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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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April 30, 2009

Deconstructing Dinner


Whose Interests Are Converging at Canada's Agricultural Schools?

An investigative look into the philosophies and academic backgrounds driving the University of Guelph's agriculture program.


Jon Steinman


On April 10, this column featured the latest from a dramatic story out of the University of Guelph.


Guelph is home to Canada's largest agricultural school, among which, is the very small organic degree program. In late March, it was announced that because of budgetary challenges, the organic program would be cut among others displaying low enrollment.


As a result of many people stepping forward and voicing their concerns, the program was permitted to continue for another twelve months. With this extension, the agricultural college is now required to boost enrollment in the organic program and has been tasked with meeting a number of conditions proposed by the university senate. One condition requires the college to seek "industry support".


'Industry support'?


In my years examining Canada's agri-food system, I can comfortably confirm that there is far from a ready-to-burst-bubble of 'industry support' for organic agriculture.


The only way that I can imagine any 'industry support' for organic agriculture could be generated, is if the definition of organic is based upon the same industrial principles of conventional systems that instead rely on 'organic' substitutes.


As any proponent of 'true' organic would agree, 'organic' agriculture that mimics conventional systems is NOT organic.


What is it then about the University of Guelph that prevents them from understanding the economic, ecological and social opportunities of organic agriculture and food?


Some of those who have opposed the University's interest to cut the program have already drawn conclusions that a conspiracy is afoot. While such a proposition might very well be the case, there appears to be a much more tangible and likely rationale.


The University of Guelph is home to Canada's pre-eminent food and agricultural programs, and almost all of them are founded upon principles of industrial production and the genetic manipulation of lifeforms (biotechnology). These approaches generate significant profits for industry and are similarly supported by current and previous federal government policies.


Unfortunately, the historic and ongoing push to strengthen such models has provided little financial support to farmers. Instead, agri-food profits end up in the handful of corporations involved within the food system and the many pharmaceutical companies who profit from poor animal and human health. We also can't forget the many oil companies who also benefit from fueling these resource-dependent models.


And so if the success of the agri-food sector is measured by budgets and bottom lines, then the University of Guelph would likely believe that industrial conventional models are working just fine. Why wouldn't they? The University not only feeds the companies profiting most heavily from the food system, they too, by extension, become a huge recipient of that final food dollar and the taxes expended by every Canadian.


A telling chronology of events helps suggest that this is indeed the case.


On April 3, President Alastair Summerlee issued an on-line video announcing that some programs would be cut and the University was forced to choose "which ones to focus greater financial resources onto".


As it applies to agriculture, one must ask where those financial resources will be allocated? The answer came only days later, and on the very same day when senators were deliberating the future of the organic program. The University issued a press release titled, "MaRs Landing Mission Continues". MaRS Landing stands for Medical and Related Sciences Links to Agricultural Network for Development and Innovation with Guelph.


In short, MaRs Landing is a project linking research in Guelph and Toronto that focuses on biotechnology (the manipulation and corporate ownership of lifeforms) - technologies that organic philosophies do not support.


When looking closer at the MaRs Landing project, the convergence of philosophies and interests begins to paint a clearer picture of the preferred direction of the University among its primary decision makers.


Take university president Alastair Summerlee for example. He was a strong supporter of cutting the organic agriculture program. Summerlee's background is in biomedical sciences and the Ontario Veterinary College. As it happens, MaRs Landing provides "a connection between agriculture and food, veterinary and rural-related discoveries with medical, scientific and health advances in Ontario"!


As for the University's Board of Governors, a number of industrial food system proponents are among them. The most notable; Lyle Vanclief - Canada's Minister of Agriculture between 1997-2003. Vanclief developed and introduced the Agricultural Policy Framework (APF) - a foundational set of visions/goals representative of current agricultural policies in Canada. The five-year $9.4 billion dollar bilateral agreement between federal and provincial governments was rooted in these same models of industrial production that have already proven to not serve farmers or the environment very well at all. Vanclief is/was a vocal supporter of biotechnology.


It should come as no surprise then that MaRs Landing receives its funding from the "Agricultural Policy Framework".


You can expect updates on the future of the University of Guelph's organic agriculture program on future columns.


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