Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Food Explosion!

I thought I was being rather clever, tailoring Tom Philpott's "Occupy Food" article for the Canadian situation. Turns out I was just on the leading edge of a meme. Lots of takes on Occupying Food here, with a lot of great points:

Marion Nestle promotes an Occupy Food rally in New York.

Eric Holt Gimenez argues for repoliticizing food, taking a page from the Occupy movement to create a broad-based movement.

Siena Chrisman talks about the ballooning influence of speculators on food prices since deregulation in 2000, consolidation of food corporations, and the need to unite to take back power.

It's catching on! Will you join in?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Vegetable Hits and Misses

I tried a lot of new vegetable varieties this year, in two different gardens at opposite ends of the city, so I thought I'd review a few of them. Bear in mind that we're Zone 3 here, and I grew organically, so your mileage undoubtedly varies.


The clear winner was the Witches Fingers pack I got from Tourne Sol farm near Montreal. I am going to have to write and ask them what varieties are in the pack - I know the seeds are open-pollinated varieties. They germinated well, were early, long, big, delicious, and untouched by insect or disease.
A loser was Purple Haze, which I got from Veseys. In both gardens, it was skinny and small, and in one it succumbed to Alternaria leaf blight (although the Red Cored Chantenay inches away did not).


I was really excited about Andrina, a cute little 6" high cherry tomato that I got from Heritage Harvest Seeds and grew in a pot. Two disadvantages: first, the leaves grow so low on the plant that I had a lot of backsplash when watering. Second, it tasted TERRIBLE! My sister grew one in Montreal and disliked the taste as well.

However, Silvery Fir Tree was a winner, also from Heritage Harvest Seeds. This pack was thrown in my large order as a freebie, so I only planted one. Reasonable size plant, medium sized tomatoes, quite tasty, and a good yield.


The Bohemian flat podded sugar snap peas that we got from a friend who got it from his mother who got it from an elderly neighbour who immigrated to Canada decades ago yielded decently, had a long harvest season, and were still tasty when they looked like they should be overripe and overgrown. Unfortunately, you can't get any of these unless you ask me very nicely.

Sugar sprint snap from Veseys had so many problems. An unidentified insect ate the life out of them in one garden, and in the other the yield was very poor. They succumbed to powdery mildew and had leaf miners. A cousin of mine also grew them and had problems.

Leafy Greens:

I had way more lettuces than I needed - Black Seeded Simpson and Matina Sweet. But what I really liked was the Mizuna from Veseys. A delicate taste hinting of cabbage, a very fast grower (we got four cuts), the only problem was that eventually the cabbage butterflies found it.

Mizuna at the bottom, Matina Sweet at the top, BSS in the middle

Would you believe, I still have seed packs in my fridge that I didn't even crack open this year? I look forward to more experimenting next year!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Myth of the Small, Inefficient Farmer

Here's an interesting bit of data from Cathy Holtslander that I think deserves to be widely seen. Counterintuitively, large farms in Ontario get less of their income from the market, and more of it from government program payments, than smaller farms do - and this is an increasing trend.

The first pie charts show that in 1995, the share of market income obtained by farms with over a million dollars in annual gross revenues was 15%. In 2008, that number fell to 5%.*

Gosh! Since this isn't due to a decreasing number of big farms - the number of million dollar farms tripled over this time, as the number of smallest farms dropped by 25%, I gotta wonder: Where did those big farms get their money, then? During that time, as the second pie charts show, the biggest farms increased their percentage of program payments received from 6% to 26%. (And the value of program payments increased from $30 million to $150 million at the same time.)

Would you rather have your tax money support large corporate farms, or smaller farms? Surely not the former, on the grounds of 'efficiency', because this data explodes that myth. If the latter, the suggestion of a lower cap on program payments to your MP might be a first step.

*Data for these charts is from Statistics Canada, Canadian Farm Financial Database

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy for the Love of Food!

Tom Philpott has written a great article on why food movement actors should support Occupy Wall Street. He makes the argument that the occupations (which have spread across the world, starting today!) challenge the concentration of power in the hands of the elite, and the agrifood industry is a prime example of this concentration, elite control, and marginalization of the consumer and small producer.

I thought I'd take three of Tom's key points, which use American examples, and make the case for his argument applying to Canada. (Of course, many of his examples of multinational corporations apply to us here as well.)

1. The food industry is a big fat monopoly
  • The top five food retailers in Canada account for 60% of sales (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
  • Nilsson Bros. Inc. is Canada’s largest beef packing corporation, owning nearly half of Canadian capacity. In addition to its packing plants, holdings of the Nilsson Bros. conglomerate also include (wholly-owned or in partnership) feedlots, most of western Canada’s large auction facilities. ('Losing Our Grip', 2010)
  • Three companies -- Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill -- control an estimated 90% of the world's grain trade (USA Today) and the prairies export 80% of the grain they grow.
  • The largest 5% of food manufacturing establishments accounted for over 50% of sales in 2003 whereas the smallest 80% of establishments accounted for only 15% of sales. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
  • And, since transnational corporations sell the majority of Canadian farmers' inputs, some global stats are relevant: the top 10 seed companies account for 67% of the global proprietary seed market (Monsanto is 23% of that number); the top 10 pesticide firms (the six largest of which are also in the top 10 seed companies) control 89% of the global agrochemical market. (ETC)
2. Wall Street's greed leaves millions to starve—literally
  • "In recent years, the financial markets have discovered the huge opportunities presented by agricultural commodities. The consequences are devastating, as speculators drive up food prices and plunge millions of people into poverty... Since last June alone, higher food prices have driven another 44 million people below the poverty line, reports the World Bank. These are people who must survive on less than $1.25 (€0.87) a day." (Der Spiegel, trans.)
  • "Holdings in commodity index funds ballooned from US$ 13 billion in 2003 to US$ 317 billion by 2008...The promotion of biofuels and other supply shocks were relatively minor catalysts, but they set off a giant speculative bubble in a strained and desperate global financial environment. These factors were then blown out of all proportion by large institutional investors who, faced with the drying up of other financial markets, entered commodity futures markets on a massive scale." (De Schutter briefing note, 2010)
  •  Some advice from a Canadian investment advisor: "the biggest and most worrisome near-term crisis of all, is a food crisis; and you will have the opportunity to make a ton of money from it. Speculators love crises as well, and only add fuel to the fire, which multiplies your gains. The writing is already all over the wall for a pending food crisis; the west just hasn’t seen it on a domestic level yet, but believe me, we will. It’s time to get ahead of this trade." 
  •  The extension of food speculation, as you know from reading this blog, is speculation in land. "Bay Street investors like Sprott Resources and Lawrence Asset Management have been buying into farmland in Uruguay and the Democratic Republic of the Congo." (Canadian Dimension)

3. Our politicians are in bed with agribusiness.
  • A homegrown prairies example: Assiniboia Capital Corp, "the largest farmland investment management company in Canada, with almost 100,000 acres under management" (from its website). Organization includes: Co-founder Brad Farquhar, who is the former Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Party and former Executive Assistant to Sask. Party leader Elwin Hermanson; Gord Nystuen—General Manager of Assiniboia’s farm input financing division, Input Capital—is former Saskatchewan Deputy Minister of Agriculture, former Chief of Staff to the Premier, and former Chair of Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation; Advisory Board member Lorne Hepworth is President of Croplife Canada and former
    Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Energy and Mines, Minister of Education,
    and Minister of Finance.
    (Assiniboia Capital website)
  • Assiniboia Capital has tripled its land base over the past two years.  In light of this, it is interesting that Assiniboia’s primary capital source is taxpayer-owned and federal-government-controlled Farm Credit Canada (FCC).  ('Losing Our Grip', 2010)
  • Five of the 100 lobbyists named in the Top 100 Lobbyists list compiled annually by the Parliament Hill insider newspaper The Hill Times have agriculture or food sector clients. (Western Producer)
To borrow a phrase from Dave Oswald Mitchell's excellent essay,

Occupy the market. Occupy the commons. Occupy the future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


What's a food blog without a post about Thanksgiving? Unfortunately, even with it, this post will be less than compelling because my camera is broken. You will have to simply imagine the dilled carrots from the crop dug the previous day, the mashed turnip (is there a way to make that sound appealing?) and the pepper-corn salad we contributed to the meal at the in-laws'.

Many reasons to be thankful. For the food crop, and the time and resources and help that I had that allowed me to experiment with it. For new employment, with excellent benefits. For good health. For family, and for friends who are family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lentils of Superiority

"Why do poor people eat so much junk food? Don't they know it costs more? Why can't they cook and eat nourishing, protein-laden, inexpensive beans and legumes?"

Leaving aside the issue of a potential lack of kitchen appliances, cooking knowledge and skills, implements, access to certain foods, and time, here’s George Orwell’s opinion on why the poor may eat the way they eat, from Wigan Pier:
“When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty.’ There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea ! That is how your mind works…. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water.”
 Brown bread-and-dripping, or, lentils of superiority.