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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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April 9, 2009


Deconstructing Dinner


Guelph Organic Agriculture Axed... Almost!

With organic food as one of the fastest growing sectors in the food system, Canada's only organic agriculture degree program is oddly on the chopping block.


Jon Steinman


At a time filled with great economic and ecological challenges, how we choose to respond can shed insight into what our society values.


It's become clear over the past year that what North Americans value the most, are our vehicles.


The state of the automotive sector is up front and centre and understandably so. Our culture is firmly built upon the presence of the automobile and any breakdown in the industry signals a breakdown in our culture. The knee-jerk response of bailing out this sector and the hopes of maintaining its presence should therefore not come as much of a surprise. On the other hand, what hasn't received much attention is the possibility that the very crumbling of the sector might be a sign that fundamental changes of how we live are the necessary response.


Those same changes might also be necessary for what we eat. However, in the case of food, the writing has been on the wall for so long that the shortcomings found within our agri-food system now act more like a stop sign; we know the writing's there, but we never acknowledge it's presence and simply roll through the intersection.


Regardless of which sector might be in need of fundamental changes, another good place to look to for how those changes might be spearheaded are educational institutions.


For a growing population of North Americans, many would certainly like to see an increased number of institutions offering an education in organic and urban agriculture and the politics and economics of food security. After all, it's clear that many Canadians firmly believe that more self-sustaining farms and shorter-distance food systems are vital to preserve healthy lifestyles and vibrant local economies.


It might come as a shock then to learn that the only organic agriculture major offered in Canada is now on the chopping block!


In late March, students at the University of Guelph discovered that a number of programs offered at the school were set to be eliminated. Along with Women's Studies, the Organic Agriculture program was on the list.


The University is home to the largest agricultural college in Canada and has been a focal point for the industrial models of food production currently dominating our food system. However, with only fifteen students enrolled in the organic major, organic agriculture exists in the shadows of big agribusiness and food production interests.


When word got out that the programs would be cut, students mobilized themselves and organized rallies to voice their dissenting opinions.


When this opposition hit the streets, University president Alastair Summerlee issued a video statement on April 3 to address the University's economic situation. "The complexity and size of those challenges are unprecedented," said Summerlee. "We will be taking the necessary steps to make sure we are on the path for recovery. Open debate means we need to remain civil at all times as we have to make some decisions about which programs and activities we are no longer going to support."


While his pleas for civil obedience were mostly respected, the voices of students did not go unheard. "Cut the bullshit, not the budget," chanted students outside a University lecture hall on April 7. That hall later became home to a Senate discussion on the proposed cuts.


When Silvie Fojtik heard of the news only a week earlier, she too became immersed in the efforts to preserve the program. Fojtik is a third-year Water Resources and Engineering student who was involved in the construction of the University's new Centre for Urban Organic Farming. When students were given the opportunity to voice their concerns at the Senate meeting, Fojtik took the microphone; "As of fall 2008, a new organic education centre was opened," announced Fojtik. "The Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming is a place for learning and research of local organic food production. Present at the inaugurating ceremony [September 2008] was Alastair Summerlee, our president. Here is what he had to say about organic farming." The audience let out a roar of laughter and it took a minute for the room to quiet. Fojtik then quoted Summerlee's September remarks; "It's all about preparing younger generations for a different kind of future. This innovative centre will provide practical experiential learning opportunities for our students, which, in the long run, will help bring about changes and improvements to our food system."


"How can the president of this institution express support for organic programs while at the same time allow the closure of the major," asked Fojtik to the packed lecture hall.


The Senate subsequently voted 69-60 against the cutting of the organic program.


What was proposed was a one-year extension. Senators directed the Ontario Agricultural College to spend the next twelve months looking at how to attract additional students to the major. The college was also asked to seek new commitments for industry funding and teaching support.


Deconstructing Dinner will keep readers/listeners posted on future developments.


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