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What's happened to the quality of our food?
Why is there so much food for some while more than a billion people in the world today don't have enough to eat? The Story of Food will get you thinking about our broken food system and what's gone wrong!
Each one of us can help rebuild a healthier food system and regain our lost connection with real food and the people who grow it. We can do this with the food choices we make every day. Watch the video and then dig deeper using the buttons below. We also invite you to join with USC Canada in finding solutions, by supporting our work with farming communities around the world.
Farmers feed the world...but we have lost sight of how important they are.
For 10,000 years, farmers have selected, saved, planted, and conserved seeds. In this way, through thousands of growing seasons, they have expanded and safeguarded the world's agricultural diversity. Over time they have acquired a remarkably deep resource of knowledge about their seeds, soils, and local ecosystems. This exceptionally important knowledge is in peril.
In recent decades, there's been major shift toward large-scale agriculture and mass food production for international markets. It has profoundly changed farming and the food we eat. In the process, the farmer's role in the world's food system has diminished.
We All Rely on Farmers
With this diminishing role, we're also losing nature's greatest resource for ensuring a reliable and healthy food supply: agricultural biodiversity. Biodiversity is held in the rich variety of farmers' seeds – all over the world – that have been treasured and passed on through generations. Small farmers are still doing their part to maintain diversity – since 1960, they have bred more than 25 times as many plant varieties as industrial plant breeders* – but they need support from the rest of us; the people who rely on them!
Peasant farmers still feed nearly three quarters of the world's families today, often from some of the most challenging landscapes on the planet. And they do it using one quarter of the energy that industrial producers use to yield the same amount of food*.
Small farmers around the world today face serious challenges – climate change, water scarcity – and they need our support to continue developing crucial plant diversity, maintaining the health of local ecosystems, and feeding us all!
(*) Information and chart taken from Who Will Feed Us, published by ETC Group in November 2009
Seeds hold a power that farmers have observed and nurtured for eons.
A handful of seeds, like a group of people, holds all kinds of unique genetic combinations. A single seed holds a jaw-dropping, profound wealth of adaptable genetic traits. Farmers have an intimate knowledge of this diversity – the key to the resilience and health of the world's food systems.
Our Seed Heritage
For thousands of years, farmers have observed their crops, carefully selecting and saving a wide variety of the best seeds from each harvest to plant the following season. They have shared and exchanged seeds freely with fellow farmers.
Every year, farmers planted different varieties of the same crop in separate parts of their fields – here a variety that could withstand drought or frost, there, one that was resistant to pests. Varieties that might grow better in lowland soils versus ones that thrived on rocky slopes. If any single variety failed, there was always a back-up. It's how farmers have made use of nature's brilliant insurance policy: biodiversity.
In this way, over thousands of years, they built an increasing selection of seeds – so-called farmer varieties – that have continued to adapt to changing local conditions with each planting. Today, 1.4 billion people still depend on the seeds farmers save to provide food for their families.
Large-scale industrial farming has pushed a different type of seed supply system – one that requires farmers to buy new, introduced (non-native) seeds each year; seeds that require chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow well. This approach was touted as the solution to feeding large populations.
But healthy food systems require diversity to meet a host of needs and challenges – from nutrition to local taste preferences to the ravages of drought, frost, and pests – and introduced seed has tended to focus solely on crops that deliver yield. The results:
- Genetic diversity plummeting among world seed stocks.
- Farmer seed varieties disappearing at an alarming rate.
- Soils becoming seriously degraded by use of chemicals.
- Valuable farmer knowledge of local seeds and ecologies slipping away!
The Good News
Farmers the world over are seeing the advantages of a system that works with nature instead of against it. By working with local seeds, adapted to local ecologies and needs, farmers are using the power of biodiversity to spread risk and to also nurture soils back to health.
For more than 20 years, USC Canada's award-winning Seeds of Survival program has fostered ecological approach to agriculture, supporting household and community seed banking, farmer-led research, and the conservation and use of traditional seed varieties.
Hungry for more?
Back Down to Earth!
The Big Picture
In many countries of the global South, the best agricultural land is used to grow crops destined for export markets. These are often luxuries or inedible crops like cotton, tobacco, coffee, sugar, cacao for chocolate, or hops for beer.
Local communities often have little choice but to grow their own food on marginal lands and, despite their skill and knowledge, don't always have enough to eat. Farm workers who grow export crops find their income dependent on prices that shift drastically based on economic changes half a world away.
Around the world, farmers and their communities are questioning a global system of industrialized farming. They're working to establish food sovereignty*.
The Local Picture
When a community has Food Sovereignty, the farmers and other residents control what and how food is produced and consumed. Choices remain in community hands, serving the interests of that community. It's the foundation of a healthy local food economy, leading to stable livelihoods for food producers, processors, and distributors.
Success in Honduras
- "Food security is the government making sure there is enough in the stores whether people can afford to buy it or not. Food Sovereignty is people with the ability to grow their own food and feed themselves."
- Luisa Gomez, Honduran farmer.
In Honduran highlands, peasant farmers work steep hillside slopes, far from the fertile coastal plains where commercial plantations produce banana and pineapple for export. Every June, these farmers experience "hunger weeks," when food reserves run out before crops are ready to harvest.
USC Canada is supporting innovative, farmer-led research teams here as they restore heritage seed varieties and improve yields. While respecting local ecosystems, farmers have produced larger harvests, varied crops and nutritious diets. And "hunger weeks" have dropped to just a few days.
*Food Sovereignty is a term coined by La Via Campesina, representing more than 100 million peasants, farmers and farm labourers around the planet.
The industrial model of agriculture requires farmers to buy, every season, seeds – which they cannot save, exchange, or replant – as well as related products like fertilizers and pesticides. Many even need to sign contracts.
To pay for these purchases, farmers take out loans. But if harvests don't deliver enough to cover costs, or don't sell at a high enough price, that loan becomes debt; a debt that continues to grow as farmers borrow again the following season.
There are many factors that can deepen the cycle of debt. It happens:
- When our increasingly unpredictable climate doesn't co-operate.
- When purchased seeds – which are adapted to grow well only in favourable environments – fail to produce promised yields because farmers only have access to marginal lands.
- When crops depend on expensive herbicides and pesticides to survive.
- When soils become hooked on pricey petroleum-based fertilizers that kill soil nutrients.
- When international markets and trade agreements slash the value of what farmers worked so hard to produce.
- These risks are more extreme in the global South, but farmers all over the world are facing problems from being dependent on this model that limits choice and independence.
And the Alternative is?
What if we were to take the enormous funds now invested in the current industrial agricultural model and pour them into more sustainable, diverse, flexible, local, farmer-driven systems and research that respects their know-how?
That idea – the approach that USC Canada has been promoting for more than 20 years – is steadily gaining support among some very big players. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently argued that organic production could feed the world's growing population. And the widely ignored International Agricultural Assessment of Scientific Knowledge and Technology for Development – funded by the UN and The World Bank – reports that the world can no longer sustain "business as usual." It calls for an investment in more ecologically safe, locally-driven, and farmer-led agricultural food production systems to feed the world.
Hungry for more?
- How do farmers sell directly to customers? One system is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Check out these resources for a CSA near you, and support local family farms.
- Fair Trade seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal.
Buy organic when you can
When you buy organic food, you're supporting a farmer who uses natural methods to control pests and increase soil fertility. Organic food contains no residual pesticides or chemicals from fertilizers. Organic food tastes better. Compare a conventionally farmed carrot and an organic carrot. Wow, what a difference!
Buy local when you can
When you buy food that has been grown locally, you're supporting local farmers and creating demand for what they grow. You're buying food that hasn't traveled very far (reducing pollution from transport) and eating food that's in season.
Buy fair trade when you can
When you buy fairly traded food, you're supporting a producer who farms sustainably, maintains fair labour practices, and received a fair price for the product.
Here are a few other things you can do:
- Read the labels – know what's in your food
- Learn to cook from scratch – It's not as difficult or time consuming as you might imagine, and the results are waaaay healthier than over-processed foods.
- Share this video and this website.
- Organize a film night - we have some great films available through USC Canada, just contact us for details.
- Support small-scale farmers around the world – Donate to USC Canada.
Hungry for more? Check out these resources: