Alignment and Autonomy: Food Systems in Canada


Alignment and Autonomy: Food Systems in Canada

Brewster Kneen

It may be presumptuous to describe what is referred to as the food movement in a stable affluent country such as Canada as a social movement, but there is certainly a growing mass of people throughout North America expecting, demanding, and organizing for a very different food regime, not only for themselves, but for everyone. The corporations that have enjoyed a controlling interest in the food economy of North America since colonization are well aware that they can no longer consider the public to be a passive body of consumers, eager to eat up whatever they serve up, wherever it comes from and whatever the quality. Concessions, such as the presence of organic foods in the produce sections, free-range eggs, and organic milk in the dairy sections of large supermarkets, however, merely mask increasing corporate domination of the food system.

At the farm end of the system, ‘commercial’ agriculture is dominated by commodity trade associations composed primarily not of farmers but of the corporate suppliers, buyers, processors and traders that handle the commodity in question. While the public is drawing away from the controllers and profiteers of the corporate industrial food system, industrial-scale commodity farmers are ever more dependent on good relations with their corporate ‘partners’. Thus the general farm organization in the province of Alberta, Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, voted to open up membership to corporations to gain more members and increased financial ‘stability’ at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in 2012.1

There is, then, an increasingly intimate relationship between transnational trading corporations, ‘input’ suppliers (fertilizer, agrotoxins and seeds), and ‘farm businessmen’ on the one hand, while on the other hand there is a splendid array of citizens’ groups and local organizations, along with a multitude of idealistic individuals, escaping from the corporate tent and constructing alternative food systems. The temptations and pressures for the latter to pick up the practices and culture of the former, however, are omnipresent and powerful. This is readily apparent when one looks at the list of corporate sponsors of organic/alternative trade shows and educational programs. The sponsoring corporations may produce organic yogurt or bread, and be smaller and more ‘local’ than their mainline counterparts, but the pattern and dependency are similar. The replacement of fieldmen (‘ag reps’) employed by provincial governments with advisors and consultants (salesmen) employed by the corporate agricultural input suppliers is indicative of the changing alignments of governments and the corporate sector.

As this movement has grown over the past dozen years or so, it has outstripped the capacity of its volunteer base, or professionals such as community nutritionists working ‘off the side of the desk’, to perform all the work required. Increasingly, groups have found themselves needing to raise funds, not just for the out-of-pocket costs of conferences and similar efforts, but to pay staff to carry out organizing and educational activities (including fundraising). At the same time, more formal structures have emerged, such as municipal food policy councils, with paid staff, along with the long-standing ones such as food banks. Whether they ultimately rely on corporate sponsorships, public/government funding or grants, philanthropic foundations, or funds raised through educational services (seminars, conferences) or events, they increasingly stand in a fuzzy area between broad social movements and NGOs.

In this chapter I map out the range of organizations and ‘movements’ in the agricultural and food sector of the Canadian economy and evaluate their relationship to the state (meaning various levels of government, from municipal to federal), their relationship to the corporate sector, and their degree of autonomy from both. The detailing of structures, practices and self-understanding reveals the assumptions behind the organizations occupying the territory of the dominant food system in Canada that must be contested if a vital food movement is to develop the power to actually transform the state and corporate capitalist domination. A similar analysis would be applicable to the United States (US) and elsewhere.

I will also reflect on the relationship between the desire for a mass movement to transform a society and the desire and satisfaction of building small projects and organizations at the village or municipal level from my personal experience, first as a farmer-activist and then as an urban food activist. While running a sheep farm in Nova Scotia, we developed a lamb marketing co-op (which celebrated 30 years of operation in 2012) whose success was based on strong social relationships built slowly and carefully among the farmers. Later, back in Toronto, we participated in the development of the Toronto Food Policy Council, and when we moved to Mission, British Columbia and set out to establish a local farmers’ market, we quickly learned all about the power structure of the community, which enabled us to create a local ‘social movement’ that made the market a reality.

The food movement

Throughout North America people are moving: from one style of eating to another; from one kind of shopping for food to another; from highly individualistic approaches to the acquisition, preparation and consumption of food to a range of collective approaches to all these activities. There is also significant movement from what is wrongly called ‘conventional’ agriculture to organic and ecological farming, from industrial commodity production to artisanal, small-scale agriculture and fishing, from the quest to ‘improve’ and control Mother Earth (nature and the environment) to learning how to live with her. The food movement is not inclined to view land as a ‘resource’ that must be forced to be more ‘productive’, but rather as the base for living responsibly in the natural world, though this might not be true for the small minority of extreme libertarians.

The food movement includes farmers, fishers, health workers and teachers, as well as people engaged in a wide variety of enterprises to provide food for those marginalized by the capitalist economy, including Indigenous Peoples intent on recovering their traditional food-ways. Food-conscious people favor organic foods and are very concerned about centralization and corporate control of the food system. They reject genetically engineered foods and agrotoxins and want to know where their food is coming from; who grew it, caught it, processed or baked it? Many who are not farmers grow at least some of their own food and save seeds from season to season, in both rural and urban settings. Farmers’ markets are now a primary structural feature of the food movement, and there is also a rapidly growing ‘urban agriculture’ which challenges, in a very material way, how land is held and owned in the city, including by the city itself, and how it is utilized, including for growing vegetables and even raising poultry.2 Growing food in a schoolyard by and for the students is a very, very long way from commodity production for export.

Just as women are the seed keepers and farmers in the subsistence agriculture that feeds billions of people, women are the leaders in every aspect of the food movement worldwide, while in the industrial sector, from the farm to transnational agribusiness, men remain ‘the boss’.

Politically, food activists range from right-wing libertarians to left-wing anarchists, from conscientious middle-class folk desiring good food to cancer patients, ‘welfare moms’, and marginal farmers struggling to survive. Some of these farmers aspire to be effective entrepreneurs and business operators, but they are likely to bear little resemblance to the farm businessmen and are unlikely to appear at meetings in suits.

Two essential statements about context

First, Canada has never had a food policy. It has always had an agricultural policy, even as a colony, to maximize commodity food production for export. This remains federal policy, now buttressed by the argument that this is agriculture’s essential contribution to Canada’s balance of trade. The implied food policy can be summed up as dependency on imports for much of the country’s food (including fish, absurd as that may be). If an economy is defined as how the family and the community go about organizing their material welfare, such a policy is an expression of utter economic irrationality.

Second, any consideration of organizations and social movements must recognize their geographic and demographic character. Both Canada and the US are characterized by sparse populations scattered over an immense geography, at least as far as agriculture is concerned. Distances are great, east to west, south to north, and in the case of Canada, the population is stretched in a comparatively thin line from coast to coast, meaning that outside of the major cities there are no hubs in which to gather a mass of people. This militates against grassroots organizing on anything more than a local or regional basis simply due to the cost of travel – which is partly where corporate sponsorship comes in.

In the years before the industrialization of agriculture and fishing in the mid-1900s, there were many grassroots efforts to organize farmers and fishers, but these efforts have been hampered, not only by geography, but also by North American individualism, which has always worked against social solidarity. Homesteading on a quarter section of land (160 acres) with no villages nurtured ‘rugged individualism’. (The settlement pattern in Quebec, with houses near to each other along the road and the farmland stretching in strips behind, may be part of the reason for the social and organizational development differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada in this regard.)

Shaping by capital

Even cooperative forms of business organization, initiated for social as well as economic reasons, have almost universally been pushed and pulled into a capitalist business mentality, valuing profit maximization for the co-op as being more important than providing social benefits for their members and society at large. Although some of the largest food businesses in North America, and elsewhere, got their start as cooperatives, only a few remain, incorporated as cooperatives but now with a capitalist mentality. The great Canadian grain cooperatives have all disappeared, gobbled up by the most aggressive capitalist-minded of them, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which was subsequently privatized and merged with Agricore United in 2007 and the resulting company rebranded as Viterra.3

Similarly, fifty years ago there were many small dairy cooperatives, particularly in eastern Canada, which served their farmer members by processing their milk and providing milk and cheese for the community. Gradually these small plants were either bought out (by Kraft, in eastern Canada) and/or consolidated, losing their significant community economic and social role along the way. At the same time, farms were becoming larger, fewer, and more business-minded. Consequently, the pressure to make a profit, rather than to make a living, has worked against farmer solidarity and against farm organizations based on a larger vision than that of simply running a profitable business. As farmers were being indoctrinated by agribusiness and governments to think of themselves as businessmen engaged in the business of farming and commodity producers, their organizations became commodity-based business organizations and lobbies.

Meanwhile, back in the city, in a parallel development, supermarkets were replacing the corner grocery stores, industrially processed food was replacing home canning, and fast food was individualizing the eating experience. The public was reclassified as ‘consumers’: passive, paying receptacles for the products of the industrialized food system which featured ‘producers’ at one end and ‘consumers’ at the other, with little communication or understanding between them.

Breaking away, or trying to

My first book, From Land to Mouth, Understanding the Food System, published in 1989, was an analysis of the structure and logic of the industrial food system. By 1993, when a second edition was called for, I had to add a chapter about the rather sudden rise of many small exceptions to this system.

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw an explosion of organic farming, ecological agriculture, and new forms of farm management and food distribution, all locally oriented. None of this was referred to as a social movement or even a food movement at the time, even though these activities were laying a potentially solid base for a powerful social movement. Most of the people involved were too busy creating what was referred to as ‘alternative agriculture’, including organic, or very local food projects, such as community gardens and cooperative food buying clubs, some of which tried to meet the needs of hungry neighbors. Concurrently, food banks, which were supposed to be short-term stop-gap measures, became functional components of the industrial system while the long-standing tradition of church soup kitchens remained an essential charity in far too many communities.

The ‘radical’ developments on the ground – including a rejection of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and genetically engin­eered seed – did not bring changes to the established superstructure of the agricultural industry. On the contrary, these established organizations and government agencies, and particularly the rapidly consolidating transnational seed, biotech and agrotoxin industries, rightly perceived all these new activities as threats, and responded accordingly. More or less politely, they marginalized upstarts as quaint and harmless, if not ill-informed and backward, all the while proclaiming the ‘progress’ being made with ‘improved seeds’ through genetic engineering.4 It was these same interests that were beguiling the public, including conscientious food activists, with the diversity of the fruits and foods of globalization, which may be one reason they were not paying enough attention to the structures of the dominant industrial food machine and the consolidation and concentration of corporate interests that was putting control of the food system and effective food sovereignty into their hands.

As a consequence, the issue facing the food movement in North America may have less to do with NGOization and the traditional regard for the state as its friend and its role as advisor to the state on policy matters as farmers (in suits and ties) sit at the policy table with department heads than an unwitting accommodation to the needs of capital. This is not surprising, given, for example, the replacement of governmentally employed fieldmen (‘ag reps’) by advisors and consultants (salesmen and women) employed by the agricultural input suppliers. Certainly in Canada, this is being encouraged, if not forced, by the federal government, which is in effect abdicating its role in relation to the public and forcing citizen organizations (and universities) to align with the corporate sector. I have called this process ‘corporatization’ but it is perhaps more accurately described as ‘NGO­­ization by proxy’.