hopes for the year

Hello out there!

As you can see, I’ve been on a long hiatus – we’ll just say I’ve been hibernating. But (of course), in my hibernation I’ve been ruminating on some things.

I’m happy to report that I’ve found a paying gig(!) at an organic vegetable farm, and am totally thrilled to have landed it. There will be posts about that soon, but in the meantime, I want to share with you a post I wrote at the beginning of the year, that’s been waiting in the drafts folder ever since. It involves challenges but also many successes. Thanks for reading!

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Happy 2013 folks! I don’t normally make resolutions, but I’ve been gathering some information and ideas for a while now that I think it’s time to share. Since the world didn’t end a few weeks ago as supposedly foretold, I think at this point (or at any point really) it’s a good time to make resolutions, whether individually, or collectively as a nation (or a species, or a community of some other kind).

Below are some suggested resolutions in no particular order!

1. Take responsibility for the pollution caused by our country, and introduce solutions for combating climate change and preserving wild spaces

I’ve noticed something in recent years. I live in Canada, and we canucks like to think we’re pretty darn progressive, peaceful, even leading the way when it comes to living well and living responsibly. Unfortunately we are falling behind on some things and a lot of us might not be aware of that.

Recently, the group Climate Action Network Canada declared Canada the worst country in the “developed world” when it comes to taking action on climate change. Out of 61 countries, Canada fell to 58th place. We’ve withdrawn our commitment to the Kyoto protocol, and our government continues to focus on the economy and has subsequently put conservation efforts on the back burner, as the tar sands expand and places like Temagami, Ontario are opened up to mining companies. And let’s not forget the staggering impact that “livestock” industries have on greenhouse gas emissions (remember the UN report from 2006?) Meanwhile, countries like Bolivia have granted rights to Nature, making it easier to defend waterways and rainforest from destruction and pollution, and perhaps (it has yet to be seen how this will play out) demonstrating a true appreciation for the importance of these ecosystems to all life, including human. David Suzuki writes about this subject here.

From what I can tell, we just need to get organized enough to make these changes happen. It seems that Canadians are either apathetic or just can’t get our shit together enough to make any real change. Actually, scratch apathetic – we’re really good at organizing protests and attending them – but we aren’t so good at getting organized when it comes to changing policies and laws compared to other nations, and unfortunately, those are usually the biggest ways to create the change we want to see. We are totally capable of it! We just need to speak up before things can’t be reversed.

2. Improve conditions for animals used by humans, especially in the food industry, by updating our outdated legislation concerning animal housing and handling

Speaking of “livestock”, another report on animal abuse was aired on CTV news recently, accompanied by video footage from a Manitoba pig farm. While many of the abuses documented are actually legal and “normal” in our country’s agriculture industry, there’s no getting around the fact that these practices are a result of poor animal husbandry and cause immense suffering. (In some places like parts of the US, the folks who recorded this footage would be punished under the “ag gag” bill, as this woman almost was. Which just goes to show you how powerful recordings like this can be). Canada has been slow to implement changes in farming practices and animal housing systems.  A potential reason why things haven’t changed was given by an industry representative in the above CTV article: “With a new system there’s no guarantee that these animals will have the same level of care that we might have had with the previous system.” I have to admit I needed a lot of restraint to write about this because it’s so clear that our current standards of care fail to meet the animals’ needs physically, socially and psychologically. We already have hundreds of scientific articles outlining welfare concerns on all kinds of farms, and listing possible solutions – yet they just seem to keep piling up in a dusty corner along with our outdated animal care standards. We’ve seen undercover reports like this one before over and over again, for decades, so it shouldn’t be shocking to us that this is still happening, especially when we aren’t pressuring the government to introduce improvements in the industry the way people in other countries are.

What the industry rep refers to when he mentions “level of care” likely concerns issues like individualized housing (and thus individualized feeding), which monitors or controls how much each pig consumes daily, as well as things like piglet mortality, which is already high. From a solely economic standpoint it sometimes makes sense to confine animals – after all, each pig is a “unit of production” and if they can be raised more efficiently, all the better. But it’s clear that there are enormous costs to this approach, largely being diverted onto the animals’ health and well being.  Many animals don’t live to reach adulthood on these farms and never even end up on anyone’s plate. Although the pigs’ “level of care” in a new housing system was apparently a concern for the individual interviewed, we have more than a handful of role models to look to when it comes to introducing better housing systems and handling practices on farms. Many parts of Europe and the US, as well as other places like Bhutan, have already phased out intensive confinement systems such as sow stalls, “veal” crates and battery cages for egg-laying hens, some for over 15 years! We have precedent and we have knowledge of these new systems, yet Canada is still using almost all of these confinement systems, or similar ones, on the majority of our farms. Regardless of whether or not you eat animals, progress like this makes a difference to individuals living in such facilities. It’s time Canada stopped making excuses and dragging our feet on this, and finally started making changes that will ease the unnecessary suffering and pain of billions of individuals each year. I’d also like to see it made mandatory to use anaesthetics and introduce post-procedure pain and infection management for things like castration, tail docking, and dehorning (or better yet, eliminate the need for these procedures), but unfortunately when the bottom line is profit, sometimes it’s hard to see an end to the torturous conditions and procedures that we allow. Maybe it’s not realistic. In any case, here’s hoping for some improvements this year for all farmed animals, not just pigs.

Almost all of Canada’s hens used for their eggs are kept in the conditions described below. Typically, each hen has a space the size of an 8 1/2 x 11″ piece of paper while living inside a battery cage. As you can imagine, having this kind of housing for the one to two-year period they are allowed to live causes frustration, muscle atrophy, loss of bone density, a host of ailments from living in close quarters with hundreds of thousands of others…the list goes on. We have to do something about this.

In the UK, new “enriched” battery cages have been introduced for hens used for eggs. This blog entry by Toronto photographer Jo-Anne McArthur questions whether the enriched cages are really an improvement on the standard barren battery cages (which Canada still uses on most egg farms). Looking at the photos and blog entry, the only improvement I can think of is the presence of perches, which is friendlier to bird feet than a slanted wire-bottom cage without perches, but otherwise they look dismally similar. Switzerland has banned both barren battery cages and these “enriched” cages. The photo below is from Jo-Anne’s collection on the We Animals website.

3. More transparency in our food system overall

In other food-related resolutions, wouldn’t it be great to know what’s really in the food we eat? California was recently trying to introduce a mandatory labeling initiative on genetically modified (GMO) foods, to the chagrin of many major food producers (there’s a link to the full list of opposing companies in the article). Unfortunately it was overturned (barely), and just as in Canada, folks in California will have to keep guessing at whether foods they eat might contain GMO ingredients. However, thanks to media coverage like the article above, we’ll have some insight into which companies likely sell foods containing GMOs – the ones who funded the opposing campaign to overturn the labeling initiative. Some of these companies sell foods people eat every day, like General Mills (Cheerios and other cereals), Nestle (dairy products, baby food), Del Monte (fruit juice) and of course the chemical giants like Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. The ballot measure was overturned with millions of dollars in opposition from these companies and others (see above article for details). Keep in mind that this was simply a labeling initiative – the goal was to implement mandatory labeling of GMO foods so consumers can know and choose what they’re eating. It was not a ban on GMO foods in California. It’s a sad day when we can’t trust the hands that feed us to be transparent about what we put into our bodies (but then again, that’s not really anything new, is it?)

As for Canada, some issues on the table (so to speak) include GMO alfalfa hay, GMO salmon, and GMO apples that don’t brown when sliced (yes, that is serious, it’s not a joke! Could there be anything more trivial?) I would really like to see mandatory labeling of GMOs come into effect in Canada asap. Countries like Peru, the UK, and Japan have already banned GMOs outright, and others like Australia, New Zealand and India have made labeling mandatory, so there is hope even though Canada is, again, lagging behind. If you think this issue is simply about eating food, consider the impact of GMOs on wildlife, such as the possibility of new genes and traits being incorporated into wild plants or animals, and on soil quality, water quality and human health, such as with the commonly grown RoundUp Ready soy which cannot flourish without glyphosate-based chemicals. What happens when our soil becomes too depleted to grow food? (Did I mention that this GMO soybean is mainly grown for animal feed? Yet another reason to go vegan…)

An ocean “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by agricultural runoff (mainly from fertilizer and animal waste) flowing down the Mississippi and draining into the sea. This kind of pollution could be decreased if large cash crop farms introduced better rotations, keeping the soil healthy and reducing the need for external inputs like fertilizer, and if we managed animal waste more effectively (or better yet, stopped housing hundreds of thousands of animals in densely packed confinement operations). Article here.

There’s also the impact on farmers and communities, of course. I attended a talk by Vandana Shiva recently, who touches on all of these topics as well as food security and the right to save seed. Highly recommended viewing (the talk itself begins around 25:00).

4. That hunger is addressed immediately and effectively

Wouldn’t it be AMAZING if every person was able to eat healthy food? It’s totally unacceptable that we have hungry people anywhere in the world (including Canada) and that our current system makes food inaccessible to some folks. It’s especially disheartening to see that the unhealthiest foods are also often the most affordable, contributing to health issues that could further harm people who consume them regularly, and who may not have access to the health services they need.

It should also be noted that in schools there is currently no mandatory nutrition-focused class, which is an absolute travesty in my opinion. Students are made to learn about history, geography, math, art…which are important subjects, but so many kids go to school without breakfast or with low-quality food for lunch. Nutrition gets covered as part of phys ed, teaching the standard food pyramid etc, but it would be helpful to go deeper into this topic and encourage kids to connect with their food in other ways, like preparing meals together for the class or growing a veggie garden to eat from. If we don’t teach something as basic as nutrition and give everyone access to healthy food, how can we expect students to succeed in other areas?

Food banks are an important resource for people who need food, but they are more of a temporary solution and don’t solve the problem of hunger. In some places, people have done amazing things to address hunger in their communities. The city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil is one of these places. Basically, its government has promised every resident access to food regardless of whether an individual is able to pay for it. What a revolutionary idea! By supporting farmers and connecting them with other locals, they are striving to ensure everyone is able to eat healthy food. Maybe Canada should think about something like this, too. The article about this incredible development is here.

As well, a town in the UK has introduced vegetable, fruit and herb gardens in public spaces in order to better feed its residents. The garden produce is free for the taking for anyone who needs or wants it. As a result, the town has seen crime rates drop and community relationships improve. What an amazing idea!

Graphic from the Daily Bread Food Bank about hunger in the Greater Toronto Area

5. Celebrating our victories and forging ahead to create more positive change

I’m glad to say, despite Canada falling behind in these areas, it’s not all bad news. In a victory for water-drinkers and food-eaters all over southern Ontario, the infamous Mega Quarry has been stopped! This is one heartening example of the power people can have when we band together, and also of a company actually paying attention and responding to the input of affected communities (or so it seems, for now..I wonder what Highland will do next?) The land set aside for the now-defunct Mega Quarry plan is prime farmland, something that’s increasingly rare in southern Ontario since we keep building things on top of it. I’m glad to see this parcel being preserved for growing food (currently it’s a potato farm) instead of being mined for limestone. Now, if they could transition to using organic methods on the land, we’d really be conserving that soil!

Area of the proposed quarry, which was to be dug in Shelburne to collect limestone, superimposed over a map of Toronto to demonstrate its massive size

Activists and other people who work on social and environmental justice issues often experience burnout, post-traumatic stress, and the looming feeling that our work will never be done. It’s important to do this work, but also to acknowledge successes and be proud of the changes that have been made, however small.

As you can see from the Mega Quarry story and the successes other countries have had with combating hunger and introducing legislature to improve animal welfare, it is absolutely possible to enact change! If we can get organized and find the most effective ways to create this change, it is within our reach. Change is already happening in other places…we can do it, too!

On an individual level, one thing I’d recommend to everyone is to grow a veggie garden! If you have yard space or access to a community garden plot, you can’t go wrong. If you’re short on money, go in on a plot with friends or neighbours. Growing your own food is the cheapest way to feed yourself! All it takes is a little preparation in the spring, planting a few seedlings (you can usually find them at farmers’ markets) or growing them from seed yourself, and then the odd water & weed until you get a ton of stuff to eat! Growing things that produce a lot of food per plant, like peas, beans, tomatoes and zucchini, is a good way to feed yourself well and cheaply throughout the warmer months. Growing a garden is also a great way to ensure your food isn’t chemical-laden! I know it can be intimidating if you’ve never grown anything, but give it a try, and you’ll likely be very proud of yourself by next winter. If you don’t have garden space, you can grow things like herbs, greens, tomatoes and strawberries in pots on a balcony or in a sunny window, too!

What are your resolutions?
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If you made it all the way to the end, congratulations! I know that was a bit arduous and covered a lot of ground. The reason I discuss these issues is that every single one of us is connected to them, and we need to be accountable for our choices and how they impact our world and those we share it with. It looks daunting sometimes, but like I said, making change is not necessarily as difficult as it can seem. We have the power to make things better!

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About tino

I'm an aspiring organic farmer living in canada. I talk about farm life, things I'm learning, other relevant topics like feminism, social & environmental justice, nature, animals, vegan food, and fun.

Posted on May 20, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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