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Food systems in crisis/people in crisis

Posted by Rebecca Kneen on

Over the last few weeks, many of our tour guests have asked about the effect of climate change on our farm and brewery. I've had to say that chaos appears to be the name for it.
Over the last 8 years or so we have seen all the historic weather patterns disrupted, making it harder and harder to adapt. We grow many varieties of everything – from hops to tomatoes – to give ourselves some buffer when on variety succumbs to sudden heat or extended cold spring or whatever craziness each season brings. But that's not quite enough any more. We are looking at building hoop shelters for both shade and season extension in the garden, and changing our entire approach to hops because cover cropping has been so difficult in the droughts. In addition, our pasture is disappearing earlier every year as successive droughts take their toll on the soil, leaving us to deeply consider how to manage livestock without irrigation.
These are just small examples of what's affecting farmers all over the world. Droughts in Europe have dropped olive oil production by 10%, and nations are considering draining wetlands to support agriculture. All the major breadbaskets of the world – Ukraine, India, mid-west North America – are suffering from drought and loss of ability to irrigate. As grain production becomes more chancy, will we also see restrictions in quality and quantity of malting barley? Likely – in fact, more likely as grain will be needed for human sustenance directly. And of course “market forces” will likely mean that what there is will be snapped up by bigger breweries with deeper pockets.
We're also seeing an ongoing crisis in income distribution, with a widening gap between rich and poor, and fewer people in the middle. Paired with wild speculation in real estate, this means that in Canada people pay up to 80% of their income for housing, leaving virtually nothing for food and transportation, much less the “frills” that give joy to life. But the problem at the moment remains not in the quantity of food produced, but in distribution and price inequity. Farmers are driven into poverty, while middle-man corporations reap record profits and people go hungry.
Do we go to mass microbe farming, manufacturing yeasts and bacteria and algae into food, while covering our arable land with housing? Do we forgo livestock production on marginal land because we believe that meat is unethical, thereby starving our soil of the manure that the soil foodweb requires in order to function? Do we continue to seek high-tech, energy-intensive solutions to problems created by increased technology and energy dependence? Do we continue to ignore profit and speculation, poverty and climate chaos as the driving causes of land shortage, drug addiction, hunger and homelessness?
I sure hope not. I continue to believe that there are options, and that we can find a way to survive the chaos created by capitalism and greed. We can build sustainable ecosystems in small-scale communities, focusing on feeding ourselves not the globe - which means taking the export boot off the necks of countries currently producing plenty of food, but exporting all of it.
Returning to more balanced ecosystem-based production doesn't provide the instant global solution demanded by the World Bank, but it does actually mean people might be able to feed themselves. It also means that we'll have to figure out how to eat more sustainably – without the imports, growing some of those fancy ingredients ourselves, doing without or making substitutions. More beans, less meat, more root vegetables, less soy and coconut milk, more seasonal eating. Not actually all that bad, but a major shift in the way we build communities (centred around food growing rather than lawns and cars).
Exporting food can still be part of a global economy – but focused on luxuries, not daily sustenance. Sugar, coffee, chocolate, wine, spices all can still be grown in particular places, but alongside food production for local consumption, not replacing it.
Of course, this also includes the idea that food should be grown and made for communities, not for profit. This would be the biggest ideological shift of all – but to my mind, the most critical. If we consider housing, food and water as essentials that must be taken out of the profit economy, what happens? Can we find a way to provide these things for each other without private profit? Can we learn the critical indigenous lesson of a sharing economy instead of a profit relationship?
Sustainability demands that we learn to use less, not simply to exchange one mechanism of production for another. The current energy production schema is a good example: global renewable energy production is rising, but fossil fuel production and use has not decreased. Instead, energy use continues to rise, and the proposed solutions to climate chaos depend on more and more technology and energy use. This tail-chasing behaviour might reduce a need for real change, but it certainly isn't a long-term solution. What part of a hyper-industrialized disutopian vision is actually appealing? Only the bit that means we don't have to stop driving cars, fast fashion or coconut milk.
Personally, I'd rather challenge myself to change how I live, and find ways to support community-level sustainability. On my good days, at least. And I'm sure I can give up coffee in that cause. Well, almost sure. What about you?

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