Food fights in the New Millennium

Freedom to Grow

Thursday 2 May 2002, by Meera KARUNANANTHAN

In Canada as in the rest of the world, the struggle over the food we eat is a heartening example of a bottom-up approach to global change.

In the battle against economic globalization, the fight over food has seen some of the most passionate activism. The impacts of liberalization on agricultural sovereignty have prompted French activists to break into the laboratories of multinational corporations and destroy their genetically modified crops. In Brazil, it has forced the Landless Worker’s Movement to claim land and grow food for sheer survival.

In Canada there has been a growing movement of activists who through the simple acts of growing food in the city or supporting small local farms, have defied the globalization of the food industry and the industrialization of farms.

Small Farmers

In the past few decades, the province of Quebec has seen a dramatic drop in its number of small farms. According to Dana of the Union Paysanne, a provincial activist group, "small farms have been eradicated to make way for Quebec’s enormous pork industry." With government funds favouring large industrial farms in Quebec, many family farms have disappeared.

With their emphasis on profit, large farms are often unfriendly to the environment, thanks to practices like intensive pesticide use. Their argument has been that they are more efficient than the small family farm. But even this is debatable.

Journalist Peter Rosset claims that small-scale farming is better for the economy in the long run. "In American communities which are dominated by large corporate farms, nearby towns have died off. Mechanization means that fewer local people are employed and absentee ownership means that farm families themselves are no longer needed."

In an effort to preserve Quebec’s small farms, the environmental group Equiterre implemented Montreal’s first community supported agriculture (CSA) project in 1995. A handful of small organic farmers began delivering their produce to a few hundred city-dwellers on a weekly basis. Today, 9000 Montrealers support 62 local farms through the organisation.

"CSA is an alternative to the impacts of globalization in the food industry," says Equiterre’s Isabelle Joncas. "People chose to participate because they are more and more aware of the impact of the food system on health, on society and on the environment; they are aware that their purchases are a part of the solution."

In the absence of government funds, advance payments from their clients have afforded small farmers the financial security to plan ahead and provide a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and herbs.

Urban Gardening

While CSA is a vital tool with which city-dwellers support local family farms, another solution exists for low-income families without the means to buy organic produce.

In 1996, Eco-initiatives (a Montreal-based organisation) began urban gardening projects in response to a 17% rise in food bank consumption. Since then, a growing number of collective gardens and collective kitchens have allowed low-income families to grow fresh produce in their own neighbourhoods, swap recipes while cooking together and learn preservation techniques such as making home-made ketchup.

According to Jean-Marie Chapeau, president of Eco-initiatives, this has led to an effective use of the city’s valuable green spaces. Eco-initiatives encourages landowners to share idle backyard space with gardeners in the neighbourhood. This is one example of how the organisation uses urban gardening to increase food security for poorer urbanites while building solidarity within the community.

In the meantime, some Montrealers will not wait for the city to allot land. Last year, a community grew tired of seeing garbage pile up in a lot between a restaurant and a nearby daycare centre. They cleaned it up and turned it into a vegetable garden with a playground for children. This is what Chapeau refers to as "un jardin guerille," the first of its kind in Montreal. According to Melina, one of the "guerilla gardeners," the landlord now wants the lot to build condominiums. They have appealed to the City to buy the land and donate it to the community.

Urban Peasants

Urban gardening and CSA have also created solidarity between the farmer and the city-dweller, creating a network of food activists with common goals. While traditionally, there has been a consumer-producer relationship between the farmer and the urban resident, the Union Paysanne prefers not to make such distinctions. "We are all citizens," they say of their own members.

The organisation is made up of 2500 citizens, of whom 800 are agricultural producers, and deals with rural and urban agricultural needs. While the organisation’s goal is to make Quebec law more favourable to environmentally friendly small-scale farmers, urban gardening ranks high on its agenda.

On May 4th they will hold a protest in Quebec City demanding that the Quebec government favour small farmers by improving access to government subsidies, and by breaking the monopoly of large corporate farms imposed by the UAP (Agricultural Producers’ Union). Their subcommittee on urban gardening hopes that Montreal will soon adopt anti-pesticide laws and make composting mandatory.

In the meantime, whether or not legislation changes, strategies like CSA and urban agriculture have allowed citizens to take matters into their own hands. Small farms, once at the risk of extinction, are now making a comeback. Former food bank recipients are eating organic produce and home-made ketchup. Canadians are becoming increasingly concerned with where their food is coming from. Ultimately, they will decide if small-scale agricultural projects will plant roots in our communities, or if they are just a flash in the pan.

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