On the weekend I attended a vegetable gardening workshop at my local urban farm, hosted by the lively farmer, Gavin. It was an informative session on seed starting during which I figured out why my tomato seeds hadn’t germinated. He took the small group of us on a brief tour afterward and had funny (if not sometimes tragic) stories to tell about the arugula (sown somewhat erratically by a teenager and now bursting with leaves under the tent) and disappearing carrots (slugs are voracious). It’s only half an acre — tiny compared to UBC Farm‘s 60 acres. But my hope is that this small model of local, urban agriculture will get people excited to grow more food in their backyards, or on their balconies, and support future urban agriculture projects in the community.
While searching for articles more in-depth on the first issue here, I came across some interesting finds. If you can read between the lines, you’ll figure out my headline. (Unintentional cheesy rhyming.)
Last night I watched a shocking episode of CBC Marketplace about superbugs in supermarket chicken. I knew about the routine use of antibiotics in factory farm animals — which account for most of our meat production, the most popular of which is chicken — but the degree to which antibiotic-resistant bacteria (aka superbugs) have developed is a disturbing new revelation. Daily use of antibiotics, often the same ones administered to sick humans, are being given to healthy and ill chickens alike. If chickens, cows, pigs and so forth had a natural diet and weren’t kept in such cramped conditions, the incidence of disease would be extremely low. Antibiotics wouldn’t be necessary, preventative or otherwise. Disease outbreaks would also be uncommon.
The human health threat posed by the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — found on two-thirds of the 100 chicken packages sampled — has the potential to return us to pre-1930s conditions, says the study. Is the public health risk really worth cheaper chicken prices?
Antibiotics also kill the helpful bacteria in our gut, so I can only imagine how sick the patients profiled in this episode are from multiple attempts to cure their antibiotic-resistant infections.
This is just another reason among many — animal ethics, environment and others — to return to sustainable farming methods.
Will Allen harvesting (Photo credit: Growing Power)
Back-to-back films on agriculture at the World Community Film Festival this afternoon left me uplifted and feeling like change is on the horizon. Dirt! The Movie, Fresh and A Thousand Suns reminded me how many people there are who think like me — including those attending the event — and what amazing impacts these people are making around the world.
One farmer in the US took it upon himself to build a wind farm on his farm as security for survival. (Actually, I think that was part of Dirty Business, a film about coal and energy which followed. I saw four films in 6 hours, so please forgive me if I confuse them.) Will Allen, a former basketball player, returned to his family’s farming roots and started Growing Power, where compost is everything. Joel Salatin is a farming hero, Michael Pollan speaks the truth in terms people can understand, schools are tearing up asphalt for gardens, and rehabilitation programs for inmates are reconnecting people with the land.
It took me almost four years to find out that in 2007 the US Department of Agriculture approved commercial production of the first genetically modified food crop containing human genes, a “laboratory-created rice [that] produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.” In my head, my reaction to this was incredible disgust mingled with angry expletives and a little bit of fear. From what I’ve learned about genetically modified organisms, this paves the way for the seeds to be patented — in other words, effectively patenting human genes. Patenting pig genes was bad enough.
I’m extremely skeptical that the “good intentions” of treating “children with diarrhoea, a major killer in the Third World”, are actually valid. Genetic modification has a history of being touted as a way to solve food shortages, but they wind up leaving GM farmers poor, and organic farmers sued when seeds contaminate their crops. As for these children, attempting to treat them with GM products — any negative consequences of which may be unknown — is akin to us focusing the bulk of our efforts on curing cancer and diabetes and almost completely ignoring prevention. We should be ensuring access to healthy food, clean water, and education. Whatever Monsanto and other GE agribusinesses say about solving developing nations’ problems with their products is complete bullshit.
The sled dog mass killing in Whistler recently has sparked outrage, leading to some much-needed discussion about the unethical treatment and slaughter of animals that we tend to ignore: factory farm animals and grizzly bears. After a cat was thrown in a garbage can, fuelling world-wide fury, a question was posed whether food animals are “victims of their poor image”. Considering dogs and cats appear to get all the attention, I’d have to agree.
I wrote the following text almost three years ago for an Environmental Ethics essay, but I was already beyond the word limit and didn’t include it. You can probably expect to hear more about factory farming from me as this series continues (unless you help me reach my $300 fundraising goal!). Later, I’ll dig up and add some more information that came to light well after this was written.
Chicken and eggs
The deplorable conditions in which hens and “broiler chickens” are kept are becoming known to the public. Canada’s egg industry relies, as does its pork industry, on “the extreme confinement of animals to the point of virtual immobilization — in the name of efficiency” (Youngman). Of the country’s 26 million laying hens, 98 per cent are confined in wire-mesh “battery cages” of four or more birds each, cages so small they cannot even flap or spread their wings. By the time the hen is considered unproductive, “she is often bald from feather-pecking and the constant grinding of her body against the wire mesh and other birds” (Youngman) and her entire body is in terrible condition. Battery cages are, of course, unnecessary for egg production. “They are used because they allow eggs to be produced under factory-like conditions, thus lowering the market price of the eggs. The chicken’s living conditions subsidize the true cost of the eggs you eat (Vancouver Humane Society).
In this fascinating TED Talk, Pollan talks about humans’ relationship with, or rather perceived dominance over, nature, corn’s dominance over us, and nature’s incredible systems at work on a farm.
“…If you think about it, this completely contradicts the tragic idea of nature we hold in our heads which is that, for us to get what we want, nature is diminished. More for us, less for nature. Here, all this food comes off this farm and at the end of the season, there is actually more soil, more fertility and more biodiversity. It’s a remarkably hopeful thing to do. … We can take the food we need from the earth and actually heal the earth in the process.”
I hope my lack of writing lately is a sign of a good social life rather than exhaustion. Here is finally my experience at the recent slow food cycle.
The gems are often tucked away at the end of a road. Like last year’s treasures in Pemberton, the most wonderful spots in Agassiz’s slow food cycle route lay a ways down a road or off a nondescript path you only just had to trust would lead somewhere.
At one end of the self-guided, circuitous route through Agassiz’s sprawling farmland and country houses was a paradise I could not have expected. The Back Porch seemed to suggest with its name a rustic and romantic place. Greeted by dozens of bikes, we found ourselves on a farm that could have been transplanted from the artsy, organic culture of BC’s Gulf Islands. A pottery studio and coffee grinding shop occupied the first outbuilding, a unique combination that was at once odd and harmonious. Antique coffee grinders (ca. 1919) sat among vintage graphic design pieces which tickled my design nerd fancy!
With lucky last-minute tickets, I attended an engaging talk by author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) at Vancouver’s spectacular UBC Farm this afternoon. This was his only Canadian stop on a book tour for the paperback edition of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (reviewed here earlier this week) and the location could not have been more appropriate. The afternoon included a quick farm tour after the talk, upon which I’ll touch later. It was cloudy for the talk, quite gladly, then the sun showed up afterward and made the place look like paradise! I enjoyed eating a yummy home-made salad and watching others eat around me. The event sold out all 670 tickets, and each person received a signed copy of the book.
Imagine, if you will, your favourite summer street festival or an indie parade. Add a joyous rallying cry, one amazing cause and 24 beautiful hectares of farmland in a wild corner of Vancouver. This mix of music festival and protest march made Tuesday’s Great Farm Trek to UBC Farm the highlight of my year so far, on the most gorgeous spring afternoon we could possibly hope for.
When I got off the bus at UBC, finding the Student Union Building wasn’t too difficult: I followed the drumming noises (percussion ensemble Sambata) and the hum of a thousand voices gathered in the square. I was pleasantly stunned to see how many people turned out.
The opening speaker began soon after I arrived. Ben recorded a video of the inspirational speech by Shane Pointe (Musqueam Nation). I recorded some of it but his view was better. The crowd exploded in cheers when he encouraged us. I fell into awe and silence during his song.