Creating a local food movement and a subsistence plus plan

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By Supriya Kumar

This is the last part in a two-part interview with Canadian food policy analyst and writer Wayne Roberts. In this part, he talks getting involved in a local food movement and a subsistence plan, that will help small-scale rural farmers in the developing world.

How can we promote the local food movement? How can ordinary citizens take part in it?

Photo credit: The Moose Jaw Times Herald

We can best promote local foods and farming by promoting local and sustainable food. Local and sustainable need to be paired, like wine and cheese, peanut butter and jam, or research and development.

There are many reasons why they go best together.

From an urban agricultural perspective, it’s a lot easier to win support for backyard food gardens if neighbors know they use minimal pesticides, for example.

From a customer education and customer loyalty perspective, it’s a more compelling case that can be made when the local food comes with other benefits and with other interesting and heart-warming stories about what goes into local and sustainable food.  A local and sustainable farm tour has a lot of points of interest that a strictly local farm doesn’t, such as areas left “wild” to encourage pollinators and other beneficial insects, for example.

What can people do? Grow vegetables in your yard or herbs and sprouts on your windowsill. Ask your local university or college or faith organization to kick off local and sustainable purchasing by public institutions. Support your neighborhood farmers market, food co-operative, and independent retailer whenever possible.

How can we bridge the urban-rural divide? Is there trepidation that focusing on local food movements might reduce the existing linkage between urban and rural communities (that of rural communities feeding urban communities)?

About 65 years ago, “two solitudes” of English and French Canada was portrayed in one of Canada’s most famous novels of the same name. Today, the two solitudes of rural and urban are part and parcel of life around the world, and especially of the food system. I believe that a major mission of food councils and healthy sustainable and local food movements is to put dialogue, understanding, admiration, support, and warmth where there is now division.

I think this will happen through many of the avenues opened up by food movements. Farmers markets often give farmers rock star treatment. Many activists, such as my family, do a volunteer stint at farms for our summer holidays through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Consumers have every reason to pay providers well and to make sure they get their fair share of the food dollar, up from the small fraction they receive now. That can start with government purchasing of local, sustainable, and healthy foods. And there should be additional fees for farmers to reimburse them for sustainability efforts that don’t get any reward in the food market.

The TFPC helped organize a collaboration of farmers, urban planners, and food movement supporters — the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee, to coordinate mutual support actions. I think every area should have an organization like that.

Can you briefly describe the Subsistence Plan that you and Michael Sacco worked on?

Two years ago, my wife, daughter, and I joined fellow Torontonian Michael Sacco of ChocoSol Traders on his annual trip to buy cacao, coffee and other local specialties from an ancient indigenous village deep in the mountainous forests of Oaxaca.

A week of the village experience personalized and dramatized my respect for the life and livelihood of still-autonomous and self-reliant Indigenous people, of whom there are about one billion around the world. That respect was deepened policy-wise following a week in Chiapas as guests of the Zapatistas, who are close to Michael’s mentor in Mexico, Gustavo Esteva.

On the basis of these brief experiences, Michael and I made some simple calculations that led us to the notion of “Subsistence-Plus.”

About two billion people in the world live lives like the villagers we met in Oaxaca. They work very hard and live very simply, as people in subsistence economies have for millennia. Their work and lives are extremely ecological and also quite dignified, worthy of admiration, not pity. Like all members of this Indigenous community, our host had rights to his yard and home in the village, a beautiful spot beside a rushing river, and one hectare in the mountainside to grow his “milpa” (field) of beans, corn, squash and about 50 “wild” greens. He also tended a hectare of mountain woods, where he nurtured cacao, coffee, and palm trees beneath the forest umbrella. This agro-ecological system provided his family with nutritious and tasty food as well as safe and comfortable, but basic, shelter.

What was missing from this subsistence life, we figured, was a few amenities to add pleasure, respite from ceaseless toil, and access to other experiences and cultures, while respecting the personal and ecological integrity and worth of their subsistence economy. Michael’s vision is that ChocoSol has the connections to provide a decent number of pluses by paying generous and honorable rates for the cacao, coffee, palm, and other surplus generated from this subsistence economy. Back in Toronto, he and his merry band add enough cachet, charm, and artisanal value to those products to support frugal, engaged, and enchanting lives for a crew of Toronto “chocosolista.”

Our notion was that if enough social entrepreneurs in the Global North connected with enough villagers in the Global South, Subsistence Plus could end impoverishment and immiseration of two billion people based on a fair exchange of ecological products and deep respect for the authentic life of subsistence cultures.

We think that Plus-style thinking will prove superior to conventional Global North approaches to development based on negative and colonial disrespect for subsistence economies and Indigenous lifestyles. Subsistence Plus is based on this positive and respectful approach to people who seek to make good livelihoods from agro-ecological methods of food production.

Can we get a sneak peak at your upcoming books and other projects?

Although I feel my spirit is nowhere near as old as my body, I am settling into a new career as a food elder. I’m on a wide variety of boards for food-related organizations, do a lot of posting on Facebook and write a regular food column for Now Magazine. I’m also starting a little company, Will Work for Food Policy, so I can help out by speaking and consulting. My next publication comes out in the fall on how food policy councils can solve food problems in cities.

Supriya Kumar is a research fellow with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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