on Canada’s food policy

Why do so many people in Canada go hungry? Why is the family farm disappearing? Why are farmers and fishers going out of business? Why are so many Canadians obese, and at a younger and younger age?

Do these questions matter?

What is wrong with Canada’s food systems?

Check out the work of the People’s Food Policy Project and find out how you can join the conversation and make a difference.

If you eat and if you love food, you need to sign this pledge  to  add your voice to calls for a National Food Policy that connects food, health, agriculture, the environment and social justice. We want 5000 people to sign this pledge by World Food Day on Oct. 16!


Food movement as a rhizome

An interesting article in the Briarpatch magazine blog about the food movement caught my eye today.

‘The rhizome can serve as a metaphor for the Canadian food movement – a decentralized network of diverse, self-organizing, interconnected initiatives with no identifiable beginning or end…

Over the past decade, food-related initiatives have proliferated in response to growing concerns about the corporate, industrial food system….

In the fall of 2010, researchers at the University of Toronto, in collaboration with provincial-level networks, conducted a survey of over 200 organizations working on food-related issues in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. The study, which aimed to gather information about the relationships between network actors, confirmed a number of assumptions about the food movement….”continue reading here.

World Rivers Day

On Sunday (Sept. 25, 2011), World Rivers Day events were held all over the world and I was happy to take part in some of the events held at the birthplace of WRD at BCIT in Burnaby.

I participate in many of the Meetup group events organized by the Lower Mainland Green Team and we had volunteered to help remove some invasive species of plants which threaten to life of Guichon Creek: Policeman’s Helmet (Impatiens glandulifera) Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) and English Ivy (Hedera helix), to name a few.

We successfully removed Policeman’s Helmet from a spot beside a bridge, then went for the Japanese Knotweed. Efforts to eradicate the Japanese Knotweed have been less successful and yesterday, we basically only tried to hack it down to the ground. The plan is then to try to bury it under thick cardboard and a heavy mulch. Unfortunately, it had grown back in an area where reparative planting had already taken place. It will be interesting to see how things progress.

Then we moved on to some Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus discolor) and the English Ivy.

We always try to have some fun as well. Even though the day started off grey and drizzly, then progressing to a veritable downpour, we were undaunted.

Some even took advantage of the horse-drawn wagon rides to travel upstream to an area readied for restorative planting of natives.

(I’m sorry to say “riparian restoration” keeps reminding me of an episode from the British tv show, “Keeping Up Appearances,” in which the hapless Violet plans some “riparian entertainments”. But I digress.)

The highlights of the day  for me were the release of cutthroat trout into the stream, the farmer’s market where I bought some wonderful fresh, organic produce including some wild chanterelle mushrooms, and sampling some bannock with jam and salmon cooked over an open fire.

Guichon Creek and the BCIT campus is on the traditional territories of the Coast Salish nations of Tsleil-WaututhMusqueamSquamishSto:lo, and Tsawwassen. Guichon Creek is doubtless nothing like the beautiful, wild stream it was once, but it is on its way to being restored. Many volunteers have worked hard to give this waterway a second chance. Perhaps someday soon, the salmon will return here to spawn as well.


peace activism and trees

It is with great sadness that I read this morning of the passing of Wangari  Muta Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement. By listening to poor rural women in her native Kenya, Professor Maathai learned  how the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affected poor, rural Kenyans—especially women. They told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce, and nutritious food was limited.

She suggested planting trees and founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. Trees provide wood for cooking, fencing for livestock, stabilize the soil, protect the watershed and thus improve the lives of the rural agriculturist. But through the work of the GBM, Maathai also came to realize that behind poverty and environmental destruction were deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures.

Much of Professor Maathai’s work has since then been a massive push on many fronts to bring together academics, governments, and those working at the grassroots to learn from and educate each other about the linkages between livelihoods and ecosystems. Joining other peace activists she fought for justice, equality and peace, not only at home, but on the international stage.

Read more about her fascinating work here.

invasives & permaculture

ivy pull at Capilano Park

Permaculture is all about a thoughtful way of farming or gardening that will allow humans to live with the land for a long, long time to come.

There is some merit to the idea that plants, animals and humans have drifted about this old world throughout the ages and fought it out, that eco-systems are always changing. I encountered this perspective on bio-diversity through the iconic and iconoclastic seedman, J. L. Hudson and I remember reading that idea at about the same time that purple loosestrife was invading the landscapes of southern and central Ontario where I lived. I kept pondering Hudson’s views while, over a matter of a few years, I was able to observe the look of my favorite marsh landscapes changing radically as the loose-strife moved in.

What little I know about eco-systems and how they evolve brings up snippets of information I can recall from a high-school field-trip to a Black Spruce Bog.  A Black Spruce Bog  is a boreal bog forest illustrating the climax stage of succession in a sphagnum bog ecosystem, and is a natural process of change. In comparison to the behavior of invasives, a natural succession of an eco-system seems innocent of the meddlesome hand of man.

Wherever an eco-system is threatened with sudden, catastrophic destruction (as opposed to evolution), it seems too often that man has been the culprit.  It is difficult to observe the destruction of native plant-scapes by such thugs as kudzu vine in the southern U.S., or English ivy in BC and not be concerned.

I have been told that nurseries in BC’s lower mainland still offer English ivy for sale (readers can correct me if I’m wrong!). Educational efforts are on-going regarding invasives  here in BC, as they are throughout Canada. It will eventually be nearly impossible to obtain these plants through the nursery/horticultural trades or elsewhere by anybody but the most determined seeker of “contraband” seeds.

On the other hand, I am not comfortable with the idea of making such plants “illegal” to grow. It seems to me a little childish to ban a plant; instead we should teach people to choose what they grow through well-informed and responsible choices.

We should always remember that what we humans may label a “weed”, for example, Mother Nature created to fill a specific purpose. As humans, we are prone to label plants as “weeds” only because they seem to interfere with our desires and schemes. Instead of observing Nature and cooperating with it, we have too often been in the habit of trying to subdue it or outwit it. That mindset, we are beginning to discover, is something like trying to constantly battle upstream against the current of a relentless river.

While I remain intellectually ambivalent about invasives, on a gut level, I am disturbed enough that this past weekend, I participated in an “ivy pull” event at beautiful Capilano Park.  For some idea of the enormous effort it takes to remove English Ivy once it becomes established, have a look at the videos below. Also check out the photos of the event and check out the utter elimination of any other plants in areas overtaken by the ivy.

To end on a more positive note, do some research on the principles of permaculture design and how it describes a way of living with Nature in an intelligent and less destructive way. That will be our effort in building the community garden at 22nd Street Skytrain Station too. Why don’t you get on board?

Permaculture, what is it?

Looking at the word permaculture, you can see some big clues as to the basic intentions behind the idea.

There is a disturbing history of agriculture linked to the demise of many cultures, first described by Joseph Russell Smith in 1929. The histories follow a similar pattern of forest – field – plough – desert. Think of the devastation of the Dust Bowl  or Dirty Thirties (1930 – 1936) which occured across much of the prairies in Canada and America after the deep-rooted grasses which would have prevented wind erosion were cut into by deep ploughing.

The question raised is: do farmers/gardeners by their very actions inevitably contribute to the desertification of the land? Is it possible for land to be cultivated, to be used to meet the needs of humans, without jeopardizing the life forms on it in the short term and eventually altering it past the point of no return?

The ideas of permaculture, a way of cultivation that can be sustained indefinitely, offer a perspective, a way of doing and living with the land, that can embrace concern for the environment, organic gardening, energy conservation…many of the concepts dear to every “greenie’s” heart

For a nice introduction to the history and concepts of permaculture, check out David Power’s blog at Permaculture Power.

Do you matter?

If you don’t believe one person can make a difference, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”
-Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop

So sometimes I confess that I feel like a pest. I know my family isn’t all that excited by the same things that I am. I can actually watch that glassy look come into their eyes sometimes when I’m on a roll, excited and telling them all about my ideas and dreams for the work that I do.

Does it seem like that to you? Do you want to get involved and contribute to your community, but when you talk about what you would like to do, does your  family treat you like a whiny mosquito?

The thing you must realize here is that your job is not to convince your family. It’s  not even to convince your friends or acquaintances, or the city planners and mayor’s office, or your church group…

Your first job is to convince yourself. That’s right. The reason you seek out the approval and support of your family et al is because you aren’t sure of yourself. You don’t trust that you have anything to give!

If you have the desire, you have something to give. It is a reaching out of your hand to connect. It is a putting your hand in the dirt. It is getting involved and getting messy and being open hearted and willing to get your heart broken.

Dreaming of something better for  yourself, for the people you love, for people in your community is an act of courage. It’s all too easy to try to conform and think that what is and what has always been done is all that can be done. It is all too easy to listen to the nay-sayers, real or imagined, and let an opportunity to do something slip you by.

It’s been said that “every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

But even that is not why you matter. If you have a dream, no matter how big or small, you must act on it. Your action may never shake the status quo or even be noticed. But you will know. You will know that you tried to make a difference, that you tried to give a helping hand, that you took a brave step towards a better world.

You may fail miserably. You may look like a fool. You may make all sorts of mistakes. But if you don’t try, you will not do anything at all and will have no chance of making this world a better place.

I believe there is a powerful energy in caring. Of course, it would be nice and wise to do things well and prudently, to be efficient in some measurable way. But sometimes the most important things, like caring, cannot be measured.

Remember that Greek proverb that says: A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under whose shade they will never sit.

You may never see the evidence that your caring action made any difference. But that’s not necessarily your job, to measure the outcome. You are here for a reason and that reason is that the world needs you to take the action that only you, right where you are, can make.

It’s not up to you to worry about who will get to sit under those trees or when. Those trees may even get cut down by some fool after you are gone, and even that is not your problem.

If it is your job to plant trees, plant them. Plant them to the best of your ability. Nobody is as optimistic as a gardener. Be a happy gardener and plant your garden for the happiness of your community. Nurture it as long as it is in your care. Then let it go.

That’s all you need to do. You may never know what joy you have brought into the lives of others, but if you do nothing, nothing will change.

Living with a Himalayan

Ahhh! ‘Tis the season of blackberries here on the west coast. I have waited and waited. They began ripening at the beginning of August and are now reaching their luscious peak!

There is an art to waiting for the exact right moment to pick blackberries. It isn’t when they turn black. You have to wait until the shine goes off the berries and they almost appear slightly grey or dusty. Then they slip into your hand and if you are not careful, another berry adjacent to the one you’re picking falls to the ground for every one you manage to pick!

The blackberry patches are at least as menacing as Sleeping Beauty’s thickets of climbing roses! Canes can grow from 5 to 10 meters in length and as they arch over, wherever the tips touch the ground, the take root. In this way, they can hop-scotch along and quickly cover a vast area. It is not wise to venture into a blackberry patch in bare feet or light summery clothing, as I did today. Still, gingerly reaching in through the thorny canes (and watching out for stinging nettle as well), I managed to pick nearly 2 litres of the intoxicating berries. 

In the Lower Mainland area of BC, we generally see either the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor) or the Evergreen or Cutleaf blackberry (Rubus laciniatus.) They are both invasives, the Himalayan having probably travelled from Asia to England, the Evergreen originating in Europe. They probably arrived here with European settlers.

The Himalayan is easy to distinguish from the Cutleaf variety and seems to be what I have seen the most of thus far in my travels around the lower mainland. It has clusters of 3-5 leaflets that are oval in shape. Like the Cutleaf, its stem is five-sided, not round. The berries are black when ripe and up to 2 cm long, a rich source of energy for all sorts of birds and small animals. The berries are a vigorous alternative method of propagation for these invasives, spread about by the various animals that have ingested them.

Efforts to eradicate these invasives is difficult. They are a concern because their vigorous growth in disturbed areas and along waterways particularly at lower elevations can form such dense thickets of a single species that it crowds out diverse native systems and prevents larger animals from reaching water-holes. 

But the most amusing method tried for eradicating the invasive blackberry species may also be the most successful:  the introduction of goats. I’m not sure however how you go about containing goats!

Still, they are here and I do enjoy the berries! Of all the delicious ways to eat blackberries, I think my favorite is in a port-laced sauce poured over peach ice-cream or over panna-cotta flavored with a little fresh mint-pesto. Reserve a few of the fattest, juiciest berries to decorate the plate just before serving the panna-cotta and you have a light, tasty and gorgeous dessert!   (Should we incorporate a recipe section?)

Blackberry is also a well-known herbal remedy. The best herbal remedies were foods first, and blackberries are superbly nutritious. The berries are mildly laxative, but the roots and leaves can be used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. The leaf is milder and makes a nice tea. Rather nasty to dig up, if you do brave the raspberry thicket to dig for roots, do it in the early spring or fall. The younger, tender roots are easier to cut up and contain more of the beneficial tannins and are usually prepared into a tincture.

food security

Food is one of those special needs of human beings that is also so often part of the social fabric and history of a place. It is not only a delicious way to nourish the body but is a multi-sensory delight and part of the social contracts that knit communities together.

Fresh air, clean water, shelter, love, all basic human needs but none perhaps with as much emphasis on the sensual as food!

However, many threats to food security should cause us alarm.

An answer that seems to bypass the usually divisions of politics and class are the community-driven food-justice organizations that are inclusive, open to anyone who  wants to participate at any level. Food justice and security issues impact everyone from farmers and farm workers, to restaurant owners and workers and the corporations and systems that produce and supply food.

An interest in a food system that produces safe, nourishing and accessible food for everyone without risking the future of the food of future generations by degrading the environment cuts across all sectors of society’s interests. We all understand that we enjoy and use our natural resources as a loan from our children.

In many communities across the US and Canada, organizations have begun to map food deserts! These identify mostly urban areas where there is a paucity of stores and markets that offer fresh, good quality food as well as problem stores that only offer only junk food and alcohol. Some are more positive in their focus, mapping grocery stores, farmers markets, community gardens.

An interesting example of the latter is our local Food Secure Vancouver site!

We hope to have our own community gardens at 22nd Street Skytrain Station on that map soon!


I recently met with Athenaise to talk about some of the ideas we have for a new kind of garden space at the 22nd Street Skytrain Station area in New Westminster, BC. A little while ago, I had responded to a sign she had posted along the BC Parkway Trail which I had noticed on one of my Sunday morning runs. You may have seen these notices too!

In general terms, her ideas are to design and assemble an ecologically sustainable garden and natural area following permaculture principles. Our goals would be to use and model organic growing practices that protect the environment, reconnect people with the land that sustains us, and promote the relationships that heal, nurture and empower people. Through the creation of a pleasing and productive landscape, we hope to make intelligible connections between the garden, the community and the natural world.

We found we had many interests in common: food justice and security, responsible citizenship, empowerment of those who might be disinfranchised, under-employed, under-privileged; ecologically and esthetically responsible use of land that is in harmony with the goals and desires of the community; and promoting the production of high-quality, affordable food in a garden-project that is as inclusive and integrated into the community as possible.

Our first steps will be to get the input of all the people who might be impacted or have an interest in this space. If you use this space ( live, work or travel through or near it), we want to know who you are, how you use the space, what you do when you are in the area, what you like or dislike about the space as it is now, and your opinions and ideas regarding our plans.

Participate in our survey, comment on any of our posts here, or send us an email.