Canadians are failing to balance reasonable food consumption with sufficient and sustainable production.
The modern agricultural system is producing more and more food. Too much food. The cost is enormous: excess nutrients are contaminating the air and water; soil is being depleted; species loss is plunging us toward the sixth extinction; and farmers, racking up debt, are increasingly vulnerable to economic and climatic shifts.
At the same time, people are consuming too much food. Two-thirds of health-care costs in Canada can be attributed to chronic diseases associated with unhealthy eating. And then there is the waste — householders, food processors, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers collectively waste 40 percent of the food produced.
A radical rethink is required. We need to move from excess to enough.
About the authors
Ralph C. Martin earned a Ph.D. in Plant Science at McGill University. In 2001, he founded the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada. From 2011 to 2016, he was the Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph, where he is still a professor. Ralph lives in Kitchener, Ontario.
Elizabeth May is the Green Party Member of Parliament for the southern Vancouver Island riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands and served as leader of the Green Party of Canada from 2006-2019. In the 2011 federal election, Elizabeth made history by being the first Green Party candidate to win a seat in the House of Commons and was re-elected in 2015 and 2019. By a vote of her peers, she was named Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012. In 2015, Newsweek magazine named her one of the world's most influential women. She has a long record as a committed and dedicated advocate – for social justice, the environment, human rights, and pragmatic economic solutions. She is the author of eight books, most recently Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. She has served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the International Institute for Sustainable Development; vice-chair of the National Round Table on Environment and Economy; executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada; and as a commissioner of the Earth Charter International Council. Elizabeth May lives in Sidney, British Columbia.
Excerpt: Food Security: From Excess to Enough (by (author) Ralph C. Martin; foreword by Elizabeth May)
More than Enough
Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all. — Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.
— Herman Melville
Agriculture’s goal is to provide surplus food. The provision of this surplus relieves those who don’t work the land or raise animals — factory workers, service providers, artists, politicians, lawyers, scholars, and others — of the task of growing food, allowing them to use their time and energy to engage in all of the other activities that contribute to the building of societies. So, clearly, agriculture is vital for functioning of healthy societies. However, today there is a crisis involving agriculture’s ability to provide surplus food. The problem is not that agriculture is currently unable to provide the surplus necessary for healthy societies; rather, the problem is that the agricultural practices commonly used today are resulting in widespread environmental destruction, making their continued use unsustainable. This approach to overproduction has costs, significant ones. Today’s surpluses are swallowing natural capital and tomorrow’s productive capacity.
Ironically, our proclivity to address our fear of scarcity by overproducing is putting us on the path toward scarcity. Only by being appreciative of what Earth provides and respectfully accessing just enough can we achieve balance and sustainability.
When I was a boy, growing up on our farm in Wellington County, Ontario, food was respected. Our family understood, in a very fundamental way, the effort required to grow crops and raise animals for food. A natural result of this was that waste was limited to unavoidable losses. We were connected to the plants and animals on the farm and this relationship fostered feelings of responsibility and caring.
I loved to follow my grandfather during his chores, which seemed more of a joyful ritual than work. Pigs grunted expectantly and squealed with gratitude or greed, or perhaps both, when Grampa called them to the trough. Chickens yielded their eggs with remarkable grace as he gently retrieved the eggs from the nests, a skill I soon learned. Of course, the chickens would find their inevitable destination in the soup pot. In the meantime, they lived well with home-grown feed, clean nest boxes, opportunities to roam near the barn, and safety at night.
My grandfather and I drove to the pasture beyond the train tracks on the small yellow tractor my uncles had somehow extracted from the farm budget. As far as I know, Grampa used it only for this purpose. His team of horses, Pete and Joe, reliably leaned into their harnesses for the real work. When Grampa called the cattle, they appeared from the edges of the pasture and sometimes the shelter of an adjacent strip of trees. As he fed them, he talked to them and noted the state of their health. Usually they followed to see us off us as we drove away. It wasn’t until I was nine or ten that I realized that on most farms, cattle were chased rather than called.
It was from Grampa I learned the wisdom of agriculture and what’s really important. He died when I was seven. The agricultural knowledge I’ve learned since then has been mostly details. Somehow, with very few words, he demonstrated respect for soil, air, water, plants, and animals, and how they connect in a web of relationships.
I don’t recall waste on the farm although there were certainly transformations — the “circular economy” of modern discourse. Nutrients would go from kitchen food scraps to pig feed to manure to soil, to be captured again by plants in Grandma’s garden or Grampa’s fields. Today, as I reflect on Grampa’s farm, I feel sad about the general diminished awareness of how food is produced. Attitudes have changed; and instead of sustainable, self-sufficient food production, there is now industrial agriculture, with one-way flows that lead to excess. Nutrients in fertilizer, from off-farm, support plant growth for export crops, which often results in food loss and waste and concomitant nutrient loss into water bodies. In our rush to produce ever greater amounts of food, we are using up too many resources; our extravagance is unsustainable and will result in our being unable to meet the real needs of today and tomorrow.
Indigenous Peoples teach us to reflect on and learn from the experience of seven past generations and to anticipate our impact on seven future generations. Today, humans extract immense amounts of oil and gas from the earth to satisfy the “needs” of modern civilization. The burning of all of these hydrocarbons has resulted in the release of a huge amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, causing climate change. We have ignored the knowledge passed on to us by previous generations about how to live with modest environmental impact; as a result, we are jeopardizing the health of the environment, of the plants and animals that we share the planet with, and in so doing we are undermining the ability of the next seven generations to live satisfied and secure lives.
If we were to travel back seven generations, we would find ourselves in the 1840s, when there were only about one billion people on Earth. In this period, there was not yet any industrial-scale drilling for oil; wood, coal, kerosene, and a few other resources provided the fuel for lighting, heating, and the primitive combustion engines that existed at the time. Astoundingly, humans now burn over one hundred million barrels of oil per day (Tertzakian, 2018). That is one big blaze, and it has resulted in an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration to over four hundred parts per million (ppm) — CO2 is one of the major GHGs that contribute to global warming. In preindustrial times, the carbon dioxide concentration was only 280 ppm. A significant portion of the fuels consumed are used to produce, transport, process, package, and prepare food. Pollution from excess nitrogen fertilizer use, derived from fossil-fuel energy, is one of the greatest risks to current ecological stability. The sooner we learn to throttle back, the better will be our chances in the twenty-first century. To sustain ourselves, we need a long, steady flame.
Moving seven generations ahead will land us in the 2190s, when cheap oil and coal will have receded into the mists of history. Our descendants will wonder why we wasted so much fuel on one brief blaze, the biggest in Earth’s history. They will wonder why we put the health of Earth, our only home, in jeopardy by indulging in such an excess of dangerous consumption.
We have the technology to extract and refine oil and gas, and our capacity to do so is increasing — fracking, the injection of high-pressure water into the earth to cause the release of oil and gas, accessing previously unobtainable hydrocarbon reserves, is one such new technology. And of course oil companies want to sell as much oil as possible to avoid the loss of current investments in potentially stranded assets. However, extracting and burning more and more hydrocarbons is causing real environmental damage and, in fact, threatens to cause a global calamity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have less than twelve years to cut GHGs by at least half. We must develop ecofriendly, sustainable energy systems that will allow us to leave carbon-dense products in the ground: new technologies that will enable us to replace fossil fuels, avoiding their poisonous byproducts that have such negative impacts on climate systems.
Replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, and tidal energy will allow us reduce GHG emissions and, so, will slow climate change. However, what is needed is not just the development of ecofriendly alternatives to fossil fuels: we must also work toward decreasing our energy consumption. The proliferation of high-speed modes of transportation, luxurious and excessively large buildings, and the overproduction of food, all supported by the exploitation of fossil fuels, must end. We need renewable-energy technologies, but we also need a reconsideration of how much rich food, high-speed transportation, housing space, and other modern benefits we actually need.
If we appreciate what we have, we are more likely to know when we have enough. Lynne Twist (2003) presents a compelling argument for sufficiency. “When you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need, it frees up oceans of energy to make a difference with what you have. When you make a difference with what you have, it expands.”
I have been approached by several friends who have chosen to sell their cars. In each case, they acknowledged how frightened they were about the sacrifice of not having a car on demand. This fear was mostly an issue before they sold their cars. All of them told me that as time went on without car ownership, they began to appreciate how free they were from payments, maintenance, insurance, licensing, parking, et cetera. They shifted from a sense of sacrifice to one of satisfaction. Granted, they all lived in cities and not rural areas.
In January each year, many of us resolve to eat well for our health. After the feasting of the December holiday season, we tend to focus on what we will go without, and, thus, will sacrifice. The benefits of sacrifice should not to be understated, but neither should they be overemphasized. Sometimes sacrifice is just sensible.
A few weeks of eating more fruits and vegetables balanced with protein, vitamins, minerals, and calories and eating less food with fat, salt, and sugar can result in feeling healthier, better satisfied. To continue healthy habits, it may be helpful to consider what makes our bodies feel good most of the time.
Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food has a simple motto of only seven words, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” When I first read this motto, I wondered what else he expected us to eat, other than food. Right on cue, the first part of the book distinguishes real food (found on the outside walls of supermarkets) from “quasi-food” (the packaged and processed products found in middle aisles).
There are numerous words and phrases associated with eating well: “fellowship,” “enough for all,” “preserving, not wasting,” “nutrition,” “wholeness,” “health,” “vigour,” “freshness,” “savouring,” “local culture,” “favourite recipes,” and so on. Eating well can be enjoyable and satisfying.
Today, food has become entertainment, and as with other forms of entertainment, we have become accustomed to instant gratification. Planning for a local and healthy seasonal basket of sustenance, preserving local produce, and preparing nutritious meals are at odds with immediate satisfaction. So many rich processed foods provide temporary pleasure. It is on this basis that they appeal and are advertised.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of people are drawn to planning and preparing healthy diets, diets that not only include nutritious foods but also are characterized by moderation. The challenge, or perhaps the trick, is to better convey to people the benefits of this, one of which is the satisfaction of feeling energetic, permanently.
Pierre Dansereau, a well-known biologist and ecologist from Quebec, passed away in 2011, one month shy of his one hundredth birthday. He believed that it is necessary to have a happy frugality (austérité joyeuse). The term is jarring. A happy frugality? This is a step beyond satisfaction. I don’t think that he was advocating poverty; rather, I think that he wanted us to live our lives in a manner that allows us to obtain an adequate living without doing irreparable harm to the environment. To do that individually and collectively is to have a reason to be happy.
In evolved societies, and this is something evidenced, to some degree, in the Canadian social contract, there is a striving to ensure that everyone has enough to not only survive but to prosper. In Nova Scotia, a couple recently provided a wonderful example of what those with extra can do to help others to have enough. Allen and Violet Large donated most of their unexpected $11.2 million lottery winnings to family and local charities. Allen said, “We didn’t need this big of an amount,” and Violet noted, “There’s somebody worse off than I am.” They were happily frugal with their modest home, older car, and network of friends and family.
Until Violet died of cancer a short time later, she affirmed she was satisfied with their decision and was thankful of the opportunity to share their fortune to help ensure that others had enough. With such an attitude of gratitude, we become able to recognize when we have enough. Then we can make appropriate sacrifices, be satisfied, and sustain our lives with happy frugality.
George Monbiot ends his book Heat on a downbeat. He worries that the campaign against climate change will be resisted because “it is for austerity, not plenty, for constraint, not freedom, and thus against ourselves.” A campaign to create sustainable food production by showing the necessity of choosing less to avoid losing more, and by promoting sharing, even though that will result in having less to go around, faces similar hurdles. Yet, paradoxical as it seems, such a course can lead to more choice and greater freedom, while improving our chances for survival. Our current path of polluting the air and water and degrading the soil, while impacting climatic variability, has been shown to be already limiting our options, diminishing our access to things that we now take for granted. Changing courses now will allow for a far greater range of possibilities in the future.
Currently, in our zeal for economic growth, we humans hoard goods, while degrading and polluting the soil, water, and air needed for sustainable agriculture. By shifting focus and facing facts, however, we can dampen the fossil flameout. We can regroup in a quest to eat well, in sustainable communities.
In 1798 the dour Reverend Malthus warned that if our human population increased exponentially, food production would still only increase linearly and the race of “man” could not escape from this law. A century or so later, Fritz Haber appeared to provide humanity with the means to escape the dire fate predicted by Malthus. The use of manufactured nitrogen fertilizer enabled food production to grow to an extraordinary degree; crop yields reached previously unrealized heights. Coupled with cheap energy, this new fertilizer seemed a godsend. Food production and human population increased exponentially like rapidly climbing jets in an air show.
However, as energy supplies dwindle and as greenhouse gas emissions increase as a result of the overuse of fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizer, we might do well to give Malthus a second reading. His warning was, after all, a warning. Were he alive today, he would surely affirm that science based on ecological realism will serve us more effectively than science based on human hubris and fantasies of unlimited growth.
It’s time for those of us in agriculture to say “Enough, already.” Agriculturalists should no longer silently accept the status quo, one characterized by ever-increasing consumption and waste. We have a moral duty to yell “Stop!” Such a declaration is necessary to help change our course. It is hard to imagine that we are so addicted that we’ll actually choose to sacrifice Planet Earth and ourselves, so it’s time to revise our worldview and reject the gospel of perpetual economic growth. It’s time to reimagine how we agree to make a living as individuals and together on Earth.
Our addiction to excess food is fueled (literally) by corresponding addictions to oil, gas, and coal. Addictions seduce and eventually control addicts by the comforts offered. But the oceans, forests, rangelands, and atmosphere cannot absorb much more of the GHGs from our big blaze of dwindling energy supplies. We need to consume less. We need to burn much less. Our choice is to adjust to Earth’s bio-chemical limits or to face the consequences.
Apart from those engaged in subsistence farming, agriculturists have always been concerned with the question, “How will we feed the world?” Throughout history, farmers have worked, despite droughts, natural disasters, pest infestations, and disease, to try to ensure that humans are able to avoid not just famines but want of food generally, doing so in spite of rapidly increasing populations. This struggle is agriculture’s raison d’etre. Agriculturalists are convinced they’re on the side of the angels. Feeding the world is a project to be proud of.
However, the more that agriculturalists have succeeded in “feeding the world” the greater the distance has become between those who eat the food and the specialists who grow, produce, and process it. Food has become a commodity, controlled largely by giant corporations. Modern agriculture has become stuck in a perpetual chase to provide excess commodities for an expanding market of consumers, each of whom is tempted to consume more. Of course, this extra consumption also leads to more waste per consumer. Globalized commodities benefit a select few financially. As for eaters, there are more who suffer illnesses from overeating, than those who suffer from not getting enough.
If we continue to allow the population to grow, per capita consumption to increase, waste to mushroom, energy use to balloon, and pollution to spiral ever upward, Malthus’s predictions will certainly be realized — it will only be a matter of time. If we follow the course we’re on, there will eventually be collapse; it will be impossible to meet the world’s needs, let alone its demands. Inevitably, there will be fear and famine. However, if we take steps now to moderate consumption, to eat well, and to dampen the big blaze, we will be able to control energy use and pollution and reduce our consumption levels to a sustainable carrying capacity. Following the latter path will involve producing and consuming just what’s needed, using local initiatives, and learning to eat well in sustainable communities. Such a society might appear scrawny in comparison to the one produced by our current indulgence. It will be one typified by a joyous frugality. In time, food may once again be more associated with nurturing and sharing than with entertainment.
It’s time to mature, get together, and work with what we have. If we continue to compete to consume more of the less that remains, we will have failed as a species. The consequences will be dire. If, on the other hand, we properly appreciate our special heritage and opportunity on Earth, if we adopt the necessary gratitude for what we have, then we will be able to lead balanced lives, ones that help foster a sustainable and nurturing planet.
Ralph challenges us to consider the complexities of agriculture, the impact agriculture has on individual farmer...consider their consumer habits and the effects their choices have on our environment and on the plight of poorer nations of the world.
Catherine Van Arkel, Van Arkel Farms, Dresden, ON
So much more than a treatise on food security... It’s spiritual ecology in practice and at its finest.
Anita Stewart C.M. LLD; Food Laureate, University of Guelph & Founder of Food Day Canada
Ralph weaves his personal experiences growing up on a farm in Wellington County, with his professional experiences as an agriculturalist, teacher, mentor and researcher.
Laurent Van Arkel, Van Arkel Farms, Dresden, ON
This is a deeply personal but also profoundly analytical treatise on how to save ourselves and other species...Ralph Martin is Canada’s Wendell Berry.
Rod MacRae, PhD; Associate Professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
This book beautifully combines storytelling with scientific evidence. Martin contributes a unique perspective that seamlessly bridges his lived experience of family farming, and his distinguished academic career.
Jane Rabinowicz, Executive Director USC Canada