Farmers and eaters unite at Food Sovereignty Forum

Erin Perkins
By Erin Perkins
March 25th, 2012

Broken down barns and empty fields that haven’t seen a crop in years left National Farmers’ Union (NFU) vice president of policy, activist and farmer Colleen Ross wondering about the Boundary.

“I’ve never been here and as I drove through I wondered about the food shed…I wonder what people are eating and where they get their food … I wonder what you are eating, what your kids are eating and what is being served in your schools,” she told the more than 50 people who packed into the Senior’s Hall in Grand Forks City Park to hear what she had to say at the Food Sovereignty Forum, Monday, March 19.

The forum was sponsored by Alex Atamanenko, Member of Parliament for the B.C. Southern Interior. Grand Forks was one of many stops for Atamanenko and Ross in their travelling forum over the next week.

Besides Ross, there was a panel of local farmers and advocates including Doug Zorn of North Fork Pork and Poulty ( www.northforkpork.ca ) and past president of the Grand Forks and Boundary Regional Agricultural Society (Ag Society), Roly Russell, president of the Ag Society and Irene Perepolkin, Regional District Kootenay Boundary Area D director and owner of Medomak Farm and Feed in Grand Forks.

Ross’s passion for the Canadian agricultural industry and farming has taken her all over world from participating in demonstrations to working on United Nations policy development, which she has found to be “disheartening” because the UN has “been bought out by corporations”. Ross has been farming most of her life, including 15 years in Australia and 30 years on her mixed farm located one hour south of Ottawa, Ontario. She is a member of Via Campesina and an advocate for food sovereignty.

Food Sovereignty: An international movement for food rights

Food sovereignty is a term coined by the international organization, Via Campesina, to define policy around peoples’s right to have control over their food and to not have it controlled by international markets, as it is today.

Via Campesina, which is Spanish for The Peasant’s Way ( www.viacampesina.org ), has members from 69 countries who believe in food security. It operates under seven principles including food is a basic human right, agrarian reform, protection of natural resources and reorganizing food trade.

The issue of food security goes far beyond Canada to a world where hunger is real, people are landless and have no way to help themselves. Here at home it’s about fighting not only for the rights of those in less fortunate countries but to gain control over where our own food is coming from and the ability to feed ourselves without the help of international trade. It’s a revolution that can be won one purchase at a time, said Ross.

“Farmers have to decide what they want to grow and eaters have to decide what they want to eat,” she said simply.

Ross also discussed terminator seed technology, where seeds from a plant can’t reproduce themselves, and the upcoming economic trade agreement with Europe.

The latest issues is Genetically Engineered (also known as Genetically Modified) Alfalfa. When a plant or animal is genetically modified to provide more advantageous characteristics it can come at a cost including food safety, ecological issues and it often can’t reproduce so farmers must buy new seed every year rather than saving a portion of their crop to use as seed. Ross said it is a case of corporations controlling seed production and the ability for a nation to feed itself without big business. In Australia GE Alfalfa is already becoming an issue and Ross anticipates Canadian farmers will soon be fighting the same thing.

Eater or farmer you need to think with a resistance term and enter a resistance revolution.

When asked what she hopes the audience comes away with after the forum, Ross said she hopes this discussion will unite eaters and farmers into acting together to save local agricultural.

“I want eaters and farmers to join their hands together and to push back,” she said.

“(Gardeners) buys some seeds, dig some soil and plant them — it’s not difficult… Rip up some lawn and plant some food.”

Buy locally and gain greater food security

Canadian agriculture is in trouble. The next generation of farmers can’t afford to farm, said Ross.

She said young Canadian farmers face a “crippling debt” and one or more family members must hold off farm jobs to keep it running.

She sees the future of Canadian farming in the hands of women.

“In Canada and all over the world women are taking the lead,” she said. “Women are taking back our farms, taking back our food and taking back our seeds. I believe the future of farming is women.”

Local farmers are facing the same issues as those across the nation.

Doug Zorin, past president of the Ag Society and owner of North Fork Pork and Poultry, took Ross’s earlier description of the region to heart. He reminisced about the Grand Forks of the past when the largest greenhouses in Western Canada were here and the agriculture fairs were booming. The land, water and sun was in abundance then, and still is today.

“The average farmer today is over 55,” he told the group. “Young farmers are not going into farming because it is not profitable … We are reliant on our food travelling long distances and ripening in the truck.”

We still have the land, sunshine and water but now we have weeds. The future of our area could be a thriving agricultural hub… We need to become a region that feeds itself.

It could only thrive with more marketing, infrastruture and the lifting of regulations so local meat producers can sell their products to local supermarkets, said Zorin.

Roly Russell is a local farmer and president of the Ag Society. He also has an academic education which has included the study of how societies make decisions to change.

“When societies loose it’s because they build too complicated structures when dealing with their food and water,” he said, pointing out the fall of the Mayan civilization. “People loose touch of the implications of their decisions …Globilization has been good for a lot of things, but has hurt rural communities. It’s made it easier to buy things that are cheaply made.”

The solution is agriculturally grounded. It’s an economic multiplier. If you spend one dollar on a local apple a greater percentage of that dollar is recycled back into our community.

He said eaters need to be making a conscientious decision about how they spend their money.

“That is the solution to revitalizing our community — be conscientious of which economy we want to support and bolster our local economy. To rebuild our local economy we need to be rebuilding local agriculture.”

“We’ve got a revolution at our feet, so lets all start saving seeds in a big way,” said Sheila Dobie, director for the Ag Society’s Boundary Seed Bank Project during the question and answer portion of the forum.

Dobie was the first to stand and make an enthusiastic statement for an issue she believes and lives every day.

Numerous other farmers and eaters stood up to discuss the Grand Forks of the past and their concerns for the future, which echoed the forum’s earlier discussions.

If food and agricultural issues interest you, the upcoming workshop hosted by the Grand Forks and Boundary Regional Agricultural Society could be for you. Seed Saving and Production – the Basics and Beyond with Patrick Steiner of Stellar Seeds will be on Thursday, April 12 at the Seniors Hall in City Park Grand Forks at 3 p.m. followed by a potluck at 6 p.m. and the Ag Society’s Annual General Meeting at 7 p.m. For more information or to register for the workshop in advance, contact Sheila Dobie at boundaryfarms@gmail.com or 250-442-8583.

For more information about the National Farmers Union visit their website at www.nfu.ca .