Last week I returned to Whitehorse, the place that I called home back in the mid ‘70s.
It was great coming back.
I was here to discuss a worldwide farm movement called La Vía Campesina, and its vision of a more sustainable food system, one based on food sovereignty.
I was invited by the owner of Alpine Bakery, and people involved in the Growers of Organic Food Yukon (GOOFY) and Eleanor Millard from the Yukon Development Education Centre.
I never imagined that I would end up doing a book signing in the very bookstore, Mac’s Fireweed, where I had worked some 23 years earlier.
Recently, I was reminded of the importance of building an alternative food system if you care about this planet and its inhabitants.
The cover story of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business entitled Eastern Promises (February 16) claimed that, as a result of the growing middle class in Asia that is increasingly adopting a western diet rich in meats and dairy products, Canadian farmers must take advantage of the growing market.
Prairie farmers must produce more feed grains, which will then be shipped halfway across the world.
The article also spoke of India’s growing demand for pulse crops, such as lentils and chick peas, that could soon be filled by Saskatchewan farmers.
Interestingly, the Globe and Mail failed to explain that India’s growing demand for pulse crops might well be a result of changes in land use in India. For example, land that had traditionally been used to grow food for domestic markets is now used to produce flowers, cotton and shrimp for export while Indian small-scale farmers go further into debt.
Just as worrying, the Globe and Mail article did not mention how increased production of feed grains for export-based agriculture contributes to global climate change.
The article was a good example of the “business as usual” mindset that fails to recognize the social and environmental consequences of the deeply flawed agricultural model that is now being globalized through bi-lateral and world free-trade agreements.
However, citizens everywhere, including the Yukon, are expressing a growing distrust of the conventional food system.
The outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe and Canada, foot-and-mouth disease in Britain, genetically engineered organisms contamination of corn stocks in Mexico, the proliferation of genetically engineered organisms in most of the processed foods consumed in Canada, e-coli food poisoning in the United States, the Asian flu in poultry, and the dioxin episodes in Belgium have fuelled increasing concerns over issues of food safety and food quality.
Many are also increasingly aware that in Canada we need to make some dramatic changes in our lifestyles in efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions that are causing havoc in communities around the world.
These concerns have, in turn, spurred a rising interest in alternative food systems.
Demands for locally grown, safe, good-quality food are increasing as evidenced by the exponential growth of farmers’ and organic markets.
La Vía Campesina is leading a global movement for change.
La Vía Campesina now represents 149 organizations of rural women, peasants, small and medium-scale farmers, farm workers and indigenous peoples from 56 countries based throughout the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe.
The Union Paysanne in Québec and the National Farmers Union are the two Canadian members of La Vía Campesina.
Between 2000-2004 this farm movement grew by 40 per cent.
It represents millions and millions of farm families in the North and South.
La Vía Campesina argues that there are fundamental differences in the kinds of policies developed by bureaucrats and politicians from that defined by farming people themselves.
In fact, official policies often reflect a considerable distancing from reality.
In many ways this is because their pocket books are not directly affected by the policies they put in place.
Over the past 50 years, agricultural policies have concentrated on the modernization of agriculture that eventually led to corporate-led agriculture.
An earlier version of this model had ravaged the countryside in the North for nearly a century and it is this model that now is being rapidly globalized.
This is a model that is based on the idea that the great majority of farming families everywhere must disappear and those who remain must be integrated into the market where they are left to compete against each other in efforts to gain a greater share of the international marketplace.
La Vía Campesina completely rejects this misguided logic.
It maintains that the globalized industrial model of agriculture, together with increased liberalization of the food trade, is leading to the destruction of biodiversity, further degradation of the environment, increased disparity, and greater impoverishment in the countryside everywhere.
In fact, La Vía Campesina was created in radical opposition to this particular vision of agriculture and food.
They argue that the conflict is not between farmers of the North and peasants in the South.
Rather, resistance to globalization is a struggle over two competing models of social and economic development.
On the one hand, a globalized, neoliberal, corporate-driven model, where agriculture is seen exclusively as a profit-making venture, and productive resources are increasingly concentrated in the hands of agro-industry.
This is a model where food seems to appear like magic on the shelves of grocery stores.
Raw crops disappear from fields; go through some industrial processes that turn wheat, coconut oil and tomatoes into frozen pizza treats.
Food emerges hermetically sealed and neatly packaged in brightly coloured cardboard boxes with a label that says “may contain” tag.
It is this industrialized model of agriculture and food that is being globalized; it is this model that the Globe and Mail article portrays as a win-win scenario.
La Vía Campesina on the other hand, envisions a radically different, more humane model of development based on food sovereignty.
This is agriculture that is farmer-driven.
As far as trade is concerned, food is produced first and foremost for local consumption and only the surplus is traded.
La Vía Campesina rejects a vision of agricultural development in which everything is privatized and local knowledge has no place.
It insists that those who produce and consume food should be at the centre of policy development on issues related to food and agriculture.
Food sovereignty emphasizes the production of healthy and safe food for local consumption.
It speaks to the “right to produce in our own territory” rather than having to import food from long distances.
Food sovereignty puts people at the centre of decision-making so that communities are more directly involved in determining food and agriculture policies; it rejects the idea that food is just like any other commodity.
Food sovereignty effectively shortens the distance between producers and consumers to bring them closer together so that people get to know where and how their food was grown and who was involved.
Food sovereignty rejects the imposition of genetically engineered seeds in food; genetically engineered seeds are unnecessary, damaging to the environment and serve mainly to fill the deep pockets of transnational corporations.
Instead, La Vía Campesina has started an international campaign to exchange and preserve seeds cultivated by farmers around the world.
While in the Yukon I met with some local farmers organized in the Growers of Organic Food Yukon.
I heard about the Fireweed Community Market where Whitehorse residents can buy locally produced food and artwork.
I went to the Alpine Bakery, ate some fantastic locally made organic bread and was amazed at the diversity of products available there.
I also heard about all of the work that was being done to make the Yukon a genetically engineered free zone.
These are all signs of a vibrant and active community that is already putting the idea of food sovereignty into practice.
Yukon residents should be proud of the fact that they are joining a worldwide movement to put the production and distribution of healthy and safe food back where it belongs — in the hands of local communities.
Annette Desmarais used to farm in Saskatchewan. She has a PhD in geography and now teaches in the department of Justice Studies at the University of Regina.
Her book, La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants, is available at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore and the Alpine Bakery.