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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Weekly Column

March 26, 2009

 

Deconstructing Dinner

 

A Crisis in Awareness and Participation

Farmer and author Michael Ableman on the real crisis facing North Americans

 

Jon Steinman

 

Michael Ableman is a farmer, author and photographer.

 

His interest to change the way in which North Americans access food began decades ago, placing Ableman as one of the veterans of "food activism".

 

Among the many crises that the world is quickly waking up to, food is at the top of the list and alongside the many others who have helped clear the way for the organic and local food movements, Ableman's work is receiving greater attention today than ever before.

 

Ableman farms on Salt Spring Island, B.C., although his philosophies are heard across the continent through his published works and his extensive public speaking.

 

In February 2009, Ableman travelled to the interior of the province to address communities who are on the path to greater community food self-sufficiency.

 

The climax of his talk was a manifesto of sorts; a list of actions that he believes all municipalities in North America must adopt in order to feed the future. He insisted that such actions must be undertaken before our options are narrowed for us.

 

"I would propose the following," he announced to the Nelson, B.C. audience.

 

"That every city in North America have an urban agriculture centre; centres based on real urban or peri-urban farms that model not only the social, and cultural and ecological benefits of farming in the city, but the economic benefits as well"

 

Ableman stressed that promoting the economics of more localized food systems is the hardest sell. Today, however, with the state of our economies being suggestive that all previous models have failed, any new idea is worth a closer look.

 

"These centres should model the range of possibilities from growing food on your balcony or even in a window box," he continued, "from multi-acre ground-level production to full-scale multi-acre rooftop production. They should model not just the production of carrots and tomatoes, but the more fundamental and necessary elements of the human diet such as small scale grains, pulses, meat and dairy production."

 

One of the best examples of how urban agriculture can make a noticeable dent on total food production was in Cuba, following the collapse of their biggest trading partner - the Soviet Union.  Ableman was certain to point out the successes found there. One of those successes was the presence of urban agricultural extension agents employed by the City of Havana. He suggested that this example must be adopted in North America.

 

"Every city across North America should have teams of extension agents in numbers proportionate to the populations devoted to urban food production."

 

Ableman referred to the offering of workshops, training, on-site support, and marketing assistance as some of the activities that extension agents could be responsible for.

 

Also of great concern to Ableman was the nutrient cycle that is so vital to growing food. For decades now, North Americans have relied on a model of food production that is dependent on inputs of nutrients that come from afar and most often derived from non-renewable fossil fuels.

 

"We need a full cycle food system that allows for the return of organic waste via central regional composting facilities," suggested Ableman.

 

His manifesto even presented new perspectives on how municipalities should approach new housing and commercial developments.

 

"Every new permit for a housing development should be required to have an approved food production component on a scale relative to the number of people who will be working there."

 

Ableman expanded his suggestion to include the presence of rooftop gardens on every office, retail space and warehouse. He proposed that the heat generated by the buildings could be used to warm the rooftop greenhouses. Examples of these models are certainly popping up in many North American cities.

 

The Nelson audience was perhaps most enthused by Ableman's comments on how such new perspectives on food production could extend into schools.

 

"We need farming, and cooking and gardening and building courses in the schools, but what's important, is that we need those subjects to be given the same status and attention that is now given to math, or English or the sciences."

 

The audience applauded.

 

"We need to establish formal programs based on working farms in every region in the country to retrain the newly unemployed in the art and craft of growing food and those other support skills like carpentry, mechanics and welding."

 

As he neared the end of his talk, his suggestions moved beyond the proposed role of government and institutions, and instead addressed the role of each of us.

 

"I don't believe that there is so much a food or environmental or economic crisis, as much as there is a crisis in awareness and participation," said Ableman.

 

"If we responded to the depletion of soil with the same call to arms that we have with a drop in the stock market, imagine the world we would live in."

 

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. A recording of Michael Ableman's talk can be found at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/031909.htm

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