The SARS crisis demonstrates the ways in which Toronto is vulnerable. Photo by Fred Lum/ CP Photo
A tsunami is a terrible thing to waste. That's why Japanese ag experts and Toronto public health leaders had a sit-down May 16 and 17 to discuss what we can learn about disaster prep from the catastrophic events in Japan.
Hosted by U of T's Food Policy Research Initiative, the symposium at the Munk School of Global Affairs on Devonshire explored how cities can keep residents from going hungry during prolonged emergencies.
But after listening to the discussion, I'm starting to doubt that, given a crisis of similar magnitude to Japan's, we'd fare as well.
Last year's violent earthquake and tsunami killed over 15,000 people in that country, Yoko Niiyama of Kyoto University told the room. Niiyama, who helped design government communication strategies, explained that the calamity precipitated everything from the destruction of farmland by seawater and a nuclear horror show to skepticism about official info, especially in relation to food.
This mistrust was "quite revolutionary for Japan," she said. People didn't accept government recommendations on what was edible, and insisted on info so they could make their own decisions.
How would this scenario play out here, I wondered. We do have a City of Toronto Emergency Plan, supposedly prepared to deal with everything from severe weather to health emergencies and bomb threats.
Our city is of course safe from tsunamis and isn't in an earthquake zone. But in other ways we're not so fortunate. We've got nearby nuke operations and gas plants, but our greatest vulnerability, as we learned during SARS, is infectious diseases. That's what we get for being an international crossroads - as in one passenger plane away from disaster.
Compounding these disadvantages is a food system ill suited to weathering disaster. Monopolized agriculture and just-in-time delivery (warehouses store about three days of food in T.O.) will not serve us if ever we face a quarantine preventing U.S. trucks from arriving or causing mass absenteeism in the food retail workforce. But there's little indication that governments see the potential dangers in long-distance eating.
Compare this to what Japan went into its emergency with. The food system there, the focus of radiation concern, is marked by personalized and cooperative relations. Rice, unlike wheat and corn, is best grown on small family farms spread across the country, and as ag prof Motoki Akitsu told the symposium, there is a widespread gift-based culture of presenting rice to family and friends.
As well, he points out that about a fifth of Japanese households belong to one of almost 2 million cooperatives selling produce. Women lead most co-ops and also run almost 17,000 small-scale food processing and sales companies that flourish at over 16,000 farmers' markets. These have prospered thanks to the isolation of mountainous areas, said Sumiko Abe of the Japan Food Systems Research Association. The female service culture reinforces personal commitment to customers
It's this transparency and direct relationship with consumers that sustained trust during the concern over food poisoning. People were able to trace their food to its source.
We have nothing like it in our psychologically distant and corporate food system. If a disaster struck, we would have minimal ability to get basic information on the origins of or residues on our edibles. Even retailers often have no clue, since legislation doesn't exist and there is no necessary relationship between what's written on the box and what's inside it, or where its many ingredients and additives hail from.
Unlike Canada's ag departments, the Japanese government backs local foods. Kyoto boasts 41 specialty vegetables. The country's ag department has pushed for half the calories eaten to be grown or fished in Japan.
The key to the success of the Japanese emergency response in the worst of times, I thought as I left this symposium, is the preparation built into the system in the best of times.