Before he was a food activist and manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Wayne Roberts was a union leader in Ontario and a Greenpeace organizer in northern Canada. While I can’t imagine what those experiences were like, they sound rough, frigid, and unresponsive to the gentler sensibilities of today’s foodies. It must have been in such places where Dr. Roberts nurtured his feisty nature which is clearly on display in his new edition of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.
As expected, he takes on the oligopolistic forces of multi-national agribusiness. Roberts maintains, mustering more than enough evidence, that our industrial food system has left us starved for healthy and affordable food, showered our environment with pollutants, and sucked the social marrow from the bones of our communities. Though the radical Canadian populist in him eviscerates, the foodie in him levitates. No-Nonsense is as much an anthem to class struggle as it a psalm to the delights of good food and vibrant communities.
Roberts’s main line of attack starts with a clear and compelling description of the food system. By thinking about the entire chain of food events from seed to table as a complex and interrelated system, our solutions to today’s food problems (and a host of other associated problems) become richer, more nuanced, and decidedly more creative. Roberts “passes a dessert tray” of examples like the flat city roof “converted to a garden using soil enriched with compost from food scraps…[and] watered by rain that otherwise spills into an [overburdened] city sewage system.”
Likewise, he tells us about unused land turned into community gardens by “at-risk youth hanging out on the vacant lot. The youth gain both general employment-readiness skills, specific gardening skills, and make a fresh start. The neighborhood delights in the garden which generates enough surplus for a donation to a local church which uses its previously unused basement kitchen equipment for a community kitchen that teaches neighbors cooking skills.” And on it goes in a multi-dimensional web that beholds, as Roberts puts it, “food as a many-splendored asset.”
If Roberts makes a joyful noise unto the virtues of a multi-functional and community-based approach to food and farming, he replays the dissonant notes of a conventional food system which may do more harm than good. He cites a KPMG 2012 report that says the food industry inflicts $2.24 of environmental damage for every $1.00 of profit – a rate that is four times higher than the industrial average. He traces our “cheap food” tradition to the past centuries of slave labor and its current manifestation in a world-wide agriculture system that employs 170 million child laborers. Even those who earn something from their farm toils are virtual slaves to the industrial model of food production. According to a 2013 report by Oxfam, the 450 million farmers who supply the 10 biggest food companies account for 60 per cent of the world’s poor and 80 per cent of its hungry. And as Roberts points out, cheap and convenient food has been made necessary by the necessity of all adult household members to work at least one full-time job – not enough money to buy good food and not enough time to prepare (and enjoy) food.
While there are good stories and analyses from North America, No-Nonsense is very much a guide to world food. Cuba, Brazil, and Honduras are the settings for inspiring initiatives by both the “grass-tops” and the “grass-roots” who are struggling to overcome food security challenges far more serious than anything we’ll find in the U.S. or Canada. Some of these tales are now quite familiar – Brazil’s Zero Fome (Zero Hunger) movement, the model food strategy work of Belo Horizonte, and Cuba’s organoponicos (urban organic farms which now cover 12 per cent of Havana’s land area).
But what’s different here is Roberts’s willingness to go out and kick the tires, meet the local leaders, and hang out in some tough places until he gets it. What he bring back might be a small boon for those of us who are used to big federal programs like SNAP and multi-million dollar food bank warehouses. Empowerment, food sovereignty, and individual agency are the concepts that drive the struggle of people in developing nations to grow more of their own food, hold their own governments accountable, and experiment constantly in hopes of finding new, viable solutions to hunger and poverty. In the words of Debbie Fields, a fellow Toronto food activist, the leaders of Brazil’s food movements made people proud enough to “do things for themselves, without waiting for government to get its act together, but still seeing the need for government action.”
No-Nonsense Guides (Women’s Rights, World Poverty, and World Health are just a few of the other titles available in this series published by New Internationalist) are designed to give thorough but pithy summaries of their topics along with compelling examples in less than 200 pages. The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food is no exception rewarding both newcomers and experienced hands with tales of the fabulously rich theater of our global food system.