Food for thought

Farmers are perennial losers. Even though food prices have never been higher, farmers have never been poorer, says Kent Mullinix, a Vancouver-based agricultural scientist.

Farmers are perennial losers.

Even though food prices have never been higher, farmers have never been poorer, says Kent Mullinix, a Vancouver-based agricultural scientist.

“We’ve set farmers up for economic failure,” said Mullinix, who was in Whitehorse to talk about sustainable agriculture.

In the last 50 years, the traditional family farm has been gobbled up by multinational corporations.

Today’s agricultural model more closely resembles feudalism – land owned by aristocrats and tended by powerless serfs – than an egalitarian system, said Mullinix.

Today, only 12 companies control 80 per cent of the food sold around the world.

Though food prices are soaring, farm incomes are dismal.

“Farms are producing more, growing more, but making no money,” said Mullinix.

Agriculture is still very profitable, it’s just that the profits are being eaten up by large capital costs for technology and marketing.

This “technology treadmill,” has forced farms to become bigger as profit margins shrink, he said.

In Southwest, BC, there are 25 per cent fewer farms than there were 10 years ago.

“Traditional family farms may be gone by 2030,” warned Mullinix.

This could have dire consequences for agriculture towns.

Places dominated by corporate farming have a much lower standard of living, more crime, a less robust economy and fewer independent businesses, according to a decades-old study by Walter Goldschmidt, a California sociology professor.

“We have to get rid of the competitive oligarchic system,” said Mullinix. “It’s not producing the kinds of communities we really want.”

Food production will have to change whatever system we choose, he added.

Energy prices will force those changes on society.

Modern agriculture is extremely energy intensive, said Mullinix.

For most agricultural products it’s a five to one ratio, but as much as 10 to one for some foods like beef.

The majority of that energy comes from oil, and within a few decades most scientists believe oil production will peak and prices will climb.

“I think the transition to a post-oil economy is going to be tumultuous regardless of what we do,” said Mullinix. “The question is what we do to elevate the level of tumultuousness.”

BC has started to experiment with agriculture in cities, said Mullinix, who is working with several communities on what’s dubbed Municipally Enabled and Supported Agriculture.

Langley, BC, has partnered with Mullinix’s Kwantlen University to create a test farm in a hydro right of way to assess the viability of the idea.

And Surrey, BC, is working on a food sustainability plan.

In the future, agriculture will be worked into community plans like any other essential infrastructure, said Mullinix. Many local and regional agricultural projects will produce most of the food we eat.

In the Yukon, that model is a long way off.

Only about two per cent of the food sold in the Yukon is actually grown in the territory. Most of this food is imported from the South.

Because of the harsh climate, lack of arable land and a small population, the Yukon never did develop large-scale agriculture. And it probably won’t, said Tony Hill, director of the territory’s agricultural branch.

“The main focus of our branch is to develop a local industry that is sustainable,” said Hill. “We’re not focused on imports.”

Here, only about 4,900 hectares is being used while about twice that has been zoned for agriculture.

There are programs to encourage people to develop fallow land, but it’s really not enough to make a difference, said Mike Blumenschein, the president of the Yukon Agricultural Association.

“There’s no point in clearing land and planting crops if there is nowhere to sell them,” said Blumenschein.

Farmers sell the majority of food grown in the Yukon directly to consumers.

There isn’t a lot of Yukon grown food on supermarket shelves because of a lack of storage and processing facilities in the territory.

Without infrastructure to provide a steady year-round supply of food, Blumenschein doesn’t see much chance of Yukon agriculture growing by much more.

The Yukon can’t ignore agriculture, said Dan Cresswell, deputy chief of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation.

Developing a vision for the future of food sustainability will ensure the interests of Yukoners are represented.

“It’s going to happen, and I want it done in my backyard because I want it done properly,” said Cresswell.

When we discuss changing the way we grow food, we are talking about the way we live, said Mullinix.

“Our agricultural system is a fundamental expression of our worldview,” said Mullinix. “Restructuring agriculture is really about restructuring the way we go about building community.”

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