Stephen Harper throws cash at loser industries instead of job-rich mixed farms.
Nothing worse than a fall election for making your fave summer memories fade. It seems like an eon ago, though it was just a few weeks back, that I was volunteering on a Prince Edward Island organic sheep farm and thinking that mixed farms are the unexamined key to solving the world's economic insecurity.
When a Canadian election is being called ostensibly because the level of global turbulence requires a firm hand at the helm, it's worth considering that mixed farms provide just the protection from instability every country needs for calmer seas that don't require a firm crackpot at the helm.
Sadly, such is our alienation from the foundations of social, economic and ecological stability that none of our campaigning pols are raising this transformative proposition.
Nor are any of them courageous enough to broach the idea of extending a carbon tax to cover meat from non-green operations, with revenues going to support small mixed farms.
The Anglo-American habit of meat overconsumption is the food equivalent of driving a Hummer. At some point, the enviro and other consequences of our current method of supplying carnivores are going to make it onto the political agenda alongside other issues related to global warming.
Back on PEI, the swelling hills, wide stretches of pasture land, greenhouse, veggie garden, pond and ample forest of Allister and Margaret Veinot's farm near Vernon is a picture-postcard setting.
Looks great, but what's not visible to tourists are all the ways on-farm diversity dovetails with public needs for environmental protection and job creation. If only Ontario and federal politicians grappling with our disappearing manufacturing sector would grasp this and put cash into food production instead of foreign-owned heavy industries shedding jobs.
I chose the Veinots' farm because in this my fifth year as a summer-holiday agricultural grunt, I wanted to work with livestock to see if such a thing as green meat really exists.
A 2006 report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization pinpoints meat as the culprit in runaway energy use in agriculture. And according to Nobel Prize winner Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 18 per cent of global warming emissions come from meat, a figure likely to double by 2050 if present trends continue, he says.
Surprisingly, say footprint experts Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews, only 11 per cent of food's total global warming emissions comes from transportation. Most of the problem is meat production, and replacing just 21 per cent of red meat with fish or chicken does as much emissions-wise as buying everything else in the diet locally, they say.
Local food is already a political issue; gassy foods will inevitably follow.
But having said all this, there's meat production and then there's meat production. My observations at the Veinots' mixed farm, I believe, show the need for a mixed analysis. It's not meat per se that puts a heavy foot to the gas pedal. If more farms were like the Veinots', meat farming could be the lightest agricultural step of all.
The hundred sheep on this farm get most of their food from pasture that grows on land that's too hilly or wet for field crops. Pasture grasses are perennials that require none of the machine plowing or harvesting that annual field crops need, and they sink deep roots in the soil that store carbon underground.
The animal manure dropped in pasture enriches the soil there, while the manure composted with straw bedding from the barn where the sheep spend the night goes to the veg garden, making it unnecessary to import fertilizer from fossil fuels.
This "closed cycle" requires few energy inputs and uses otherwise low-grade resources (poorly drained or rocky land, for example) to best advantage while reducing the total energy needed to run a farm.
If people ate modest amounts of milk and dairy, such farms could be the global norm. It's excessive meat consumption that necessitates raising livestock with grains rather than pasture, the food they evolved on.
Though milking sheep is the centrepiece of the farm, the Veinots have many sidelines. The unwanted male sheep born on the farm are sold for meat after several months of pasture. The wool goes to a local firm that turns it into winter socks. There's a large veggie garden and about 60 black currant bushes.
I have the bee stings and face swollen beyond recognition to prove that it takes two days to pick all the berries for a local jam maker. A beekeeper pays two pails of honey a year to place 100 beehives between the Veinots' pasture and forest. A wild blueberry picker leases several acres of their forested land for that premium product.
A wildcrafter used to pay them a lease for access to their elderberry trees, and the Veinots would like to find someone to manage their woodlot. Just as carrots and onions are thinned for maximum production, recovering forests can be thinned for optimal growth.
Above all, the Veinots need artisan cheese makers who can turn their sheeps' milk into a local and high-value product.
The common back-of-the envelope calculation made for mixed farms like these is that every dollar of farm income generates $5 in off-farm job creation. By contrast, every dollar among the billions given to car makers, logging and pulp firms over the past decade has ended up creating nothing but job losses.
If a newly elected government wanted to invest in jobs and enviro protection at the same time, this is where public money should go.
While I was in PEI, a study was published showing that the average PEI farmer spends $102 for every $100 earned. The Veinots are a case study in this reverse subsidy. They start their first milking of the day at 4:30 am and finish their second at 8:30 pm, after they come home from day jobs that finance their farming.
But when it comes to milking subsidies, they know none of the tricks used by heavy industry. Someday that might be an election issue.3
Wayne Robert's new book is The No-Nonsense Guide To World Food by Between the Lines.
• Livestock creates more climate change gases than all the motor vehicles in the world.
• 30 per cent of the earth's surface not covered by ice is diverted to livestock production.
• 33 per cent of arable land goes to feeding livestock.
• 7 pounds of corn is needed to produce 1 pound of beef;
• 6.5 pounds of corn for 1 pound of pork;
• 2.6 pounds of corn for 1 pound of chicken.
• Livestock generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide (with 296 times the global warming potential of CO2).
• Livestock generates 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as global-warming as CO2).
• 70 per cent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned into grazing land.
Source: Livestock's Long Shadow, a report of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.