Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Tummy Rumbles: Voices from the Sustainable Food movement

The Writersfest Event “The Future of Food for a Crowded Planet” was held on the first warm Sunday of spring at 6:30, and the doors of the Southminster Church in Ottawa South were open wide to allow the soft evening air to circulate.  What wafted in, however, was the unmistakeable smell of someone in the neighbourhood enjoying their first barbeque of the season.


The smell increased my dinner-time hunger and lent an extra poignancy to the discussion of the sustainable food movement - when Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland , pointed out that taste was not an important consideration for agribusiness, I found myself unexpectedly anguished. Will no one think of the barbeques?


Everyone loves food.  And almost everyone knows food from a giant agribusiness is inferior in taste and looming at the edges of our consciousness is the piece of the social and environmental disaster we are bringing home with us in our grocery bags.  But I know I’m not alone in my sense of futility.  We can’t afford other food.  We can’t feed the world’s population.  We can’t go back.  I was at the event to hear the three authors assembled tell me what I don’t quite believe: that we can, and that we have to.   


Barry Estabrook, Lorraine Johnson, and Sarah Elton each represent a different dimension of the movement for sustainable food consumption – each one appealing to a specific sensibility – which made for a great panel, as each could address Bob Carty’s “Joe Public” questions in a variety of ways.  “But isn’t this what we want?” Carty almost whined, “We want this stuff – and we want it at a good price.”


Barry Estabrook provided a systemic look at the food industry and its ills. His book Tomatoland examines tomato production: the economic structures in place to support farming in a place like South Florida where there shouldn’t be tomatoes at all; the science that create tasteless and frighteningly firm “fruits”; the treatment of the workers, who he describes unflinchingly as “slaves.” 


Estabrook opened his remarks by bouncing an American tomato he had smuggled through customs on the floor.  “Not a split,” he announced, showing it to the other panellists.  He threw most of his remarks down with the same emphasis as the tomato; angry and condemning.


Lorraine Johnson softened the tone with a more personal appeal – beginning with a story about her nephew not recognizing peas that came in a curious green casing, (she had brought them home from a farmer’s market in their pods) she returned continuously to the personal loss we are sustaining through our distance from food production.  “We are nurturing people.  We want to nurture.  Food should be the basis for communion, celebration.” 


Carty noted that Johnson has established her “chicken cred” by keeping several chickens in her backyard in Toronto in defiance of the bylaw against it. “Chicken cred.  Yes.  A badge of honour!” she replied. I’m thinking of a goat next.”    


Carty then posed the fundamental question of the evening: “Is it true that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world’s population?”  Sarah Elton’s book Consumed was inspired by her desire to answer that specific question.  Elton took a trip around the world to observe agriculture in a variety of cultures and climates and uses her examples to illustrate that this is emphatically not the case.  A Nepalese delegation rose at her introduction, visible proof of the global commitment to sustainable farming she writes about.   


Elton noted that she has decided to refuse to debate the issue anymore.  “There isn’t a debate,” she stated flatly.  “Everyone expects some kind of 50-50 argument, with pros and cons.  Unless you own an agribusiness, or a chemical company, or maybe a seed company, there is no need for our current system of food production.  None of the research supports it.”  Estabrook agreed with withering disdain: “I think that modern industrial agriculture is one of the stupidest ideas ever.  It’s a 75 year experiment, and the results are coming in.”


Although the rest of the discussion ranged over the numerous abuses and shocking lack of actual taste in the food industry, the question period following the discussion was that most precious of commodities in sustainability discussions: hopeful.  Of interest to the participants was “Permaculture:” large scale, permanent (ie sustainable) agriculture, the Toronto group “Occupy Gardens” (“give peas a chance”), and the social justice possibilities inherent in sustainable food production. 


I walked into the evening thinking about how sustainable food is everyone’s issue.  While well-presented and specific, nothing that was said in the course of the evening was particularly new or (depressingly) that surprising.  As Elton noted, it’s not a debate.  Even those of us without chicken cred desperately want to take steps towards the relationship to food all three authors so convincingly say is possible.  I sniffed the air – somewhere someone was preparing something beautiful.