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People Must Control Food System, Meeting Told

For Racquel Koenig, it’s homegrown vegetables in northern Manitoba, where a bag of potatoes costs three to four times as much as it does in Winnipeg.

For Terence Sibanda, it’s seed for farmers in Zimbabwe to grow their own crops instead of relying on food aid.

Food justice means different things to different people, as speakers at an Oct. 16 World Food Day event in Winnipeg showed.

But all agreed food justice is about the ability of people to control their own food destiny, whether at home or abroad.

Food justice in action was the theme of 10 short presentations at the event sponsored by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance.

EXPENSIVE SPUDS

Koenig, representing Food Matters Manitoba, described how people in remote northern communities sometimes have to travel two days to get to a grocery store, where a 10-pound bag of potatoes can cost between $17 and $27.

Instead of being hostage to high prices, locals are starting to grow their own food. Koenig said she witnessed over 80 community garden projects in 13 northern Manitoba communities which produce vegetables, despite poor soil and a short growing season.

Sibanda, a Zimbabwean working on a one-year term with the food grains bank, said most farmers in his country are smallholders with only basic tools and low self-esteem.

But they are also resourceful and can feed themselves and each other, given the proper resources, he said.

EMPOWERMENT

The key is empowerment, Sibanda said. He showed a slide of a Zimbabwean farmer holding a sign saying: “Give me seed to sustain myself. Do not give me food only.”

Carol Thiessen, a food grains bank policy analyst, said food aid provides sustenance, but not a sense of self-worth.

Since food is a human right, people must have the freedom to produce it themselves, Thiessen said.

Here at home, the Manitoba Farm Mentorship Program also offers people a choice to farm, said co-ordinator Sharon Taylor.

It connects on-farm mentors with paid interns to provide would-be farmers with the necessary skills.

The program could be a way to fill the need for more farmers in Manitoba, where 50 per cent of producers are nearing retirement age, Taylor said.

FEWER FARMERS

Besides getting older, farmers are also becoming fewer in number. Gary Martens, who teaches agriculture at the University of Manitoba, said in his home district of Kleefeld in southeastern Manitoba, there are 22 farms at present. Twenty years ago, there were 50.

The loss of farmers and the industrialization of the food chain threaten Canada’s food sovereignty, speakers warned.

A grassroots movement called the People’s Food Policy Project is trying to develop a national food policy for governments to adopt. Organizers are holding local meetings across Canada this month to obtain public input. A national food conference will be held in Montreal in late November.

Ray Vander Zaag, who teaches international development at Canadian Mennonite University, said world food security is slowly getting better, with less food aid happening around the world and international organizations investing more money in agricultural research.

Later, Vander Zaag said a growing interest in local food production shows an increased awareness of the importance of food sustainability. [email protected]

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