Thursday, February 5, 2009

iWeek: Deconstructing Dinner

I ended up making it to three iWeek sessions Tuesday and I thought I would do a "short" write up about them.

The first was Deconstructing Dinner with Jon Steinman, who hosts a radio show on the topic of food security in Nelson BC on Kootenay Co-op Radio; Jon is also an advocate within the community (and obviously elsewhere) of locally produced food and food security.

He didn't end up deconstructing a real plate of food at the Tuesday iWeek session, but instead projected pictures of a "regular meal" on a screen to talk about where the food comes from and what goes into it. The meal consisted of: a steak, french fries, a salad (it looked like a bocconcini and tomato stack), a bun, ice cream, ginger ale, beer, wine and a glass of water, as well as the leftovers that you may or may not take home in a plastic/corn product container if you were eating in a restaurant.

It turned out that each food item was somehow connected with Cargill, a multi-national corporation that works in "food production" in 67 countries. For example, Cargill handles a large amount of beef production which also requires feed, so they have another company that manages the growth of grass and corn to feed cows, through another of their companies they produce fertilizer to grow the feed and they have a company that produces salt, both seasoning and blocks for livestock.

Similar to the steak, in the salad/French fry department Cargill's salt and fertilizer production came into play once again. With most of the products making up the meal, there was an issue with canola oil, as Cargill has been clearing land to produce the corn that makes it up. With the bread, wheat, flour, margarine and eggs all fell under Cargill's production again. When it came to beer, I found out that Cargill is the biggest malt producer in the world, with 11 plants in 9 countries.

High fructose corn syrup went into the ginger ale, and in both the bottle of ginger ale and the innocent looking glass of water, Cargill's softening salt was likely used to soften the water. The wine from the Niagra region was produced by workers from Jamaica and Mexico, brought in to work in Canada because farming jobs in either country have been cut or become unsustainable due to Cargill's establishment of large cash crops, especially corn. The ice cream was made up of soy products and canola oils, as well as chocolate from a cocoa production company owned by Cargill. The packaging was likely made of corn products, and the fuel used to get the food to the grocery store or restaurant probably contained ethanol made from corn grown by one of Cargill's companies.

Jon produced two radio shows specifically about Cargill, which can be found at these links: Part 1, Part 2. (In this show he provides links and other information to back up information accessed about the company in question.)

Moving past the specifics of the plate of food, Jon suggested that our food production has become concentrated in the hands of a few making our food system incredibly fragile. He argued that large corps like Cargill have succeeded in the setting of prices making it difficult/impossible for small farms to compete (there is a go big or go home mentality in farming) and have gained enough control over the agricultural sector to lobby governments in favour of their product. Jon believes that we have become dangerously disconnected with those that produce our food (the eater-farmer relationship), and that we need to think more about the impact of our food choices.

He went on to list several alternatives we could use to access food away from our current system. Some of these included: Co-ops (there is several in the Kootenay region including a grocery store with a local first policy, a radio station, a car co-op and several others; with co-ops "profits" go back into the project and into the community), the creation of food security groups, urban agriculture, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) such as the model in Creston BC, underground food (buy products directly from the farmer) and finally, he put the most emphasis on education about our food and food systems.

I think Jon's discussion did a great job of taking our local food choices international, and I suppose awareness of the local-national-international relationship is one of the goals of iWeek. Also, like many of the iWeek sessions I've attended during the past few years, Deconstructing Dinner left me and others in the room with a fairly positive feeling of where we can take food if we invest a proportionally appropriate amount of time in it (ie. everything is structered around meals of the day, but we pay little attention to what we eat). He commented that with the iWeek turnout and the turnout at the food security conference that weekend as well as the fact that it was hosted here, many in Edmonton seem to be aware about the food they consume or are at least heading in that direction.

You can find Jon at the CJLY (Kootenay Co-op Radio) website or at the Deconstructing Dinner website. He also has recordings posted for past radio shows on various topics around Food Security, as well as recordings of community events, primarily the CSA grain project, which I will write next about... hopefully soon.

Afterwards, on a more personal level...

At the end of the session Jon opened the floor to questions, and a woman stood up to comment that she was considering becoming a vegetarian but since we live in Alberta, it seems incredibly impractical; she wanted to know whether it was better to support a local Alberta farmer that produces natural meat, or to eat soy products likely produced by Cargill or a like-wise company. Of course Jon could not answer her, except to say that he eats meat produced in Nelson/Creston (although very little), but in the end it is a personal decision that involves several trade offs.

I've been thinking about the exact same thing over the past couple months. Originally I stopped eating beef, chicken and pork because I knew what I was eating was far from local and far from being ethically produced. But now that I'm on my own and have more control over what I eat, I know I can go to the Strathcona Market and by a local, naturally produced chicken that is certified humanely raised from Sunworks Farms. After going to a session about farming in Alberta I was further convinced to purchase local meat.

So I'm considering mixing chicken with a large veggie diet, provided I know where it comes from and other details. And also, I'm hoping Zed and I can make it out to one of the local farms for a tour, which the later session on farming I went to said were available at Sunworks and a few others periodically throughout the year.

For more Alberta based information on food security, visit the Food Security Alberta (GFSA) website.

Also, check out Sharon's posts at Only Here for the Food for a more detailed look at the food security discussion in Alberta. She attended the Food: Today, Tomorrow, Together Conference at the end of last week.

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