Farming is not economically sustainable, and until industrial agriculture is replaced by regional agricultural systems, Canada will continue to lose farmers, warns Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Mullinix was speaking to delegates at the Building Sustainable Communities conference in Kelowna Tuesday on what a sustainable food system would look like in B.C.—one that would provide reliable access to sufficient, safe, nutritious and affordable food that meets dietary needs and food preferences.
“The production cost far exceeds the revenue potential. There’s no potential for income (for farmers), yet there are huge amounts of money in agri-foods—just not for farmers,” he told delegates.
“Farmers get less than 10 cents for every one dollar you spend at the supermarket. The money goes to those providing the inputs, the marketing and the distribution,” he said.
He says the “get bigger or get out syndrome” has resulted in fewer farms and farmers, and we’re at a record low now in Canada, largely because of consolidation.
Due to this loss of family farms, by 2030, the traditional family farm will be gone if the trend persists, he warned.
Currently, the average age of farmers is older than 55 years of age, and many are leaving the industry.
With that trend, we’re losing the knowledge of ‘place’ just when we will need it to advance to a sustainable food system, he warned.
Strong backs and big hearts on the farm have been replaced by money, machines and fossil fuels, he said.
Sustainability is the supreme human challenge and food systems are the foundation of sustainability, Mullinix told delegates to the conference, which continues through Thurs., Nov. 28 at the Delta Grand.
Today, the production paradigm dominates: it’s industrial agriculture.
This meta ethic produces food for people but results in agriculture with such distinct characteristics as high machinery inputs; more use of pesticides, yet more pests too. he warned.
It’s energy-intensive and the return on investment is dismal, he said.
Small farms are leading the move to sustainable farming, and that sort of farming leads to a higher standard of living; lower poverty and crime rates; more retail, parks, schools and newspapers and more citizen involvement in the community, he said.
Today, he said, a smaller percentage of our income is spent on food than was spent 50 years ago.
Some people eat too much, while a million children around the world starve to death.
Even the foods we eat are not as nutritious—including the fruits, vegetables and the milk—than they used to be, he said.
Western diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are mostly food-related and we’re spending a lot more on health care, he warned.
For every dollar spent on education about healthy eating, $500 is spent on food marketing.
Our current food system is simply not sustainable, he said. We need to scale down.
“I believe sustainable food systems require regionalization,” he said.
Food dollars must be kept in the community. Agriculture must be municipally-enabled and supported.
He sees under-used land that’s in the Agricultural Land Reserve in B.C., and says there’s great potential there to provide jobs and generate huge returns.
We need to be designing regional food systems on a variable scale, with low inputs, using alternative marketing.
Local, sustainable food systems are a people and community proposition.
More farmers are needed to build a post-industrial-agriculture, strong, regional food system.
“It’s not a global food system but a global network of regional systems,” he said, adding, “Sustainability is a challenge of spirit, not of technology.”