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The food we eat From local organics to big business bio-tech By Stephen Vogler "You are what you eat." I don’t know who was first credited with this saying, but it certainly rings true. Not just figuratively, but literally, even chemically. If I were to ingest a bag of Old Dutch Crunchys, for example, and trace each molecule through the windy tracts of my body, I would gradually see myself becoming disodium phosphate, silicon dioxide, yellow dye # 5 and #6 etc. It’s a scary thought, though at least I’d be aware of the chemical change about to take place in my body. If I buy an apple at the local grocery store, on the other hand, I won’t be forewarned that it contains a host of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, or perhaps an added gene, leap-frogged onto its genetic code from the venom of a spider. In the last half century, the production of our food has become much more of a mystery to us, its growing processes hidden from our sight. While people once knew the farmer who grew their vegetables, these days our produce is bought and sold by food brokers, trucked across the continent and distributed to large grocery stores. Meat no longer hangs by a hoof at the local market or butcher shop; it arrives ready to use on a Styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic and stamped with a bar code. But these days many people are starting to question the mass production of their food. The chemical herbicides and pesticides that sprang from World War II research are no longer viewed as the miracle ticket to a bountiful food supply. Growing numbers of people are becoming concerned about the toxicity of those substances, about the hormones and antibiotics pumped into mass-produced meat and poultry, and about startling new advances in genetically modified crops. In the Pemberton Valley and surrounding areas, some small farms are beginning to address the need for healthier, chemical-free foods grown on a small-scale local level. Jeanette and Doug Helmer operate one of three certified organic farms in the Pemberton Valley. "You don’t really notice them because the main farms are the big seed growers and we’re the smaller farms," Jeanette says. "There are quite a few that aren’t certified that could be, as far out as D’Arcy even. There are a lot of young couples getting into it. They don’t own their own land necessarily, but they’re using land — the soil is so good." The Helmers sell the bulk of their produce in Vancouver to restaurants, organic delivery services, stores such as Capers and at farmers’ markets around the city. They also sell locally at Nesters Market and the new grocery store in Pemberton as well as some restaurants in Whistler. "At Nesters you can buy it. They’re really good at promoting local stuff. We’ve been selling our stuff there for years. They’re very supportive," Jeanette says. But as with any kind of farming in Canada these days, it’s very hard to make a living. The Helmers, and other produce growers in the area, have to do other things to supplement their income. One of the problems is the very limited growing season. Most of the produce is only available from July through September. "If they had places to store stuff for the winter," Jeanette says, "we could grow a lot more crops." Independently, none of the small farmers have the money to build a storage shed, but by pooling their resources and working co-operatively they might be able to give their fledgling industry a boost. Having local organic produce available throughout a greater portion of the year would also help in gaining more local customers. Some of the local organic growers have planned a meeting for early May, in which they will discuss ways of working together to help establish the industry. "Another thing we’re going to talk about at the meeting is getting people together and sharing seeds, and then maybe one farm could grow one thing and eventually, over a number of years, we could grow a lot more stuff here," Jeanette says. They are also looking at other ways in which local growers could work together to help cut down overhead costs. The Helmers have recently met with chefs from some Vancouver restaurants who are really keen on buying local organic produce. "So we really want to get these guys (the smaller growers) help in the market too, because eventually maybe we could all rent a truck, or get something going together," she says. While a riff existed a few years ago between an organic farmer and the conventional seed potato farmers in the Pemberton Valley, today there seems to be a much more co-operative relationship. Bruce Miller is a second-generation Pemberton farmer who owns the neighbouring farm to the Helmers. Affids present the biggest threat to the seed potato crop in that they can be passed throughout the valley from farm to farm. "Before the high-end populations come around in the beginning of September, we try to have all of our potatoes finished growing," Miller says. "We don’t actually put any sprays on until about the 15th of July. There’s ways to cut down (on spraying). We’re raising a family too." Organic farmers like the Helmers, who grow a large potato crop, concentrate on early varieties and insure that they cut the tops off before the affid season begins. "The seed committee actually came up with a time-line for them and they just operate within that, and it works pretty well for them," Miller says. There seems to be a level of respect and even a sharing of knowledge between the conventional farmers and the newer organic farmers in the valley. Jeanette Helmer says, "Most of the conventional farmers don’t use any sprays on their own vegetables in their backyard gardens. And the same goes with their cattle. There’s a lot of beef grown locally and they’re not given any hormones. They’re also very strict about rotating their crops." Seed potatoes are grown on a four year rotation so the soil can rejuvenate. That means to grow 50 acres of seed potatoes you need 200 acres of land. Grain crops can be grown in the years potatoes aren’t seeded and many farmers also graze cattle on the land. "Right now we’re just raising cattle on grass," Bruce says. "There’s not much money in that, but it does work together. The cattle raised here, it’s not intense production of cows. We don’t use any kind of inputs at all, although they’re not certified organic cattle. But it’s kind of like what Jordan Sturdy’s doing. You make your own choices and you don’t give them any hormone injections or anything else." Tricia and Jordan Sturdy own and operate the North Arm Farm in the lower Pemberton Valley. While the farm isn’t certified organic, they follow the fundamental principles of organic farming to grow healthy, pesticide-free produce. "We start with strawberries in June and carry on through to Halloween, and depending on the weather, we’ll do stuff after Halloween," Jordan says. They grow a variety of vegetables including lettuce, potatoes, carrots, squash and corn as well as berries, all for direct fresh market sales to the consumer. The Sturdys sell directly from their farm throughout the summer, and at the Whistler and Pemberton Farmers’ markets. They also supply the Chateau, the Bearfoot Bistro and Chef Bernard’s with salad mix and other produce. "Our bag is that we live in the middle of this place and I drink the water from the well which is all of 14 feet deep," Jordan says. "We’ve got a three-year-old and a four-year-old, two little girls. They’re always running around taking their clothes off so I don’t want them rolling around in pesticides." The Sturdys don’t have a big problem with insects on their crops, though they do get a few small bugs such as flea beetles which chew small holes in the mixed greens. The beetles force them to cut back the plants and throw out half of the leaves at times. They also use some organic pesticides such as Roetenone, and plan on trying other methods such as row covers to keep the beetles out. "Weed control is our big problem," says Jordan. "It’s pure labour. I spend a pile of money on labour. We try a bunch of different things. We flame weed our carrots. So we plant them and then at day five we go through it with — well we use a tiger torch which is pretty primitive, but it works." The Sturdys currently use fertilizer on their sweet corn, and find that it’s necessary to produce a crop which will mature properly. Their long-term objective, Jordan says, is to bring up the soil fertility and soil quality so that fertilizer won’t be necessary. "Normally when you grow corn you would go along and take everything — a machine comes along and takes the whole plant off. We go along and take it by hand, and just take cobs, and then the rest of it gets mowed back in. By doing this, over the course of 10 years, we’re bringing up our organic matter and our soil fertility." Jordan concurs with the Millers and the Helmers, and probably every farmer across Canada, that making a living by farming is extremely difficult these days. "We’ve never made a cent," he says. "This year we broke even — as long as you don’t consider that my wife and I are worth anything. Our costs go up all the time," he explains, "but our prices never go up. All the other countries in Europe, and the United States, have huge subsidies for farmers. Canada has cut its support for farmers faster and harder than anybody but New Zealand, which is really significant," he says. But despite the difficulties, the Sturdys are continuing to farm and are working at ways to diversify. Jordan says, "I think we’ve got good potential down the road, when we get our kitchen a little more organized, and get the bakery thing happening, doing a little more value-added stuff. But again, it’s all hard work and it takes time and everything costs money." Another aspect of the organic food industry which is becoming more prevalent in the area are home delivery services. Both Glacier Organics, based out of Squamish, and Organics to You, out of Burnaby, deliver in the Sea To Sky Corridor. As with farming, delivering produce door to door isn’t necessarily a means to getting rich. "I like to support the organics industry," says Robert Guest, owner and operator of Glacier Organics. "It’s something that I believe in very highly and I’m trying to just pump the knowledge out there. I didn’t start this to become a millionaire." Part of his service, Guest says, is finding produce at a reasonable enough rate so that he can offer it at a cheaper price than the stores. For a good six months of the year he has to find that produce south of the border, mostly in California, but in the summer he tries to buy more locally. "I do try to support local B.C. farming as much as possible," he says. The demand for organic produce in the area is definitely on the rise. When he started his business a year and a half ago, Guest had 12 deliveries and he now does over 100 a week. "It’s going all right," he says. "In a year and a half I’ve grown quite a bit. I’m making a living out of it; it’s paying the bills, but it could get a little bit better." Whether local farmers can continue to pay the bills and make a living is another question. Large agribusiness farms, relying heavily on herbicides, pesticides, and increasingly employing genetically modified crops, can produce food at a much cheaper cost than the small local farmer. But whether that food is safe for consumption in the long run remains to be seen. A recent study by Consumer Report Magazine found that toxicity levels of fruit and vegetables imported from the States were too high in apples, peaches, pears, grapes, green beans, spinach and winter squash. Some samples had pesticide levels a hundred times higher than in other foods. Five percent of samples tested showed higher than acceptable levels of pesticides, while pesticide levels in Canadian produce were generally half of those in produce imported from the States. Canadians might also be surprised to find that thousands of acres of genetically altered crops are already being grown in Canada and are finding their way onto grocery store shelves. This includes half of the canola grown each year in Canada, a quarter of the corn and 20 per cent of the potatoes. Other genetically altered food items approved for sale by Health Canada include tomatoes, tofu and a host of packaged foods. While many countries in Europe and South America have either banned such crops or called for mandatory labelling, North America seems to have embraced the new technology without any public discussion. While some scientists suggest that genetically modified crops are safe and will soon become the norm, others say that environmental and health risks could lie ahead and that it takes time for mistakes to show themselves in nature. Dr. Ann Clark, crop scientist with the University of Guelph, says, "We’re moving genes around that we don’t have any idea what they’re going to do. There’s all sorts of interactions that are very likely not only amongst the genes, but between the genes and the environment that they’re in." Some new developments which are causing concern include antibiotic-resistant material in seeds, which could interfere with medicinal antibiotics, and the possibilities of new genetic traits crossing over into weeds and other surrounding plants. Companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hybrid International and Navartus are currently working on putting fish genes in strawberries and a cholera vaccine in bananas. Critics caution that this kind of genetic leap-frogging is a completely different practice from conventional cross-breeding. Bio-technology is being pushed on scientists, governments, farmers and consumers by giant life-sciences companies with lots of research money to throw around, Clark says. Other critics say that Agriculture Canada has lost its credibility in the area of genetic modification because it accepts tens of millions of dollars a year in research money from life-sciences corporations. The fact that banks have put billions of dollars into the bio-tech industry and want to see their money returned may also have something to do with the rapid acceptance of genetic engineering in North America. While those who wholly endorse genetically modified foods say there have been no illnesses reported to date, others say we would never be able to find the causes of such illnesses without proper labelling. Bruce Deneen is a retired farmer from Salmon Arm, B.C. who publishes the Ramshorn Newsletter. If the bio-tech industry has nothing to hide, he says, it should label its genetically-modified food. "That would at least enable the public to participate democratically in their food system," he says. "If the genetically-engineered foods are so good, then I would fully expect the industry to want to label and to command a premium price — if it’s a premium product, they should get a premium price for it." More likely, however, new developments in biotechnology will enable large-scale growers to produce food at lower costs and higher profits. And those lower production costs will make it even harder for small farmers to make a living. On the other hand, if people want to know more about the food that they eat, and don’t particularly want to take part in a life-sciences experiment, they might continue to move towards smaller-scale and more locally grown food.