Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nettie Wiebe is out to heal the planet

Farmer, professor, and sometime NDP candidate campaigns to reconstruct food system.

Dateline: Monday, May 11, 2009

by Penney Kome

"If it is true that we are what we eat," said Nettie Wiebe, "then most of us are like those stuffed animals that you get from vending machines with labels that say, '100 percent unknown fiber'."

The first woman to serve as president of the National Farmers' Union (1995-99), and a one-time contender for leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP party, Nettie Wiebe is currently a professor at St Andrew's College in Saskatoon, where she teaches ethics. She spoke at the University of Calgary International Conference on Ecology and Professional Helping, an interdisciplinary gathering on "Building Bridges, Crossing Boundaries".

Wiebe is also a Mennonite and an organic farmer, from a long line of Saskatchewan farmers. Her family grows oilseeds, grains, pulses (lentils and peas) and runs a small cow-calf operation, which this year has 43 calves, she said proudly. Her youthful appearance and vigorous presentation belied both the 1949 birthdate on her biography, and her wistful reference to "much longed-for grandchildren." She is given to aphorisms like, "Environmentalism begins at the breakfast table."

Wiebe started her talk by saying, "Food is one thing we are all experts on, because we all eat." The rest of her presentation up-ended that statement. In fact, as Wiebe demonstrated, most of us don't have any idea where our food is grown, or how far it travels to get to our tables.

As part of her course on "Eating, Ecology and Ethics", Wiebe challenges students to find out where one favorite food comes from. One of her students phoned the New York office of his favorite pizza company to ask the origin of the tomatoes on his pizza, only to be told that that was proprietary information. The pizza company wasn't going to tell him.

"We are separated from the history and place of our food," said Wiebe. "This is not accidental. The food system is designed like that."

Walk into any supermarket, and you are likely to encounter a bewildering variety of products. "There are all kinds of things in the grocery store today that mother wouldn't have recognized, and that my grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food," said Wiebe. "And she'd be right."

In fact, the apparent variety is deceptive, she said. "We actually have fewer varieties of food grown today than ever. There was more biological diversity in an agrarian village two generations ago than we find in stores now."

In the name of providing ever more food for a growing population, said Wiebe, agribusiness has promoted large-scale, fertilizer-intensive monocrops in every country around the world. They talk about efficiency of scale, "but if you look further, there's a genuine profit motive" behind the push to standardize and industrialize food production.

Although monoculture claims to produce larger crop yields, that is partly a function of the bushels-per-acre method of measurement. Mixed farming, with a variety of crops interspersed, and maybe a few chickens running around eating the potato bugs, produces more overall nutrition from the land.

Monoculture also maximizes the potential for catastrophe, said Wiebe. "We're using water at a rate that is unsustainable. The UN has said that half of the world's rivers are depleted already." Worse, nitrogen-rich fertilizer runs off the crops into the water and, "there's a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico".

Finally, agribusiness ships food all over the place — often for obscure reasons — before the customer sees it. A potato grown in Saskatchewan may be shipped to Idaho for processing, then to Edmonton to a distribution centre, before returning to a grocery store in Saskatoon. As for that winter time tomato from Mexico, "that costs plenty of greenhouse gases".

While Wiebe urges all farmers to go organic — or at least to minimize use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — and all city dwellers to research where their food comes from and try to eat locally and seasonally, she also emphasizes that, "the food system wasn't constructed by individual choices." She is convinced that, in order to make systemic changes, "we are going to have to work collectively".

And she is not alone. As the National Farmers Union boasts, "NFU former Presidents Wayne Easter and Nettie Wiebe played a key role in the founding and development of the Via Campesina." Wiebe called La Via Campesina a "peasants' movement" to reclaim "food sovereignty". She said that she is proud to be called "peasant" because "the word means, 'people of the land'... In a lot of countries, peasants still are the majority. They understand the relationship between food, environment and culture."

Founded in 1992 at a meeting in Nicaragua attended by peasant leaders from several countries, La Via Campesina has grown into a major international movement, according to its website: "Our members are from 56 countries from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas."

The website also declares that, "Food sovereignty is the right of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy without the "dumping" of agricultural commodities into foreign countries. Food sovereignty organizes food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption... Food sovereignty and sustainability are a higher priority than trade policies."

In short, as Wiebe said, La Via Campesina is "committed to a system of food for people, not for profit, a system that values food providers, local skills and knowledge, and works with nature." The ultimate goal, for her, is "to heal the planet, so that the planet may heal us."

Penney Kome is an award-winning author and journalist who has published six books with major publishers. She is also the Editor of Straight Goods.

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