Hunger is a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people. It rules their lives. Each day brings another grim struggle to find something to eat, often unsuccessfully. The heartbreaking reality for many is watching their children starve to death. Canadians (and Americans) enjoy a far more comfortable reality. Food is abundant and cheap. Much of it knows no season. Fresh produce finds its way to our grocery shelves every day of the year. The rows of preserves that lined Great-Grandmother’s pantry shelves are obsolete. No one need worry about having less than a week’s food on hand; there are air-conditioned, conveniently located stores full of it. Perhaps even withAir Miles.
We can thank the “Green Revolution” for this plenty. While Green Revolution may sound like a New Millennium political campaign slogan, it was, in fact, coined by scientists and agrologists to describe the dramatic post-war (WW2) advances in agricultural productivity.
The Green Revolution is still in full swing, but its days are inevitably numbered. It was made possible by cheap and abundant water, cheap and abundant energy, chemical technology, and the industrialization of biology. Water shortages are an ever-present reality in the Canadian Prairies and in the entire US Southwest; price becomes irrelevant when there is nothing to buy. Cheap energy is over. The chemical fix has run its course. And it’s hard to imagine how the process could be more industrialized. What efficiency model will replace the battery laying cage?
Among its many accomplishments, the Green Revolution popularised monoculture, consumed vast amounts of topsoil, made small farms obsolete, and enabled a massive and ominous corporate presence to insert itself between farmers and consumers. It is not hard to imagine what is driving the corporate agenda. It is most certainly not local food security and it is definitely not sustainability. (The writer once tried to sell sweet corn to a local outlet of a multinational food retailer. The produce manager informed him that it was corporate policy not to deal with “locals.” The writer asked if the policy extended to customers as well.)
Genetic modification has been widely championed as the next great advance in the ongoing Green Revolution. Esoteric questions aside, it is hard to imagine GMOs significantly prolonging the status quo. (GMOs will be lucky if they can even offset the effects of climate change.) The looming truth is: the Green Revolution will ultimately fail most consum ers because it isn’t happening where they are. There probably isn’t a gene that will allow plants or animals to flourish without water; even if there was, it’s a good bet there isn’t one that will make a melon march from California to Winnipeg in January.
That brings us back to energy and the corporate agenda. While the term Green Revolution may have been coined to describe production increases in fields and barns, a more dramatic Green Revolution was occurring in the coffers of the corporate entities controlling the inputs, marketing, and distribution of the resulting bounty. Production costs and logistics aside, the notion that all the food for 400 million people can be loaded onto trucks and hauled more than a thousand miles every day, ad infinitum, is ludicrous.
There will be much denial and nay-saying from corporate bigwigs and the agrologists and economists who work for them, but the writing is on the wall. Food and its delivery are going to cost an awful lot more. Believe it or not, this is good news for everyone. The Green Revolution has effectively hidden the true cost of food production for decades. Given the essentially parasitic nature of our species’ relationship to its environment, the goal of absolute sustainability is probably unachievable; but given estimates that some North American topsoils have been depleted by 50 percent since 1950, we have little choice but to aim for it anyway.
The efficient farmer of the future will be the one who produces food where it is needed, relying on mixed farming and crop rotation to maintain soil fertility. The efficiency model of the Green Revolution—the farmer who can stay one step ahead of shrinking margins by turning the natural fertility of the land into money as quickly as possible—is ultimately doomed, along with the chemical alchemy that enables it.
The fiscal reality of the Green Revolution is that no more than 25 percent of an average dollar spent on food finds its way back to the farm gate (and most of that will be clawed back to pay for fertilizer, chemicals, machinery, and transportation). Monocultural production, multi-cropping, and concentration camp animal husbandry are the inevitable results.
So what’s the good news? If even half of the 75 percent of the food dollar currently paying for national brand advertising, cross-continental shipping, convenience packaging, pre-cooking, air-conditioned muzaked fluorescent-lighted shopping comfort…et cetera, found its way back to the person who actually created the food, there would be a whole new agricultural revolution. Small, diversified farms would again be viable. Local production would have value simply because it’s there and doesn’t need a 1500-kilometre ride to the table.
A resurgence of locally based agriculture would empower consumers to redirect their food dollars to local farmers, who are attuned to the wishes of the end users and not corporate middlemen. (The author once grew carrots as a commodity for a corporate wholesaler. Faced with a mindnumbing selection of hybrid seed options, all with glowing testimonials, he decided to ask the seed merchant which one tasted best. The astonished seed merchant said he didn’t have a clue and, anyway, taste was the last thing the author needed to worry about. Looks alone were all that mattered.) And, of course, the food dollars could be recycled through the local economy instead of sprinting for some corporate bottom line.
Will it all change tomorrow? No, because in most cases there isn’t enough local production left to feed everyone. But there is a palpable agricultural resurgence taking place. Farmers’ markets are springing to life across the country. Farmers are finding that consumers are indeed willing to pay for food grown locally by someone they know and trust. Increasingly, consumers are choosing to make their purchases at on-farm markets. Consumer desire for interaction with farms and farmers has spawned a whole new field of rural endeavour: Agri-tourism. From roadside stands to farm-stay guest cottages, many farmers are finding an opportunity to diversify their enterprises and help make them viable.
While agri-tourism might not spring into most minds when you mention farming, and is condemned by some as an improper activity for farm land, it is going to be a big part of the new farming revolution. It has the potential to make small farming viable, to encourage on-farm processing, to introduce the urban public to the where and how of producing food, to share the joy of farm life, and perhaps most importantly of all, to encourage another generation to see growing food as a realistic career choice.
Contemplating a farming career can be a sobering exercise. Long hours, low pay, and crushing debt just don’t add up to a very attractive package. An agri-tourism component can add the revenue necessary for a realistic income. It can justify the wages needed to pay workers to lighten the work load. And it can have an unexpected and amazing ability to remove long term debt from the equation altogether. (The author and his wife have a successful agri-tourism business [www.ArrowvaleCottages.com] in conjunction with their 70-acre farm. Because the income generated by the agri-tourism component of their business will support them, they have been able to turn the farming enterprise over to their son, who will not have to buy land appraised at $10,000 an acre.) [Ed. note: See “The Cow Ain’t the Only One Who’s Mad,” on AgriTourism in this issue.]
The cost of something only increases when it is sold. The greatest benefit of agri-tourism may well be the ability to facilitate inter-generational farm transfers. As the Green Revolution lurches along looking for more and more dollars to sustain itself, the safest place to be might well be next door to someone with the ability and desire to grow food.
Bob Collins and his wife Ann, are farmers in the Alberni Valley. Bob is a long-time contributor to “Country Life in BC” (started in 1915 by Ma Murray) and the author of two books. His first, Out Standing in Their Field: The Rural Adventures of Hap & Edna, was shortlisted for the Leacock Humour Medal. His newest book is Dance With the One That Brung Ya: More Rural Adventures with Hap and Edna. Both are available through your local bookseller. In both books, Bob’s stories contain subtle (and hilarious) social commentary on the state of the family farm and the changing values in Canada’s rural communities.