Take time to taste: Local producers push for a slower, GMO free Yukon

Food comes first in Sheila Alexandrovich’s household. Her children were home-schooled and they ate three meals a day sitting down at the…

Food comes first in Sheila Alexandrovich’s household.

Her children were home-schooled and they ate three meals a day sitting down at the dining-room table.

“As a single parent, I raised two kids well beneath the poverty line and we ate 75-per-cent organic by gardening, eating basics and local crops.

“It was a priority — eating and feeding my kids was a priority.”

Her 18-year-old son, Levon Lacoste, has fond memories of hitting the garden for a “five-minute graze.”

“They’d just go out in the garden and eat, then they could skip the salad with dinner,” says Alexandrovich.

Alexandrovich runs Wheaton River Gardens in Mount Lorne where she grows vegetables, and keeps horses, lamas and rabbits.

She uses the animal waste to fertilize the garden; the rabbits eat the weeds and the lamas supply wool.

Alexandrovich is a disciple of the slow-food movement.

Last month, she and a dozen other Yukon producers, chefs and farmers went to Turin, Italy, for the international Terra Madre slow-food conference.

Simply, slow food means taking an interest in what we eat.

At the philosophy’s roots are four basic tenants — that the food be local, organic, free from genetic modifications, and that the producers receive fair compensation for their work.

And, in keeping with its moniker, it means that people take time to sit down and enjoy eating.

“Stop, pay attention, it’s the least you can do for the food,” says Alexandrovich.

“So we know where our food comes from; we know its quality and from that you gain a pure pleasure that all people should be allowed to have — it’s such a simple thing.”

The movement officially began in 1989, when delegates from 15 countries endorsed a manifesto to promote good, clean, fair foods.

“Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food,” it reads.

It means that a small farmer growing a small crop in one area to be sold locally is significant.

Currently, large-scale factory farming is driving small local farmers out of business.

Because the big farms only produce a few different varieties of foods, other lesser-used species become endangered or extinct.

“If we place all of our eggs, so to speak, in one basket like that and it drops we’re in trouble,” says Alexandrovich.

“When this happens, our food sources are in the hands of companies whose mandate is profit, we’re in trouble.”

Every time you buy food, it’s a political choice, she says.

“We undervalue the role that food plays in our lives — it’s what keeps us alive, or semi-alive if you’re eating poorly.

“It’s bizarre, we’re not spending, we’re not valuing — if we put real value and real quality back into food it can only improve health.”

Bringing it home

In keeping with the slow-food philosophy, Alexandrovich has taken up a (pardon the pun) grassroots movement to declare the Yukon a GMO-free area.

A GMO is a plant or animal whose genetic material has been altered.

Most of the time it’s altered for practical reasons — so the organism can better resist disease, pests or stay fresh longer.

Even though GMOs have made their way onto supermarket shelves, it’s impossible to know their risk to health and to the environment because there hasn’t been enough testing, says Alexandrovich.

“We’re the guinea pigs on this.

“If you don’t have assurance of quality, which a lot of food in the grocery store doesn’t have, then that’s not fair to the people eating it.”

Yukon can become GMO-free piece by piece.

“Farmers can declare their land GMO free; a hamlet can declare themselves GMO free, a First Nation — until you have a patchwork,” says Alexandrovich.

It’s already happening in European countries.

In February, Poland joined Greece and Austria in declaring themselves GMO free.

More than 35 countries have mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified foods. Canada is not one of them.

Ottawa does regulate GMOs through a seven- to 10-year research, development and testing process to ensure the food is “safe and nutritious before it is allowed in the Canadian marketplace,” according to Health Canada’s website.

No exploration of GMOs is complete without a mention of the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seeds, Monsanto.

It has more than 1,600 employees worldwide and reported US$6.2 billion in revenues for 2005.

“(Farmers) want the seed that has the strongest potential for the highest yield, and they want the tools that allow them to protect that yield potential against environmental factors such as disease, insect damage and weed competition,” says the company’s website.

Since the mid-1990s, Monsanto has sued more than 150 US farmers for using its products illegally.

In one high-profile case, the company sued Saskatchewan independent farmer Percy Schmeiser, after his field was accidentally contaminated with the company’s genetically engineered canola.

The culture of food

Slow food is doing brisk business at the Alpine Bakery in downtown Whitehorse.

Logs crackle in the bakery’s brick oven to the steady tune of the cash register ringing up purchases of fresh breads and specialty organic items like chocolate, juice, yogurt and soup.

“Food is one of the most important parts of the culture,” says bakery owner Suat Tuzlak.

“They say it is easier to change your religion than the way you eat,” he says with a smile.

“Imagine if someone grows up with McDonald’s culture, it is hard to introduce that person to fantastic homemade eggplant dish with variety of ethnic foods.

“It is in the brain, it stays with you.”

For him the definition of “fast food” goes beyond the burger-joint drive-thru.

“Imagine the supermarket as fast food, everything is in packages. Cereal is a processed food you add milk to.

“Slow food would be a sack of grain, cracked with a hand-powered machine, soaked overnight and simply heated in the morning — fantastic-tasting, nutritious cereal is ready,” says Tuzlak.

“How can you compare this with corn flakes you pour milk on?”

The Alpine Bakery follows the slow-food philosophy as closely as possible, says Tuzlak.

It uses all organic ingredients and as much as possible local foods from local farmers, and all the baked goods are made from scratch.

Tuzlak’s is also supporting the movement to make the territory GMO-free.

“I am praying for it,” he says.

If all Yukon farmers agree, then the government can declare the territory GMO-free.

Right now, Yukon farmers cannot produce all the food needed to nourish the territory.

But the movement towards slow food is a slow process — it comes step by step from supporting local farmers.

Then Yukoners can become less reliant on outside imported food.

“Still we will be dependant, but we will be less dependent,” says Tuzlak.

Postscript: As I am talking with Tuzlak, a local farmer pops into the bakery and drops a brown paper bag into Tuzlak’s hands.

“Because we love you,” he tells Tuzlak with a hearty laugh before he hurries back outside into the cold afternoon air.

 “This cannot be more timely, this is slow food,” says Tuzlak, examining the sack’s contents.

The gifted bag is stuffed with robust bulbs of purple garlic, organically farmed in Atlin soil.

“This is like a diamond to me,” he adds, then removes a bulb and holds it between two fingers.

As I’m preparing to leave the bakery Tuzlak drops one of the precious bulbs into another brown paper bag and hands it to me.

He only allows me to leave with the treasure after extracting a promise that it will be eaten and enjoyed.