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March 12, 2009


Deconstructing Dinner


The Real Dirt on Farming II

Part II in a series on the pros and cons of how Canada's agricultural commodity groups communicate with the Canadian public.


Jon Steinman


The following is a continuation of the March 6, 2009 column featuring excerpts from Jon Steinman's talk given in early February 2009 at the Annual Policy Conference of the Dairy Farmers of Canada in Ottawa. In the spirit of Deconstructing Dinner, the talk focused on the deconstructing of an industry and government-funded publication produced in 2006, titled, "The Real Dirt on Farming". The glossy magazine-style publication has been distributed en masse as a tool to dispel the agricultural confusion that the industry perceives has gripped urban Canadians.


In the publication's efforts to dispel the changing urban perceptions of agriculture, The Real Dirt on Farming took a stance against the idea of organic food replacing conventionally grown counterparts.


[The following excerpt appeared on the screen]


"The Irish Potato Famine: A Cautionary Tale - In 1845, a strange disease struck the potatoes growing in the fields of Ireland. Almost one-half of the crop was destroyed. What later became known as potato blight was caused by a fungus. At that time, all farming was "organic" and there was nothing to be done to save the essential food crop by modern fungicides which greatly decrease the crop's vulnerability to massive losses. This is a clear case where modern agricultural practices increase the reliability and security of our food supply"


"Now this section stands out the most for me because this is a complete mis-representation of the Irish potato famine.


For one, the Irish potato faming was about so much more than farmers not having access to fungicides.


# 1. Potatoes are not native to Ireland - so you have an adaptability issue.


#2. At the time of the famine, there was predominantly one variety of potato planted - the Lumper - so here you have a complete lack of biodiversity. The Lumper was also planted in large numbers because yields were higher. Unfortunately, the Lumper was less nutritious than other varieties. If this sounds familiar, it should; this scenario is not so different from our modern-day food system.


#3. The famine was also an issue of inequality - not so different from the inequality of today, and there was an abundance of food at the time of the famine, it just wasn't making its way to the people who were going hungry. Food was instead being put onto ships for export.


#4. The potato famine struck the poor of Ireland and they grew potatoes as a staple because it was a comparatively nutritious and cheap food. I'm quite certain that the poor of Ireland would not have been able to afford modern day fungicides as is suggestive within this publication."


[A new slide of the publication appeared on the screen.]


"Hunger today is generally the result of political, economic, and distribution problems, not the lack of productive capacity. Globally, more food per person is available than ever before."


"Now this is, I believe, the most commendable paragraph in the publication. For so long I have heard the ongoing rhetoric from many groups within agriculture that we need "modern technology", "more effective pesticides", "more production to feed a growing global population", when really, this statement here is so much more representative of the truth.


Unfortunately, a few pages later is this..."


"One thing is certain: if we are to feed growing human populations while preventing damage to ecosystems and natural processes upon which all life depends, agriculture must continue to advance."


"Again, how is the Canadian public supposed to trust this publication with such contradictory statements found within?


And this is my last slide taken from The Real Dirt on Farming..."


"Activists of any kind are not usually interested in finding solutions, but prefer to focus on problems and dramatic examples to generate funds and support".


"I beg to differ."


[a photograph appears on the screen]


"This is a photograph taken in July 2008 in the Creston Valley of British Columbia.


On the right hand are a group of "activists", and on the left is Roy Lawrence, a third-generation farmer. These "activists" are members of Canada's first Community Supported Agriculture project (CSA) for grain - CSAs are an increasingly popular model being adopted in communities for vegetable production and distribution and applying the model to grain is a first here in Canada."


[The talk continued with a background on the project and it's impressive financial returns to the farmers involved.]


"What this CSA is quickly moving towards proving, is that small-scale agriculture can indeed be a viable way for a farmer in this country to earn a living farming and do so with a much smaller ecological footprint. Even better, the farmer can be part of fostering community and culture at the same time. The Canadian public deserves to know about these initiatives and not be told that activists are not often interested in generating solutions."


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information and archived broadcasts can be found at



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