Try to have a discussion on food production these days and you invariably end up in a fight.
It usually goes something like this. Monsanto: bad. Organic: good. Or vice versa. Either way, it’s a confrontation.
A special Canadian Mennonite University course next month aims at taking the conflict out of the food system debate.
The one-week course is titled “Our Contested Food System: Cultivating a Just Peace.” Or as Martin Entz, one of the instructors, prefers to call it: “Peace Building in the Food War.”
What war is that?
It’s a war between two different agricultural models currently being promoted, explains Entz. Big business versus small scale. Corporate versus co-operative. Chemical versus organic. Intensive versus sustainable. Monoculture versus diversity.
And they’re constantly at each other’s throats. Just read the farm press and you’ll see it.
This is a situation which cries out for an exercise in peacemaking, said Entz, a University of Manitoba plant scientist.
And that’s where the Canadian School of Peacebuilding, located at the CMU campus in Winnipeg, comes in.
The CSOP course running June 14 to 18 will examine different food systems and propose possibilities for “cultivating a just peace in what are being called food wars,” according to a course description on the CMU website.
The course will use a “deliberative dialogue-teaching model” to generate discussion instead of argument, said Entz.
That involves trying to understand the other person’s point of view, even if you don’t always agree with it, he said.
Entz said the first day begins with a dialogue about rice, a food consumed by more people on earth than any other. Discussion will centre on different approaches to food security in rice: agribusiness versus community; biotechnology versus ecology.
Entz himself will lead the discussion on the second day, when participants visit the University of Manitoba’s research station at Carman to witness sustainable and non-sustainable farm management practices.
The third day focuses on economies and food systems. One case study is Haiti, a country formerly self-sufficient in rice and now dependent on imports at the worst possible time, following the country’s devastating earthquake in January.
Involved in the discussion is Ray Vander Zaag, who spent nine years in Haiti and currently teaches international development at CMU and Menno Simons College.
NOT BLACK AND WHITE
Coming from a family which owns a large commercial potato operation in Ontario, Vander Zaag offers a balance between the divergent market-oriented and anti-corporate views about agriculture.
“It’s not that one side is necessarily right or wrong. Each side proceeds in good faith, based on certain assumptions about how economies work (and) how societies work,” he said.
It’s important to understand each other’s assumptions and the principles by which they operate in order to have a fruitful dialogue, Vander Zaag said.
“You’re not going to get there by just casting aspersions at the other side.”
Entz acknowledged multinational corporations will probably not participate in the course. But that doesn’t mean their viewpoints will not be aired.
It’s possible that NGO workers who might ordinarily be negative toward mega-corporations may decide such companies have a role to play in food security after all, he said.
Course participants will also visit various local church-and community-based food initiatives, including food charters and community food security programs.
Kenton Lobe, a CMU instructor in international development studies, said the course is just as relevant for large-scale commercial farms as it is for urban farmers’ markets.
That’s because the current food system, with its trend toward fewer and larger farm operations, directly, impacts local communities, he said.
“What does it mean when a rural school disappears? What does it mean when your kids are busing farther? What does it mean when the church shuts down? What does it mean when local business leaves? I suspect that even conventional farmers would have something to say about that,” said Lobe.
“If it doesn’t, then we will have missed our target.”