants are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude when it comes to new government directions.  But, I’m not much of a waiter. I like to shape the direction of things. If this is indeed a moment of opportunity, then let’s get to it:

 

quietly do bookDear Justin,

I feel I can call you by your first name.  I mean no disrespect.  I just feel like I know you.  When I was 15 years old, I worked on a youth-employment project that created educational book-toys for children.  They were called “Quietly Do Books” and they helped toddlers learn fine motor skills like using domes and hooks & eyes.  (Unfortunately we didn’t foresee that Velcro technology would render these books useless.)  The group of us working on this project were impressed by your cuteness as a toddler.  We thought you needed more time out of the public eye, so we sent you one of our books.  (We received a lovely thank-you from your mom.)  Anyway, you must have used the book because it seems you turned out OK.  I turned out OK too.  But, unfortunately the food system didn’t. 

 

Everywhere people are looking for food that is healthy, local, green and fair, but our system (the system I fear you are perpetuating) isn’t offering people what they want and need.  Across Canada it is the poorest and least powerful eaters who need the healthiest, least polluted food and can’t get it.  At the same time, it is the poorest and least powerful farmers who produce this food and are cooling the planet through their practices. But they are struggling to survive.   

 

pick apples from the tree page from bookI know that the Quietly Do Book taught you how to use domes, not how to fix the food system.  But luckily, you don’t have to know how.  We do.  All over the world ordinary people are experimenting with new food distribution approaches like food hubs, food co-ops, on-line markets, food box programs, buying clubs, community based farms, urban agriculture, organic and ecological production, and so on.  We are witnessing and participating in an amazing ‘bottom-up’ proliferation of good food system ideas.  We have the solutions.  But we need to join them up and multiply them for greater impact.  I think you could help with that.

 

Many of us have been swimming up-stream pressing for food system change for decades. We want to believe you are ushering in a time of new possibilities.  But there is little in your ministerial mandate letters that speaks to building more democratic food system solutions from the bottom up. Indeed the focus on research, innovation and markets could be code for continued support for the consolidated, industrialized food system that has resulted in the social and environmental injustices we now experience.  Your mandate letters could have called for ministries to involve grassroots groups in a  ‘joined up’ food policy for Canada.

 

We want to believe you are serious about building a local, healthy, green and fair food system.  Can you give us a sign?

 

Sincerely,

Theresa

Organic farmer and former Quietly Do Book maker.

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