Deconstructing Dinner: Thought for Food (transcript)

MediaDeconstructing Dinner: Thought for Food

Transcribed by Barry Silver

From the studios of Kootenay Co-op Radio, this is Deconstructing Dinner.

When we think about food, we think about it in a fairly narrow way. If we take apart and analyze our food, we might then start to recognize the value of food in our lives.

JS: You're listening to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated, weekly, one-hour radio program that takes a more in-depth look at how the food choices we make impact ourselves, our communities, and the planet. My name's Jon Steinman.

As we continue on with this 2007 season, I should remind listeners that Deconstructing Dinner is also available as a downloadable podcast. So, for anyone with a portable music device, you can visit our Web site and learn how to become a subscriber - and that Web site is

Today's broadcast is rather different from previous ones, given the topics discussed today will be somewhat of a potluck of topics that relate to our food. And the idea for this broadcast came from a recent issue of Alternatives Journal, titled "Thought for Food". Published at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo in Southwestern Ontario, the magazine provides environmental ideas and solutions to readers in Canada, and around the globe. Their "Thought for Food" edition was released to, as they say, connect a new generation of food activists to a classic member of Canada's food heritage. It honors the People's Food Commission that, in the late 1970s, traveled across the country to hear the views of fellow citizens, and then assembled the trend-setting report, "The Land of Milk and Money". And so, on today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, we will explore the pages of this issue and hear from three of the "Thought for Food" authors, along with a subject-specific guest. And lending their voice to the program will be Darrin Qualman, the director of research for the Saskatoon-based National Farmer's Union, Rachelle Sauvé, who is freegan and a dumpster diver, living in Peterborough, Ontario. What is a freegan and a dumpster diver? Well, stay tuned to find out. And we'll also hear from Marc Xuereb, with the region of Waterloo public health authority, and Peter Andreé, who is with the Department of Political Science at Ottawa's Carleton University.

My first guest on today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner represents the National Farmer's Union, an organization whose voice is heard often on this program. The NFU works toward the development of economic and social policies that will maintain the family farmers, the primary food-producing unit in Canada. The current director of research for the NFU is Darrin Qualman. And Darrin was the author of one of the articles within the "Thought for Food" issue of Alternatives Journal, and his contribution was titled, "The Cupboard is Bare". Darrin's article explored the current state of global supplies of grain, which I have to say is so absolutely startling that it's just about convinced me that Canada needs to have a weekly radio program that just explores grain issues here in this country. And Darrin also explored the current state of grain prices here in Canada and the farm income crisis that these prices fuel. The focus of Darrin's article was on the current state of both wheat and corn supply throughout the world. But, as he indicated to me, the situation for grains in general is much the same. And, in grains, he's referring to, not just wheat and corn, but rice, barley, oats - to name a few - all of which are staples of the global diet. I spoke with Darrin over the phone from the NFU office in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And, as he explains it, the planet is currently in the fastest food supply draw down in 50 to 100 years.

DQ: Yeah, we're in the fastest food supply draw down recorded in the data, and probably the fastest food supply draw down in the last 50 to 100 years. We're projected, in this year, to get down to levels that we haven't seen in a generation, not since 1973. And, it's not just that the levels have somehow gotten back down to 1973 levels, it's that we're in this very steep and consistent draw down. We're in - six of the last seven years, globally, we've consumed more grain than we've produced. Seven years ago, we had approximately 116 days of supply of grain on hand in the world. We've cut that in half in the last seven years, consistently drawing it downward. We're now at 57 days supply.

JS: Darrin refers to the historic 1973 levels when grain supplies were at similarly low levels as they are today. But, as he indicates, the environmental, political, and social climate of today, is much different than in 1973.

DQ: In 1973, farmers weren't trying to maximize production; they were using relatively little fertilizer by comparison, relatively little herbicide; they didn't have high-tech, genetically modified seeds. In fact, the government, in the early '70s, was paying farmers to take land out of production, in Canada and around the world. And we sort of just happened on to these low supply levels in '73. There was no clear downward trend - the data shows world supply going up and down. In contrast, in 2006/2007, we're pushing as hard as we can, trying to maximize production, and yet we find ourselves back at those record low levels. Another thing about '73 versus now - even though the supply levels are about the same - everything has changed. In 1973, the oceans were full of fish; now, most of the fish stocks are over-fished and in decline. In '73, we'd yet to really encounter the kind of water and energy supply limits that we're pushing against now. We didn't have the uncertainty of climate change, in the way that affects the prospects for future food production. Large portion of the land in North America was left fallow every second year in '73. So, you can literally increase acreage tremendously across Western Canada and much of North America. That acreage is all fully utilized right now, and the UN statistics show that the global land base isn't increasing anymore. So, it's a really different situation we find ourselves in, with very little prospect of increased capacity to produce food.

JS: Back in May of 2006, the NFU's board president, Stuart Wells, compiled a letter on behalf of the union that was addressed to, both, the, then, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and the Food and Agricultural Organization's Director-General, Dr Jacques Diouf. Darrin Qualman describes this letter.

DQ: We listened to the discussion in Canada, and we heard, over and over again, that the reason that the prices for farm food products were so low was oversupply. We heard, over and over again, oversupply. We heard that American and European subsidies lead to overproduction and oversupply. We heard of massive public investment into ethanol and biodiesel - burning our food supply in sport utility vehicles as a way of dealing with this oversupply. Yet, when we looked at the data, we saw precisely the opposite. We saw an unprecedented steep and sustained decline in world food supplies, and a consistent failure to produce as much as the world was consuming. Partly as a way of shifting the debate, and raising the alarm, and pointing out that the falsehood of the common sense discussion out there, we wrote a letter to the UN stating that something significant and potentially very challenging was happening, and tried to find out if they had a good view of that, if they're watching that, and whether they had some plans to deal with it.

JS: I did ask Darrin whether a response from the UN has been received, and, as he indicated, the response was - and I quote - long and confusing. But, what is perhaps most startling is that this news - this critical information - has not reached the mainstream media. While, on the other hand, this is somewhat understandable given this information has not yet been adopted by the Canadian government. And Darrin explains why this is.

DQ: Well, the government needs easy and unprovocative ways to explain low grain prices and the ongoing farm income crisis. So, because they believe that markets work, and that supply and demand works, and that low prices equal oversupply, they've made the step from low prices - which are clearly here - they've then, sort of, used their economics 101 to tell them, well, there must be oversupply, but they've just never bothered to actually look at the data. It's just complete blind faith, and economics tells them that low prices go with oversupply - that's, if you have low prices, you must have oversupply.

JS: As Darrin indicates, that in the case of grains, low prices do not indicate oversupply. The next question is, of course, well, where then is all the money going?

DQ: When we talk about the fact that there is an oversupply, and that argument around oversupply leading to low prices is untrue, we're immediately challenged and asked, well, what does cause the low price? And what we point out is that farmers are increasingly embedded in an agri-food chain, a chain of corporate links that stretches from oil and natural gas wells on one end, right through the whole production cycle, to drive-through restaurants at the other. And, we point out that every link in that chain is increasingly dominated by a tiny number of transnationals, and every link in that chain is recording record profits, even at a time when the family farmers are recording record losses. So, partly market power concentration and control determines where the profits are going to land along that chain, and because farmers are not as big and concentrated as the agri-food transnationals, we're being starved for profit, and that's reflected in low prices.

JS: You're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner as we listen to clips from my interview with Darrin Qualman of the National Farmer's Union, based in Saskatoon. As we spoke on the topic of grain, our conversation would have not been complete without a mention about the current state of the democratically elected Canadian Wheat Board, which as of the date of this broadcast, January 18, 2007, is being dismantled by Canada's conservative government.

DQ: Well, the world grain market, overall, globally, is highly distorted by concentration, and by huge transnational traders, like Cargill. The Canadian Wheat Board gives farmers some power in that market, and it returns all the profits from Canadian wheat and barley sales back to Canadian farmers. Right now, corporate interests - and some very ideological people inside and outside of government - are trying to take away the Canadian Wheat Board. And, somehow, this is being seen as giving farmers freedom. But, really, the only choices we have here are between Canadian Wheat Board controlled by farmers, where the profits come back to farmers, or an American-style system dominated by Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and others, where those companies make their money by buying from farmers as cheaply as they can. So, it really would be a reduction in farmer's control over the system, and a reduction in the prices and profits we make.

JS: You can stay up-to-date as to what is happening with the Wheat Board by visiting their Web site at Stepping away from the global supplies of grain, Darrin's article, in "The Thought for Food" issue of Alternatives Journal, also touched on how the current state of grain prices - adjusted for inflation - are at the lowest they have been since 1931. This, of course, sheds light on why it is Canadian farmers currently face an income crisis. But, while the solution to this income crisis may appear to be one where grain prices simply need to be increased, Darrin indicates that this is only one change that needs to take place.

DQ: There's a distinction made between necessary and sufficient solutions. It's necessary that grain prices go up, just to give some room in the system to make some changes, but that alone isn't sufficient. As I said earlier, the real cause of the farm income crisis is that, increasingly, every link in the agri-food chain, from energy to restaurants, is dominated by a tiny handful of very powerful transnationals, and market power determines where the allocation of profit within the chain. And, as long as we have those highly concentrated transnational controlled links, they're going to scoop up the lion's share of the profits in the system, whether we have $4 wheat or $8 wheat. There's a great graph that we've reprinted, over and over, that we took from an annual report of one of North America's largest fertilizer companies, and in that graph and report, they brag that when the price of grain goes up, they just increase the price of their fertilizer to take that money away from farmers.

JS: These examples of how large agri-businesses make efforts to extract wealth out of the food chain was perhaps best illustrated following the mad cow crisis here in Canada. Logic will tell you that such a crisis would set the industry back, but for the large meat packing industry and feedlot operators, profits for these companies actually went up. And Darrin explains.

DQ: Just as in the BSE crisis, the big packers - and the packer controlled feedlots - passed all the financial pain back to the family farmers. In the BSE crisis, actually, we saw profits go up amongst packers, at a time when profits completely collapsed among family farm cow producers. You'll see the same thing in a grain price spike. It'll be very, very hard for family farm cow producers to pass those increased costs back up the chain because there're thousands of them in any given area, millions of them around the world, and a tiny, tiny number of packers controlling the system.

JS: Also important to add to this example, is that roughly 80% of the beef slaughter industry in Canada - that is meat packing and feedlots - is controlled by two companies, both of whom are American - and one of these companies, Cargill, will be the subject of an upcoming broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, so stay tuned for that. In exploring ways through which power can be taken out of the hands of the transnational grain companies, it would appear that one of the barriers to do so are trade agreements, such as NAFTA - and Darrin Qualman comments on whether these agreements do pose a barrier. But, as is one of Darrin's suggestions, Canadian consumers can simply bypass the system.

DQ: Well, it's possible and it's necessary. These trade agreements constrain our ability to deal with a wide range of things on the environment - on whether it be softwood, or gasoline additives, or food. So, yeah, we can make a lot of progress, and the trade agreements will be an impediment, but it's certainly not impossible, if we have the will. There's a lot that consumers can do, as well. If corporate control of the food system is the problem, then part of the solution is re-establishing local food systems: buying local food, organic food, buying direct from farmers, bypassing the Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Western food systems, and trying to get a food system where the vast majority of the profits and dollars aren't taken out of the farmers' pocket and out of the community.

JS: As I neared the end of my conversation with Darrin Qualman of the NFU, he commented on the solutions that exist in the world to help turn the tide back on the shocking decrease in global supplies of grain.

DQ: It's not - it's certainly not as simple as just doing more of what we've been doing using more fertilizer, using more high-tech seeds. The solution really lies in strengthening the food production systems around the world. There's a real diversity of food production systems around the world. We have to respect that diversity; we have to foster it. One of the ironies is, here, is that as we've tried to maximize food production in North America through industrial high-energy use, high input means, we've actually damaged the ability of food producers around the world to produce for their local people, their families, their local markets. So, it's a bit counterintuitive, in a way, but one of the things we need to do is stop pumping so much food into the global system because that just damages these local food systems. We need to find a way to provide food where it's really needed and wanted, but also to, sort of, restrain that push for free trade in food, and glutting those markets, so that local food production systems can be strengthened, and their productive capacity can be maximized.

JS: A brief browse through North American media, on whether the current global grain supply has been featured, returned virtually no results. But, on the other hand, the topic of grain is covered frequently throughout the media, and that is with respect to the global push to introduce biofuels on a massive scale. Both the Canadian and American governments are exploring this energy alternative, and major subsidies are being granted to research such technologies. While the term "biofuel" comprises of many different technologies, the major push right now is for the conversion of crops, such as sugar cane, corn, soy, and wheat, into fuel. In light of this news that the global supply of grain is at such low levels, the push to turn food into energy seems rather frightening. And, as Darrin Qualman indicates, it's not just turning food into energy, but turning energy into food, and back into energy.

DQ: Biofuels are probably one of the greatest public policy mistakes in a generation. It's almost impossible to believe that we can solve the hunger problem that we currently have, and feed another two to three billion people, and fuel the sport utility vehicle culture all at the same time, all on a fixed land base - that's just silly. We're not going to do that. Another thing, at the heart of this ethanol-biodiesel project are all of these North American grains that are produced largely from fossil fuels. If you look at a nitrogen fertilizer factory, you've got a big natural gas pipeline going in one side, and a big fertilizer pipeline coming out the other. We literally produce that nitrogen from natural gas. Now, if our food supply is that dependent on fossil fuels, what we're really doing when we're producing biofuels is we're turning energy into food into energy. We're turning things like natural gas into fertilizer into food, and then turning around and turning that food back into energy. It's sort of a perpetual motion machine, and one of our members said that the biofuels project is a way where we take part of our energy-augmented food supply and try and make a food-augmented energy supply.

JS: And that was Darrin Qualman, the director of research for the National Farmer's Union based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And you can find out more about the organization by visiting their Web site at Darrin did recently author an excellent commentary on this subject of biofuels and grain supplies, and that article will be available on the Deconstructing Dinner Web site, and listed under the January 18 broadcast. And that Web site is


JS: You're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly, one-hour, radio program and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op radio in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. On today's broadcast, we are exploring a potluck of topics, all of which were featured in the recent issue of Alternatives Journal, titled "Thought for Food". And you can visit their Web site at, where a copy of the issue can also be ordered. Yet another article within the pages of the "Thought for Food" issue was one titled "Dumpster Dining", written by Australia's Ferne Edwards. But instead of interviewing the author on the subject of this article, I, instead, spoke with someone who represents the subject matter herself, and that is Rachelle Sauvé, who lives in Peterborough, Ontario, and who refers to herself as a Freegan. Rachelle is part of the global grass roots networks known as "Food not Bombs", and sources much of the food that she, herself, consumes from dumpsters. While her reasons for doing so are numerous, perhaps the most important reason is that she does so in response to a food system that is structured on producing a surplus at all levels of the food chain. This is, of course, the food system that most of us rely upon - and most of us, perhaps unknowingly, support this system of surplus everyday. And to introduce this segment, Rachelle describes what freeganism is all about.

RS: Well, freegans are people who do things a little bit differently, who employ alternative strategies and ways of living based on participating as little as possible in the conventional economy, and consuming as little possible resources as necessary. So, freegans tend to accommodate the necessities of their lives - shelter, clothing, food, transportation - by engaging, not necessarily in the capitalist market where they exchange money for these things, but by reclaiming these resources from a waste society, or, in the case of, for instance, transportation and hitchhiking, using something that isn't really being used to its fullest capacity, and making better use of the resources in that regard.

JS: A term that Rachelle used that caught my attention was her reference to our society being that of a waste society. And Rachelle further explains.

RS: In North America, many argue that we over consume, and that the individual consumer is quite fiercely marketed to, to replace everything that they have in their house every five seconds, to buy the latest product, to get a whole new wardrobe every couple months. And so we live in a particular part of the world where hunger, for instance, homelessness, et cetera, do, in fact, exist in tandem with dumpsters that are filled with food, with buildings that are left unoccupied and unused by government and by landlords, and a lot of resources that people could need for their basic well-being - or for art supplies, et cetera - can be found in the garbage and reclaimed from that pile of stuff that people have decided isn't worth it anymore.

JS: As Rachelle listed, many reasons why the principles of freeganism make so much sense. One of which was her reference to dumpsters filled with food, and, here, introduces the practice of sourcing one's sustenance through dumpster diving.

RS: Dumpster diving is a particular practice that a lot of people in a waste society engage in, where they go into the garbage bins, the dumpsters, retail stores, schools, et cetera, and they basically fish through what's in the dumpster, and find what they can that might be useful, ranging from food, to clothing, to computer parts - whatever it is that they're needing to access. A lot of people rely quite heavily on food from the dumpsters, either for philosophical/political reasons, or because of poverty, and find quite an elaborate diet there within. A lot of people, as well, find a lot of freedom in terms of their wanting to balance a world that produces things in very exploitative, corrupt ways with wanting to minimalize the impact that their own path has to take. So, dumpster diving is a way for freegans to get the food that they need to survive without further endorsing or enabling the production and consumption patterns within the industrial food system.

JS: As those of us entering into grocery stores rarely, if ever, see the food that gets tossed out into dumpsters. In a sense, we do, as there is, of course, those moments of scanning the rows of apples or peaches, and picking out the best ones. In the end, how many of us ever pick up the ones with blemishes or bruises? And Rachelle speaks to how much food is often wasted within our food system.

RS: Most of what I found that speaks of Canada seems to indicate that somewhere between 25% and 80% of all the food that we consume in North America ends up in the landfill sites. And, so, if we're going to be kind, and lean towards the lower number, 25% of all the food created gets dumped in landfill sites, which is quite an enormous number even if we're being on the lower end. Within that, I have found nothing but, what I call, pregnant dumpsters, filled with absolutely edible - in most cases, very nutritious, very viable - food, and other goods, that have helped me, for one, actually have a healthier lifestyle in terms of my eating habits than I was ever able to when I was a waged worker, for one, unable constantly to provide the fresh produce and those things that really actually give you the energy to go through the day. It helped me release myself from a starvation diet. So, what's to be found in the garbage can, can also - as well as filling the bellies in a basic way - help increase people's ability to eat healthfully and to, sort of, switch the tide of malnutrition and illness into a healthier lifestyle.

JS: There is a prevalence of dumpsters now being used by grocery stores - such as incinerators and liquefiers - that prohibit the reclamation of food. But Rachelle doesn't see this as such a deterrent, as these otherwise wasted foods are able to make their way to those who need them - and it depends on the management of the stores, themselves.

RS: Well, I think the amount of food that is good, safe, edible food that goes into the garbage is a source of incredible shame for large-scale, industrial food corporations, from your local grocery store on. And, as much as possible, they try to hide the fact that it exists, and deny the fact that it's happening altogether. As part of the work that I do with "Food not Bombs", part of my job is going to every grocery store in town, and talking with the produce manager, et cetera, and trying to find out what's happening with their waste. Large-scale grocery stores will often flat-out deny that they create any waste, and then when you start pushing them a little bit more about - well, OK, what happens with your meat, what happens with this, that, the other thing, they'll tell you about incinerators, compactors, et cetera. There is an incredible, beautiful thing that I've noticed when trying to reclaim food, which is that it's the small local businesses, the tiny people who really don't have a great profit margin, who tend to be far more giving of what they have. And the larger scale corporations that stand behind a thousand defenses to say that they can't for insurance and other reasons. Canada does have quite extensive - for lack of a better term - sort of good Samaritan laws that allow people - in Ontario, at least - it's called "The Donation of Food Act", which allows corporations or individuals to donate food freely without any risk of being sued. So, it's quite a lie that corporations give that they can't give over their food to a community, and most of them go through quite extensive efforts to, for one, get rid of the food, and, for two, to make sure that there's a PR person in place to answer any questions, so that word doesn't get out about quite what's been wasted.

JS: While, on the surface, dumpster divers may appear to be undertaking such a practice out of issues of affordability, searching for food in dumpsters is not always an issue of affordability, but a matter of principle. And Rachelle explains:

RS: I think that people are - dumpster divers are freegan for as many different reasons as possible in the world, and poverty is one of the main reasons why people do go rifling through the garbage to find the resources that the economy and its situation do not necessarily provide them with. Beyond that, though, I think there is a growing movement worldwide of people who are quite concerned with the amount of waste that we create - people like me who kind of grew up with the state programming around "Re-use; Recycle", who kind of wonder what happened to the first two steps, who are more and more concerned with the amount of stuff that's going wasted, and the degree to which we, as consumers, enable a pretty nasty capitalist society to continue to profit when we continue to buy things. So, I think a lot of people, even if they do have the economic resources to, perhaps, buy some of the things that we're talking about, choose instead to say, no, to the line of mass waste, and go in, intervene, reclaim the things that they need, and share those with the community of people among themselves, some of whom don't have access to other resources, and some of whom are like-minded and choose to intercept that, sort of, cycle of waste, and be a stand against it.

For myself, I think it's a little bit of everything: poverty is what first introduced me to the necessity of needing to go and look for the things that I couldn't necessarily provide through money, and learning really - of course, I had to barter with my skills for the things that I needed, and find the resources that I didn't have. But, along that path, it's also become extraordinarily clear to me that it is an atrocity that people are homeless, that people are hungry, that people don't have the resources that they need while there's this waste consumer society. So, I encourage people, left, right, and center - no matter who they are - to, at least, go take a look in those garbage cans, see what's there, and do a little bit of analysis, whether or not you have to be in the dumpster. It's a good thing to check out why somebody might choose to be.

JS: And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, as we listen to clips from my conversation with Rachelle Sauvé, a freegan, from Peterborough, Ontario. And a reminder that more information on today's broadcast can be found on our Web site at, where this broadcast will also be archived. Rachelle Sauvé's actions, through which she reclaims and distributes food, is part of a global movement known as "Food not Bombs", a movement first formed in Massachusetts, in 1980. Rachelle spoke to me about her involvement with "Food not Bombs" and how, in November of 2005, she, along with a group of residents, occupied the lobby of Peterborough's City Hall.

RS: "Food not Bombs" is a global grassroots movement to reclaim communities, sovereignty, and food security from the jaws of poverty and war. We collect surplus food that would otherwise go to waste from farmers, gardeners, grocers, et cetera. We prepare amazing vegetarian dishes and feasts together in community kitchens. And then we serve up the meals for free to anyone who's hungry in public spaces. The name, "Food not Bombs" states our most fundamental principles: we need things that give life and healing and not things that give death and suffering. "Food not Bombs" maintains that our society is dominated by violence, and the threat of violence, that the authority and power of government are predicated on the threats and use of violence, and that poverty itself is violence. And food is used as a weapon against the world's hungry. So, "Food not Bombs" is a very global movement. It's not an organization - it's set on the same key principles that everybody, sort of, adheres to, and then in each locale, whoever decides to start up a branch, kind of, accommodates these general principles to what's happening in a particular community's life, and tries to figure out how to make that work. In the case of "Food not Bombs", Peterborough, we've been serving for well over a year, as of November, 2005. And our first, sort of, official act was to, one Monday night, occupy the front lobby of the City Hall building in Peterborough while the city council meetings were happening, and set up and serve a big meal, and declare to them, essentially, that that was our plan, that we were going to reclaim that space - that community space - and serve meals there every Monday night. So, "Food not Bombs" in Peterborough does our Monday night full vegetarian feast, and then on Saturdays we also kick it around the park for about half an hour, and then go around the streets with a little soup card that we made to bring things to whoever's out on the streets and needs a little bit of food in their belly.

JS: As I wrapped up my conversation with Rachelle Sauvé, I enquired into the sustainability of such a practice of dumpster diving, as the practice itself can only exist alongside a food system that relies on surpluses to stay profitable. Dumpster Diving is then, essentially, being part of the very system that is opposed. And would it not, therefore, be more important to try and support and/or create food systems that support one's principles and values. And Rachelle responded to this question.

RS: Well, I think that poverty and food security issues have always existed, are not going away, and become stronger and stronger, major social issues for the average Canadian to have to start to look at. When it comes to freeganism/dumpster diving, many people do argue that those who are living their lives on these reclaimed goods are inherently still supporting the capitalist system that creates them, and that reliance - among other things - is very unsustainable. I believe that you need short- and long-term solutions to anything. So long as we live in a mass consumer society, where everything that could possibly be ** us can be found in the garbage, instead of it being wasted - absolutely - I agree that it should be reclaimed. In the long run, though, I think that myself and many others who are concerned around food justice and engage in dumpster diving and freeganism as a lifestyle, also really, really strongly support initiatives such as community gardening, guerrilla gardening, reclaiming food from farmers fields, gleaning, et cetera. And the idea is that in the short-term, for sure, we need to survive as we can, and the more people who cannot just survive, but actually thrive by reclaiming the goods that are being wasted, should by all means do so. But, we have to work collectively and continuously to create more and more options for people to actually provide for themselves the food that they do need, not transported from half way across the world, not necessarily reclaimed from a supermarket dumpster, but grown in our own backyard, grown in our own communities, so that local food security can only really be achieved when people have food that's grown around them.

JS: And that was Rachelle Sauvé, a freegan and volunteer with the global network known as "Food not Bombs". Rachelle lives in Peterborough, Ontario, and you can find out more about "Food not Bombs" by visiting their Web site:


JS: You're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. On today's broadcast, we are exploring a recent issue of Alternatives Journal titled "Thought for Food". The magazine is based in Waterloo, Ontario, and their Web site is And the next author who we'll hear from, and who contributed to the "Thought for Food" issue happens to be a resident of the Waterloo region, as he is public health planner with the region of Waterloo's Public Health Department, and that is Marc Xuereb, who was one of two authors of the article titled "And Miles to Go Before I Eat". As Marc's article focused on the environmental impact of how far food travels, my last guest on today's broadcast, Peter Andreé, suggested, in his article, that eating as locally as possible may not provide the most environmental benefits. But, I first spoke with Marc Xuereb over the phone from his office in Kitchener, Ontario, regarding the subject of his article, a study he authored titled "Food Miles". This term, "food miles" - that is the average distance food travels - is one that really represents the basis for the local food movement. Such studies are, of course, integral to understanding the role of local food systems in responding to issues such as climate change, and also of importance: health. It is a relatively new development to see health authorities beginning to identify food systems themselves as determinants of health, and I asked Marc to first explain this role.

MX: Well, in our region, the "Food Miles" study was part of a number of different studies that we undertook to try to examine the current state of the food system in Waterloo region. And the reason the health department here decided to look into food issues is that we see health as much bigger than just primary health care; we're looking at it from a more determinants point of view, and looking at the environmental and the economic, and the social, determinants of health. And when you see health in that lens, you realize how much food relates to our health. It's not just a matter of good nutrition and making sure we eat the right food, but we look at systemic issues like what are the benefits to the local economy into people's incomes by redirecting more of our food dollars to the local economy; what are the benefits environmentally of making sure that we eat less food that's been traveling thousands of kilometers from all around the world and reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions; and what are the benefits of the greater social interactions that can take place when people are buying their food from local farmers' markets and/or directly from farms themselves? So, for those kinds of reasons public health is seeing food as a really important thing to pay attention to, as we plan for the optimal health of the public over the long-term.

JS: As Marc points out within his article, in Alternatives Journal, there have only been three studies to date in Canada that have calculated average food miles in their respective communities. The first was a group in Toronto known as "Food Share"; the second was conducted by the Victoria, British Columbia-based LifeCycles Projects Society; and third was the one that Marc Xuereb authored for the region of Waterloo. Marc's study was unique in that it calculated average food miles of food that could only be grown or raised in the region itself. And Marc explains.

MX: We basically replicated the methodology that the LifeCycles Project did. We used statistics Canada data to run numbers for our region on many of the same products. What we did - we didn't produce the Web site the way the LifeCycles Project did, but what we did do is we added them all up, and came up with a number that represented the total amount of food miles represented by all the foods that we studied, and averaged them, and totaled them for the year. So, we looked at what the implication is, as a community, for us importing so many of these foods that we don't have to import. The food that we selected were all ones that are commonly grown or raised in Waterloo region - or could be - so, we didn't study bananas, or pineapples, or things that are tropical and can't grow in this climate. We only looked at food that - like tomatoes and potatoes and carrots - that can be grown here, and even for those ones, there's significant amount of food miles in the imported products that we consume.

JS: What was, perhaps, the most startling finding that came out of the region of Waterloo "Food Miles" study was that the foods studied traveled on average 4500 km.

MX: So, we found that the 58 imported foods that we studied travel on average about 4500 kilometers to Waterloo region, and if you look at the greenhouse emissions associated with that, on average, each of those foods generates more than their own weight in greenhouse gas emissions during their transport. And if you add them all up for the region, it's over 51,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, annually, in this region that are the result of our consumption of these products that could be grown or sourced locally. If you just compare it to the emissions of an average car, that 51,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions translates into over 16,000 cars on the road each year. So, in other words, if we were to eliminate those imports of foods that we could grow in Waterloo region, it'd be the same as taking 16,000 cars off the road.

JS: Also located within Marc's article, in Alternatives Journal, was a figure indicating where beef imports into the Waterloo region originate from. And 27% of all beef imports into the region of Waterloo start their journey in New Zealand and Australia, roughly 15,000 km away. In fact, 73% of all beef imports into the region come from either Australia, New Zealand, Colorado, Kansas, or Nebraska. As this data, and the study itself, will be used to promote urban and regional planning that supports more localized food systems, Marc does indicate that such planning involves more than just municipal and regional authorities, but all levels of the food system. The consolidation of food retailers for one, here in Canada, has created an environment where grocery stores seem almost foreign to the communities in which they serve. Here in Nelson, British Columbia, for example, are local Safeway has refused to carry many of the foods being grown and produced right here in the area, and this is not a unique scenario. As Marc indicated to me during our conversation, the region of Waterloo is currently bringing all of the necessary players including grocery retailers into such important dialogue, looking into the future of what kinds of outcomes such planning could produce. The region of Waterloo "Food Miles" study indicates that 99% of greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated, if the studied foods that are imported into the region of Waterloo were replaced with local ones. But the real question is: is it even possible?

MX: We anticipated the question that we were likely to get upon publishing the results of our food miles research, and that question was: OK, so it would be better if we only ate local foods, but could we even do that? And so we commissioned a study where we looked at the total amount of acres in farming in our region, right now - looked at what they're being used to farm right now - and then we looked at what people in Waterloo region are eating, right now, and compared that to what they should be eating, if they did eat according to the Canada food guide. So, if they ate the requisite number of foods and vegetables, and proteins, and grains, et cetera, everyday. What we found was that if we were to make up the difference between what we now eat and what we should be eating - if we ate the proper nutritional diet with foods that can be grown on local lands - so, if we don't eat enough fruit, for example, could we grow more strawberries or other foods that can be grown in our climate on our lands? - and what we found was that we would only require a 10% to 12% shift in production on our lands to be able to do that. So, in other words, we could eat a totally healthy diet in Waterloo region on foods grown in this region with that kind of a shift. And we were projecting these numbers 20-30 years into the future. So, for that kind of a shift, is theoretically possible, and one of the things we'll be working on is working with agricultural organizations to see are they even interested in trying to make that shift, and how can we do it? It does make a big assumption that people will eat those products. So, we need to work on how do we raise demand for those things, as well as how do we put in place mechanisms to get those foods from farm to plate, and that's going to require some really innovative strategies to figure out some new methods for getting local food to local markets because, right now, our food system is so global, and most of the delivery channels are on a global scale. So, there's a lot of work to be done.

JS: And the was Marc Xuereb, a public health planner with the region of Waterloo Public Health Department. Marc spoke to me over the phone from his office in Kitchener, Ontario, and you can take a look at Marc's study and find out more about local food projects taking place in the Waterloo region by visiting the January 18 broadcast of the Deconstructing Dinner Web site:


JS: And you're listening to Deconstructing Dinner, produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. Today's broadcast is exploring some of the content of an excellent issue of Alternatives Journal, a publication out of the University of Waterloo. Following up Marc Xuereb's article was what acted as a response to the message that local food systems equal more environmentally friendly food systems. But Peter Andreé isn't so sure that this is entirely true, and his article titled "Local Limitations" introduced his reasoning. Peter is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, and specializes in politics and the environment. And here's Peter describing why eating as close to home as possible isn't necessarily the most environmentally friendly option.

PA: The beauty of the food miles argument is that it's very simple. As we learn about how far our food has traveled and how much greenhouse gas production goes with it, and how much oil is consumed, it seems natural to want to go to the other extreme, and say, well, let's try and buy as close to home as possible. And the problem with that is the assumption is: as buying as close to home as possible results in the least environmental impact. And part of what I pointed out in my article in Alternatives is that - let's say if you take the case of farmers' markets - a lot of environmentalists and green-types like to go to farmers' markets and support their local farmers, and I'm a fan of farmers' markets - but it's important to recognize that the food that's there is not necessarily got the least number of food miles even attached to it, even if it's from your neighbor, and that maybe because they have to - in some cases I know of, farmers in Ontario who drive 200 km to a slaughter house to have their animals slaughtered, and then they drive 200 km back, and might have just a few carcasses that they're selling at a farmers' market on a Saturday. And, if you think about it, the - there's a lot of additional food miles that have gone into that farmers' market meat - in that particular example - that are not necessarily calculated in the kind of study that Marc did in Waterloo, where they're really looking at the distance from farmer to producer, and not necessarily looking at the entire distance that that food has traveled, and what kind of vehicles are used, and what the gas efficiency is, the consumption efficiency of those vehicles, and so on.

Now, the interesting thing is that Marc pointed out the - or refers to - the original Leopold Center Study from 2001. And I went back to that data because I was interested in these kinds of questions, and I noticed that even though the Leopold Study says that, I think, that you can reduce greenhouse gases emissions by 88% by switching from outer-state sources to nearby farms, if you look at their data, you can actually get greater efficiencies - I think it was up to 94% - by switching to farms that are within the state of Iowa (they were looking at within the state of Iowa - and then local defined as like 30 miles or something). And the reason for that is because the food that's come in from, let's say, a couple hundred kilometers away, is more likely to have traveled in larger trucks, and so that's where you get this idea (just like there are economies of scale) that you can have ecologies of scale.

JS: To better understand this term, "ecologies of scale", Peter further explains.

PA: Well, if you think of the word "ecology", the term "ecology of scale" obviously comes from "economies of scale". And the way economies of scale work is it's recognized in economics that as you get larger production volumes, your costs per unit of production can often be decreased. And similarly, your ecological costs per unit of production can also decrease as you get into larger production volumes. And so this - in my earlier example of a truck moving an 18-wheeler full of apples in BC, from an area where they're grown to supermarkets, will have less greenhouse gases associated per apple than, perhaps, somebody who's delivering in a smaller truck to a local market. Now, that's not necessarily always the case, but the idea of "ecologies of scale" is to say, well, let's start thinking not only about the food miles, but also about the size of production units that are efficient. But, I think it's important to point out, here, that I'm not arguing that bigger is always better, and, I think, as an environmentalist, we've heard all the efficiency arguments in the past and that's maybe part - those are some of the arguments that have brought us to a global system - and I don't think bigger is necessarily always better. But, similarly, smaller is not always better, and that's part of my argument here.

JS: One of the best examples of how the distribution segment of the food system is, perhaps, best served by more regional or provincial networks is the example of the Foodland Ontario model, which, as Peter indicates, is now in competition with the local food labels popping up across the country.

PA: Well, this is what I've seen in Ontario in the last 15 years, and I've been part of this. I helped to develop a local food logo in the Peterborough area where I live - or have lived until recently - where we called it Kawartha’s Own Locally Grown, and that logo got adopted by a lot of producers selling at local farmers' markets. It's a great idea for connecting producers who want to do direct sales with consumers who are looking at buying locally, but we've seen a whole bunch of these logos pop up around the province. We've seen it in Waterloo, up in Renfrew County, and Pictou area - Prince Edward county has its own local food logo. And part of the problem is all of these local logos are competing against Foodland Ontario, in my mind, and Foodland Ontario is kind of a provincial land for foods produced in Ontario. Now, I think a lot of environmentalists would say, well, yeah, but a lot of those foods are being produced in ways using pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers that we don't - we're not necessarily comfortable with that, and we want to support our local organic producers - or whatever else. And I think that's fine, but there's also the possibility of - and this is my argument for the food movement - if people want to see sustainable food systems, I think we need to be working with the larger producers and working with things like Foodland Ontario, and, perhaps, develop an offshoot of Foodland Ontario for Ontario environmentally friendly products, or organic products, that are produced using environmentally friendly production methods, and then also transported at efficiencies of scale and brought into - The reality is most people buy their food from supermarkets and from restaurants these days (a lot of people eat out). And I think restaurants and supermarkets are not necessarily going to get connected with the same kind of farmers who are selling at local farmers' markets using the local food brands - there are just too many disconnects between those two levels. And so this is why I'm arguing that we need to start thinking about the wider regional levels, and how we can develop regional brands that are meaningful, both in terms of the region they represent and their production practices farmers are shifting to.

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner where we are currently hearing clips from my conversation with Peter Peter Andreé, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. As Peter presents convincing arguments that local food systems are not necessarily the most environmentally friendly ones, perhaps one of the greatest barriers is the model by which many restaurants and supermarkets currently operate on - a model that individual farmers delivering food in their individual vehicles may not be able to adequately serve.

PA: One of the examples here is, say you wanted a grocery store to be selling local meat. And I've talked to farmers, both in Canada and Australia, who are trying to set up links with local stores and grocery stores and restaurants. The challenge is always that they've got to - the farmer needs to move a whole carcass, which means not only the prime cuts like the T-bone steaks and whatever else, but also a lot of ground beef - if we're talking about cows. The local stores aren't necessarily able to move all those cuts in a way that the farmer can provide it to them, and this is where if you get cooperatives of farmers working together and selling via whatever channel (potentially a truck that goes around and gets from a variety of farmers and brings that product to a variety of end-users). And then you match the right cooperative of end-users together - and one example that I'm thinking of in Oregon is there's a group of 50 beef producers who are connected to a chain of natural food supermarkets - as well as a chain of burger restaurants - and that's the way that they can move both the prime cuts and all of the ground beef. So, that's two end-users, and that - that's actually a series of restaurants and supermarkets in both cases buying from 50 producers - that's actually a chain that can work. Any individual producer doesn't always have to match - doesn't always have to have the supply ready for their local grocery store - they can move in and out of production, they can work with the seasons, and yet the supply chain is consistent for the end-users. And that's the key thing for the end-users in this business - is having consistency of supply.

JS: As finding an ecological balance between local, regional, and, perhaps, even global food systems seems to be the most important goal to attain, Peter does suggest that there are caveats, and he describes one of these.

PA: In making the argument for ecologies of scale as part of - needs to be part of our thinking when we talk about what is a sustainable food system. I know that there are a couple of caveats, and the first one I see is sometimes you just want to be supporting local producers - even if they, maybe, are less efficient - for social and cultural reasons. The thing that I was specifically thinking of, I have a friend who does research looking at how the shift in Mexico from local production of maize, or corn, to imports from the U.S. - the effect that that's had on indigenous cultures in Mexico is profound. They used to be able to buy a wide variety of maize varieties at their local store that was produced in their local region. And all of those different maize varieties were suitable for different kinds of food, and all kinds of cultural reasons why - or a whole cultural fabric is breaking down with the replacement of local maize production with imports coming from the U.S., imports, which, incidentally, are highly subsidized and - kind of - dumped onto world markets. I think that's a good example where even if some of those imports are more efficient, there's more to the picture than these questions of efficiency.

JS: My conversation with Peter ended on the topic of oil. As is often discussed on this program, the global supplies of oil, and our energy resources, are integral to sustain our current food systems, as they currently exist. Peter's suggestion that more regionalized food systems may be more environmentally friendly may not be such a wise direction to head in if energy resources will either be depleted or simply far too expensive to rely upon . As was a recent suggestion on Deconstructing Dinner made by the Post Carbon Institute's Julian Darley, such concerns should lead us into a direction of creating, what he calls, a foot economy, one where we move away from such a reliance on fossil fuels to grow and transport our food, and Peter responds to this concern.

PA: I think it makes sense. We need to build both local and regional capacity and infrastructure again for thinking about post fossil fuel economy, but I don't think that that's - that we're going to move to a post fossil fuel economy overnight, in the sense, I don't think oil prices are suddenly going to go right out of the stratosphere. Now, other people would disagree with me on that, and argue that we need to prepare for that. But the contradiction is that in preparing for that are we going to be developing food systems that are actually more energy intensive than they need to be. And this is where my argument that buying locally is not necessarily the least energy intensive, and I'm going to throw - tell you about another study which I think throws a very interesting - it makes you think about these kinds of questions. There was a study in the journal LifeCycle Analysis in 2004 that compared lamb produced in New Zealand, and shipped across the world by boat, to Germany, with locally produced lamb sold at local stores. And it actually found that the lamb produced in New Zealand was less energy intensive per kilogram of food; in other words, less energy went into the production than the locally produced lamb sold locally in Germany. And you might ask, well, how on earth is that possible? Well, there are three reasons: first, you don't need shepherds in New Zealand because there are very few prey animals, and you do in Germany. And you think, well, shepherds aren't a big cost. But shepherds, actually, these days, drive around in cars, and they use gas to get to and from work, and so that's an energy input into the lamb. The second factor was that Germany's got a colder climate, and so there was more heating involved, both in where the animals were housed for part of the year and in the whole infrastructure, in the processing infrastructure, and there are heat costs involved all the way. And the third factor, of course, is that - and this is the big difference between that particular study and, say, the kind of thing that Marc is looking at in Waterloo. In the Waterloo case, there are a lot of vegetables and meat - that stuff is sent by plane around the world, and that's what's so energy intensive these days. But shipping stuff by boat - especially in large quantities - and we're talking about like 2 million kilograms of New Zealand lamb moving out of those ships - is actually quite efficient in terms of the amount of energy per unit of meat. And I'm not bringing up that article - that particular study. It's been sort of debated in the literature since then about whether they got all the numbers right. But it just - it gives us food for thought in this question of what is the least energy - what's the least energy intensive food system? Is it one that's completely local, or can you actually have some global supply chains that are quite efficient, and what are all the levels in-between?

JS: And that was Peter Andreé, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Ottawa's Carleton University. Peter is the author of the forthcoming book from UBC Press titled "Genetically Modified Diplomacy". And, again, today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner explored a recent issue of Alternatives Journal titled "Thought for Food", in which are the articles offered by my guests on today's broadcast. And there are, of course, many more important issues discussed within that issue, and you can find out more about how to get a hold of Alternatives Journal by visiting: And you can also explore the Deconstructing Dinner Web site for links to the many groups mentioned on today's broadcast, along with the selection of additional audio clips from today's featured interviews.


JS: And that was this week's issue of Deconstructing Dinner produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host, Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant, Dianne Matenko. The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson area resident, Adam Shake. And this radio program is provided free of charge to campus community radio stations across the country. Deconstructing Dinner is made possible through the generous support of New Society Publishers, and more information on our supporters can be found on the Deconstructing Dinner Web site, where this broadcast will also be archived. Should you wish to financially contribute to this program, I invite you to offer your support through our Web site at: Till next week.

MediaDeconstructing Dinner: Thought for Food