Fire / Feu

Le système d’alimentation des entreprises est contre nature et contre les communautés

Vous êtes ce que vous mangez.  Une étude a démontré que la production et la distribution des aliments en Amérique du Nord sont parmi les trois plus importantes contributions aux effets environnementaux d’un ménage canadien.

Prenons en considération qu’il faut à une entreprise alimentaire entre 10 et 15 calories pour produire une seule calorie d’énergie alimentaire.

Qu'il s'agisse de pommes de terre ou de porcs, l'histoire est la même. 

Les fermiers sont marginalisés et demeurent sous l'empire des grandes entreprises de transformation ou de distribution.

Il est clair que ça ne tourne pas rond quand, durant tout l'hiver, les seules courges disponibles au supermarché local proviennent du Mexique.

Il nous faut une révolution en matière d’achat et de consommation des aliments, une révolution qui rétablirait une relation respectueuse avec la mer et la terre qui nous soutiennent.


Corporate Food System
Runs Counter to Nature and Community

Janice Harvey
Conservation Council of N.B.
June 2003

You are what you eat. With the discovery of mad cow disease in Alberta, this time worn maxim has a new significance, and that's a good thing. With graphic images of feedlots, rendering plants, and vegetarian animals being fed livestock parts fresh in our minds, now is the time to consider the nature of the food that fuels our bodies, and from whence it has come.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US and translated into Canadian terms by the David Suzuki Foundation has determined that the production and distribution of food in North America is one of the top three contributors to the environmental impact of the average Canadian household. The other two top contributors are housing and household operation (utilities, water and sewage, furnishings and appliances, cleaning products and services, paints, etc.) and transportation.

The food we eat contributes 11 percent of the total household output of greenhouse gases which cause global warming; 21 percent of common and 13 percent of toxic air pollution; 47 percent of common and 26 percent of toxic water pollution; and 78 percent of aquatic and 54 percent of terrestrial habitat alteration.

Most of the world's fresh water and land is used in agriculture. Our North American diets are particularly water intensive. It takes 5,020 litres of water per person per day to produce what we eat. Compare this to 2,810 litres per person per day in Latin America, 2,530 litres in China, and 1,760 litres in Africa. Much of this difference is accounted for in the quantities of meat (production and processing of meat takes a lot of water) and irrigated crops we eat. Meat production and processing contributes four times more water pollution than fruits, veggies and grains. Pesticide contaminants to water are roughly the same in both categories.

Livestock production in Canada over the past five years has increased, in some cases dramatically (cattle 4.4%, pigs 26,4%, chickens 23.4% and sheep 46%), and the per capita demand for meat worldwide is growing. This has led to the development of giant feedlots or mega-barns where animal husbandry is replaced by mechanized production. Unlike the traditional mixed farms where livestock raised was well-matched with crops that could use the manure, these feedlots generate huge amounts of liquid manure that must be stored and disposed of. Most often, the volumes of manure overwhelm the ability of local cropland to absorb it all safely. Gigantic liquid manure lagoons can leak or rupture, contaminating groundwater, streams, rivers and estuaries with nitrates, phosphates, antibiotics and other drugs, and disease vectors like bacteria and viruses. Factory farms are also a source of toxic air pollution and noxious odours.

Aquaculture has developed along the same trajectory. Over 20 years, small family fish farms including those in the Bay of Fundy have become huge industrial-scale feedlots with control or ownership increasingly concentrated in a few large hands. Chemical inputs - drugs, pesticides, feed contaminants, anti-foulants, dyes - and fish excrement have become a huge source of pollution to coastal waters where aquaculture is practised. Now even shellfish aquaculture is growing so large that there are localized impacts on the seafloor.

Industrial scale growing of monoculture crops also has a huge environmental impact. Overworked soils cause irreplaceable topsoil to erode and soil health to decline. Chemical fertilizers used to compensate for degraded soil pollute groundwater and surface water. Toxic pesticides used to control insects and kill weeds inject poisons into the air, water and food we eat. This chemical-dependent crop production has become dominant over the past thirty years.

Metz Farms

(image: pigs.poop.politics)

As small farms have disappeared, food is grown further away from consumers, creating vast distances over which food is transported. Unless you are an exception, the elements of the supper you will serve tonight will have travelled 2,400 kms to get from the field to your table; from six to 12% of your food dollar pays for transportation. As much as 75% of the food we eat is now processed in some way.

All of this adds up to an extremely energy intensive food system. In the US, studies show the food system accounts for almost 16% of total energy consumption. Since most of this is fossil fuel based (chemical pesticides and fertilizers, machinery and transportation), the food system is a major producer of greenhouse gases, which cause climate change. Tackling climate change will eventually require a dramatic reorientation of agriculture to reduce fossil fuel dependency at all levels of production.

Besides these environmental problems, chemical sensitivities, allergies, compromised immune systems, obesity, heart disease and cancer are among the many ailments with possible dietary connections. Then there are the thousands of e-coli infections caused each year by eating or handling contaminated meat from huge packing plants where speed, not care to prevent cross-contamination, counts for everything.

Such problems are endemic to today's industrialized food system - capital and energy intensive, mechanized, geographically concentrated, large scale production of single species of either crop or animal. The production sites are further-than-the-eye-can-see fields of monoculture crops, and feedlots, barns or ocean cages containing tens and hundreds of thousands of head of livestock or fish. Depending on the product, whether crop, meat or fish (industrial aquaculture), production and distribution are supported by chemical inputs: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, parasiticides, synthetic fertilizers, antifoulants, vaccines, antibiotics, preservatives and dyes among others.

(image: pigs.poop.politics)

This industrial food system is driven by transnational corporate processors (e.g. Maple Leaf, Cargill, McCain, or in aquaculture, Nutreco) that are vertically integrated through the entire food system. Large food processors either own or contract directly with production units (farms). They also supply seed, chemicals and feed, and sometimes own supermarket chains. They dictate production conditions such as irrigation, animal confinement, seed (increasingly genetically engineered), species or breed, chemical and pharmaceutical treatments, among others.

In an unending quest for market domination, corporate processors put the squeeze on local processors by keeping prices low and then moving in. In the Maritimes, for example, soon after Hub meat packers in Moncton shut down and slaughterhouse operations moved to Larsen in Nova Scotia, Larsen was bought by the Canadian giant Maple Leaf. In order to keep food prices low, unions are busted (witness the shake-down of the meat-packing industry in the west by Maple Leaf after Wallace McCain took the helm), the price paid to the producer is near, at, and even below the cost of production, and expensive, powerful lobbies are mounted to keep environmental and health standards at bay.

This system, backed up by government policy and subsidies, has put a lethal squeeze on small-scale producers across North America. Many a farmer - potato, hog, beef - has been driven out of business by having to sell to a processor for less than the cost of production too many years in a row. From nearly 50,000 farmers in the early 1950s in New Brunswick, we are now down to a couple thousand or so.

With NAFTA, that trend is moving into Mexico. Peasants who can't compete with the mega-farms of southwestern US (most of which are dependent on irrigation) are being forced off their land. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), now being negotiated with Central and South American countries, will push the trend even further south and is being vehemently opposed by small-scale producers there who see the end of local agriculture and food self-sufficiency as the price to be paid for so-called free trade.

As food has become corporate and globalized, it has also become cheap to buy. How is it possible that strawberries from California are sold cheaper in the supermarkets than local strawberries can be at the farm market? The fact is, we are paying a very dear price through environmental degradation, health problems, loss of jobs and communities, and a decrease in food self-sufficiency.

Here is the essence of the food problem: calories. In exchange for cheap food, we have turned food - the stuff of life - into a commodity that takes far more from the earth and from society than it puts back. Consider this. It takes 10 - 15 calories (units of energy) to produce one calorie of food energy by industrial agriculture. This calculation considers chemical and feed inputs, water use, processing, and transportation. How sustainable is that? If all are to be fed, the industrialized food system must be transformed to make a lighter footprint on the finite earth. We are what we eat, after all.

Such transformation will only come at the hands of consumers, where the only leverage for change remains. We need a revolution in buying and eating food, one which brings us back to a respectful relationship with the earth and sea that sustain us. The rise in popularity of organic food is one indicator that change is possible, but it isn't enough. Transnationals trade in organic food, too. Buying locally, as well as organic, and engaging in food politics to support local production and build local markets, are also key. The seeds are planted for a sustainable food system. It's up to us to nurture them to maturity.