Whatever is said about the alienation of politics from reality, it's still true that years of slogging by citizen groups, backed by a swell of public opinion, can make big waves.
That's certainly true when it comes to eco-food issues. Examine the programs of all the parties in this election and you'll get the point. Independent of ideological stance, all offer intriguing meat-on-the-bone food proposals. (I'm a vegan, but solid tofu in the stir-fry isn't quite the same metaphor.)
The fact is, the last time food and farm issues got this much play in an Ontario election was 1919, when farmers were the majority of the population and a revolt of the have-nots installed a Farmer-Labour coalition at Queen's Park.
The Liberals' platform has the least to say on these issues, but that may be because they've delivered as a government. They established the Ontario Greenbelt around the Golden Horseshoe, which protects the best farmland in Canada, saving it from being buried alive under ticky-tacky monster homes and box stores.
Equally important, the Liberals appear to be succeeding in placing the Greenbelt above politics. They're not bragging about it much, and none of the opposition parties have dared to say they'll undo it, despite the fact that protest votes from disgruntled farmers and campaign donations from developers could be harvested from an anti-Greenbelt stance.
The NDP has criticized the Libs for not doing enough to keep the Greenbelt pristine and free of throughways and gravel pits that damage its endangered species and spaces. There's good reason for the NDP's concerns, though the party would have more credibility if Howard Hampton hadn't gone to the powder room during the votes on both the Greenbelt and the Endangered Species Act.
Congrats to the Marilyn Churley wing of the Ndippers who kept the enviro focus in the caucus.
Both Liberals and their opposition critics have also remained remarkably silent on the Libs' two major rural policies. The Liberals introduced what's called the Standard Offer contract, the boring name for a positive revolution in clean energy.
It requires the Ontario hydro utility to buy electricity on a cost-plus basis from farmers who produce renewable energy by installing solar-voltaic panels on their land, for example, or converting livestock manure to methane and burning it as natural gas.
These provide new income streams that keep farming economically viable while rewarding clean and green grassroots power producers. Maybe that program has also gone to policy heaven, where ideas are so obvious that there's no need for debate.
Worth debating, however, is the Grit policy of providing tax and other incentives for farmers who grow corn for ethanol car fuel. It's an asinine energy and clean air policy, since corn requires so many high-energy and dirty inputs and results in so much land degradation that any good from a clean gas tank is more than cancelled out by farm pollution.
Ethanol incentives are also ethically questionable, since premium farmland is used to feed cars while almost a billion people in the world lack adequate food. However, there seems to be a corny consensus. The Conservatives support ethanol, the NDP wants an Ontario First policy of giving first dibs to Ontario farm polluters at the ethanol factories, and the Greens leave energy out of their section on agriculture.
All the parties also seem to agree on the importance of supporting local food. The Liberals are funding a Buy Ontario program, known in the trade as throwing money at a problem. The Conservatives pledge to buy Ontario food in government institutions and to require retailers to provide specially designated sections for local food.
The NDP campaign bus fed by caterers from FoodShare, the original champion of local, healthy and sustainable food issues statements about Ontario content laws in supermarkets, forcing retailers to support the home team with an unspecified amount of local food.
The Greens have the most detailed and thoughtful platform, promising to rebuild the necessary infrastructure to support a self-reliant food system, to encourage farm greening by paying farmers for their "ecological goods and services" and to require government institutions to buy local and sustainable foods. The Greens are alone when it comes to linking local and sustainable food, a link whose time may come in the next election.
There's a lot more to come on the farm and food front. One way to get an insight on that is to see how no one mentions fish, one of the most nutritious and well-priced foods.
Ontario is at the doorstep of what was once one of the world's great fisheries, the Great Lakes, but while they are no longer capable of producing safe and adequate stocks, no one sees this as a local food issue and an urgent reason to restore Great Lakes health. And there's no discussion of urban aquaculture, which promises to be a job and environmental bonanza.
The biggest problem with emerging food politics is what's called paradigm blindness. Most politicians and food and health professionals suffer from this disease and are thus only able to see food as an issue when it's in its place.
Even the Greens fail to emphasize the connection between food and other "non-food" issues like health care and job creation. One urban job in eight comes from food processing, distribution or service, but, for example, food rarely rates more than a nod in the economy sections of party platforms. The same blind spot holds for discussions on education and poverty.
The most revealing of this cross-party failure to "get it" is John Tory's remarkable 61-page position paper on skilled immigrants, based on his personal encounters with the issues when he was a big-biz exec and United Way frontman. The well-researched paper fails to discuss the need for culturally appropriate foods in a province where almost half the people are recent immigrants, or the need to assist immigrants who want to enter farm and food-producing careers.
But I need to see the point, too, which is that food is now being served on the political table, and it's time for foodies to push politicians for the full banquet.