Avocados from South America. Apples from New Zealand, instead of the next valley. Industrially-grown carrots with no taste, no vitamins, but a microscopic coating of carcinogenic pesticides.
We are paving over the nearby farms, making our cities utterly dependent on global corporations. On cruelty to workers and animals. On oil and daily long-distance trucks. If something breaks down, or just runs down into collapse, your city can go to a starvation in a single week.
And the great food system keeps heating the planet, threatening all agriculture.
Against all that, is a rising tide of support for local food producers. It is a food revolution, and I don't use that word lightly. You will hear two voices of sanity, and yes, of hope.
The local food movement started with a book "The 100-Mile Diet" by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon. In Vancouver, Canada, this couple went a year eating only locally produced food. It wasn't easy then. It is much easier now, in many North American cities, as the idea of sustainable cities catches on.
Five years beyond the success of their first book, Smith and MacKinnon give us a rapid-fire tour of great ideas, the 10 best local food projects in the United States and Canada. With a culture check against a tiny village in Northern Spain. Are the Europeans really better with their food?
You'll be surprised as local food networks spring up in Toronto, New York, Michigan, and Los Angeles.
This talk was recorded by Alex Smith, for Radio Ecoshock, at the Museum of Vancouver, Canada, on November 25th, 2010. The Museum was one of the sponsors, along with the Tyee magazine, and the Tides Canada Foundation, who funded a series of 10 talks on transition and localization.
We'll tune in just after the introduction by David Beers, the editor of Tyee, close friend and a food activist at the beginning of this localization of food.
I'm going to share a few of my rough notes from the talk - but I encourage you to listen to the real thing.
After the success of eating only food grown within 100 miles of Vancouver, critics said "You couldn't do that in the rural North of British Columbia". James and Alisa were invited to try eating locally at Smithers, in Northern B.C. They got a 12 course meal - all grown locally.
The invitations to try local food came in from all over North America and the world. As they traveled, the pair found supermarket food was almost the same everywhere, especially in the Safeway chain. But local food fare varied dramatically, according to the region. That is the hidden story of real food.
James points out the two decades it took for organic food to take off, and establish a market. Getting local and sustainable food into cities may take a while as well.
We hear about Ward Teulon, also known as City Farm Boy, who runs a business farming in people's back yards, and on rooftops. The owner gets a share of the produce, but most goes to about 160 people who subscribe for a weekly basket or box of fresh vegetables, grown right in the city, picked that day. Even the much-maligned "Iceberg" lettuce can actually taste good, when grown and picked same day.
MacKinnon says it goes way beyond food, into a revolutionary way of how we see the city - as a more natural place, that grows things. And our relationships with the people who grow our food is just as important.
Alisa picks up with the big steps taken in the Canadian province of Ontario - to make cities more food sustainable and secure. Local governments are taking this very seriously. Five years ago, Ontario was behind Vancouver in local food, but making up for lost time, they have surged ahead.
Eight cities in Ontario have set strict limits on how far food can travel, before appearing in a "Farmer's Market". Gone are the long-haul truckers pretending to be local farmers. The big city of Toronto, and surrounding cities, are looking at their "food-shed" and how to encourage local growers.
In Toronto, any food service associated with the city, such as day cares, and homeless shelters, must serve at least 20 percent locally grown food. That's an 11 million dollar budget, helping to support local farmers. Of course, kids in day care are now getting better food, that has traveled fewer carbon miles.
Nearby, the City of Markham insists on both local and sustainable food. There is a new grading system which determines what food sustainability is.
Big universities can play an important role. The University of Toronto spends a guaranteed 20 percent of their food budget on local food. That's $350,000 guaranteed to local growers. By contrast, the University of British Columbia spends about $3,000 to buy vegetables from their own teaching farm. The rest is agribusiness food shipped from all over the world.
I won't go into the details of measuring "sustainable food" - Alisa covers this well in her talk.
Another aspect in Toronto, is an excellent "local food" (only) store, called Culinarium. That brings everything under one roof for people who want to eat local. Even the locally grown dried beans, and cooking oil, so hard to find for a vegetarian diet.
The City of Vancouver has recently allowed both bee hives and chickens within the city. Toronto has a poorly designed bee regulation, which makes it impossible for most home owners. However, there is a bee co-operative in some waste land in Toronto, and on some downtown roof-tops. Chickens are still prohibited within that city.
James MacKinnon next takes us to Michigan, for an unbelievable tour of "hoop houses" that keep greens growing even in a Northern winter - without outside fossil fuel heat at all.
Can't be done you say? Me too! - but it is already happening. A Maine farmer, Elliot Coleman, is already making most of his income from produce grown and sold in the Winter. He makes $140,000 a year, from just one and a half acre.
Anne Arbor, Detroit, and Flint Michigan are also doing winter farming, and more local food growing, partly due to the declining economy. John Biernbaum, a University of Michigan Professor, is leading the way. He talks about incubator farms, where people can come and learn the techniques, and then go start their own local small-scale farming business.
MacKinnon finds the barriers to growing local food are not technical, but cultural. We have been bred and propagandized out of the agricultural and gardening way of life, taking up our time with screen identities.
The incubator farm models are one way to combat this - so people can go and see for themselves, and pass on what they know.
Alisa explains there is a large and growing number of Farmer's markets in New York. Even deep in the poorest neighborhoods, where fresh vegetables were almost non-existent previously.
She compares the opportunity to shop locally in the urban core of Manhattan, 1. 6 million people, compared to Vancouver, with an urban core of 600,000 people. Manhattan has doubled the number of Farmers' Markets since 2002. They have 27 locations, up to 4 days a week. That's 39 market shopping opportunities a week, or 1 Farmers' Market per 41,000 people.
In Vancouver there are only 4 markets, one day a week each - meaning 1 shopping opportunity per 150,000 people. New York is way ahead, and most of the markets are easily within walking distance. Many stalls have maps and photos to show shoppers where the food is coming from.
There is a wheat revival in the American North East, as there has been in the Pacific West. In New York, the Green Market Society has been funding construction of local mills, and every baker selling goods at a Farmers' Market in New York City has to use at least 15 percent locally grown grain.
New York also has a "New Farmer Development Project." They help mostly immigrant groups, especially Spanish-speaking, with training through Cornell University, to grow local crops, and how to run a micro-business.
As James MacKinnon explained, there are "food maps" of different cities posted on the Internet. You can find out where chestnut, fruit trees or other food sources are located on public land, or within public reach from the street.
Sometimes people also raid neglected trees where nuts, for example, go wasted every year.
In L.A. the group "Fallen Fruit" has mapped out the foraging food resources of the city. They sometimes lead poor people on forage trips. But Fallen Fruit also uses art to communicate the value of getting local food. And they have given away hundreds of fruit trees, with the understanding that at least some of the branches will go over public property (like the sidewalk) so others can share in the produce.
You can find similar free food maps for place like Malmo in Sweden, and in Spain. In Sweden, the maps also show wild herbs, and resources like Rose Hips. The Spanish maps reveal the lack of public property, with the fruit trees gathered only in the few public squares. Food maps tell a lot about a city.
The whole idea is to plant food trees and shrubs to help a city feed itself, and especially for the poor.
Alisa and James spent 4 months living in a village of 40 people in Northern Spain. It is mountainous, and a bit rough.
Do Europeans really have the leading edge in local food production? Yes and no.
The villagers raise cows which go up into the mountains to feed every Summer. That system still goes on, and even someone with just 4 cows is considered a farmer. The National land system recognizes and protects their right to graze cattle in those places.
The surrounding hill-sides are covered with nut and fruit trees which are traditionally allotted to each family. These uses are not protected, the land could be developed. Also, as the older generation passes on, less of this local food is harvested.
There is also fierce protection, by law, of the production of local specialty foods. In the case of this village it is a type of cider. The technical term is "Denomination of Origin" which specifies exactly what the product is. Other villages make cheese or whatever. These specialty items are sold outside the area, and draw some tourists in.
But beyond these local initiatives, and house gardens, much of the food is trucked in, produced by agribusiness. And there is no way to for a visitor to buy food from local gardens or harvests. No Farmers' Market. In some ways, this part of Europe lags behind North America in sustainable food.
James recommend the book "Empires of Food, Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations" by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas.
The strongest possible food system requires two features:
1. a specialization for that landscape, (like the Spanish growing cows) and
2. embedded diversity (don't go too far into the specialty, keep the other food crops growing).
With these two, a bit of trade and economy are enabled, without sacrificing the food base. These kinds of civilizations keep going.
In British Columbia, we are losing a wide variety of fruit growing, to a rising tide of profitable wine making. The extreme example of this is the Napa Valley of California. It was once a diversified food production area, but is now entirely swept over by grape growing.
In 1968, grapes accounted for 26% of the agricultural production of the Napa Valley. Last year it was 99%. That is not a sustainable food system, and does nothing to make nearby cities food secure.
One Non-Profit trying to counter act that is called "California Farm Link." One thing they do: link up would-be growers with available patches of land. People without a lot of money can start up a small scale food growing business, without having to buy expensive land. There are a lot of places to grow.
Farm Link also tries to save family-owned operations (instead of selling property off to developers). There are low-interest loans available by law - but that legislation has not been funded yet.
"Farmers who are older than 60 years, outnumber farmers who are under 25, 60 to 1," says James. The people who know how to grow food are literally dying off. Farm link tries to get younger people involved, while the farm is still producing.
Alisa admits they missed two things in their experiment with the 100 Mile Diet. First, they wanted olive oil, and couldn't find a local product. Second, was chocolate.
There are some interesting experiments to bring in such products without adding more carbon to the atmosphere - using sailboats and electric vehicles in the supply train.
Sustainable Ballard is a good example. Local food is taken to Seattle by sailboat, and sold in the Farmer's Market.
There is similar local food action in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Food can be grown, still within 100 miles of the city of Vancouver, and brought over by sail. There is even a sail transportation network on Kootenay Lake. Local farmers are trying to use horses instead of tractors, to save on carbon emissions, and to prepare for a carbon-short future.
As for the Chocolate, the Mast Brothers in New York are hiring a 70 foot sail ship to bring in the beloved beans from the Caribbean. There may be more of that, including olive oil from Europe, by sail.
James MacKinnon wraps up with the story of the local aboriginals harvesting a tuber much like a potato. The Wapato grows in rivers and streams in the Pacific Northwest. It used to support many First Nations people.
As James explains, the Wapato is one of the few wild foods which grows better the more we eat them. That is because the Wapato is harvested, in the freezing river water of November, by stomping on the roots, to free up the tuber. This frees other parts of the plant which migrate in the river, to start new Wapato beds.
Some of our rivers are quite polluted, and we cut back on marshes for development, but there is no reason not to bring back the Wapato, which can feed literally thousands of people, just for the small cost of harvesting it. Historians found that just one island in the Columbia River produced enough Wapato to feed 31,000 people.
Again, James emphasized that part of his journey of growth was just meeting the people who knew about wild food, and how to grow things locally. That personal connection with the food source is restorative for us all.
The idea of sustainable cities, with low-carbon local food, is taking off world-wide. In the founding city of Vancouver, there is finally a Winter Farmers' Market as well.
Alisa says the move toward city bee hives and chickens is important. One bee hive can yield 100 pounds of honey (whereas Alisa uses about 12 pounds of honey a year). One heritage Chanticleer chicken lays about 200 eggs a year. Vancouver allows 4 chickens per yard - that's 800 eggs a year!
There is also an urban grain cooperative in Vancouver, supply hundreds of people and hundreds of restaurants.
Is your city able to feed itself at all? Do you want to know who grew your food?
Our speakers are James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith. Their book "The 100-Mile Diet" has set off a cascade of efforts in North America, and beyond, to support the production of local food. It helps save the atmosphere, makes your city more secure, and gives you more nutritious organic food.
Please pass this Radio Ecoshock special on to your friends, co-workers, and local government. We can do it, and survive.
Download this program as a free mp3 from the food page, at ecoshock.org
I'm Alex Smith, thank your for listening, and caring about our future together.
We go out with music from Dan Mangan. “Sold” is from the album “Nice, Nice, Very Nice.” Here is a Youtube live version.
Dan starts out:
“I thought the suits had come for me. found alternatives to honesty. body and soul were bought and sold. patented and out of reach, so i reach but it hurts, it kills, it screams and it fills my heart with chills and i take my pills but i’m still tired of sleeping with the light on…. “