Most of the articles here have been printed in the Richmond Review newspaper, though some have appeared in other media outlets. Unless otherwise noted, these articles were written by staff of the Richmond Food Security Society.

We will be adding more articles periodically as they are published. Enjoy!

The Quest for the Killer App

GMOs will never be a one-size fits all solution to global food security, but like them or not, they will have a role. This article tries to clarify exactly what we are debating when we talk about GMOs so we can make intelligent decisions about where to use them.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

“Are you pro-GMOs or not, yes or no?”

I’ve been asked that before, especially now that I work for a food security organization, but my standard answer, “It depends”, is not pleasing to many people in the polarized debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The problem is that the question is too broad. The benefits of GMOs cannot be decided in a simple yes or no answer.

To illustrate this, let’s look at another technology, apps for your phone or tablet. What if I asked you, “What’s the best app you can get?” Your answer is inevitably going to be a variation of “It depends on what you want to do.”

Let me tell you, that’s not what an app developer wants to hear. They are all trying to produce the most prized of all apps, the “Killer App”, so named in the industry because it is an app that is so desirable that nobody can do without it.

But in reality, finding the right app can be bewildering. No matter what you want – an instant messenger, a game, a scheduler, etc. – there are dozens, if not hundreds of choices. A few will be great, but the rest will range from adequate to terrible, and some will be downright malicious. So the quest for the killer app soon dissolves in complexity.

So it is with GMOs. One problem is that many people don’t know precisely what they are arguing about when it comes to GMOs. The official definition of a GMO from the United States Department of Agriculture is “an organism produced through genetic modification.”

To some, that sounds bad, until you consider that genetic modification simply means “the production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods.”

So it is perfectly feasible to create GMOs using entirely organic and ancient methods, and in fact, people have been cross-breeding compatible plants and animals for centuries. The real divide here is the part about genetic engineering (GE), which is actually what the opponents of GMOs are concerned about.

Now we have a better question, it seems. “Are you pro-GE organisms (GEOs) or not, yes or no?”

But remember the problem of choosing apps? That was hard enough, but child’s play compared to the number of GEOs are out there. But when you start looking at the potential benefits they offer, your certainty about whether GE organisms or bad or not will probably face a stiff challenge.

Because products like the controversial Roundup-ready corn or rice that Monsanto produces are often mentioned in the news or at protests, they have become symbols of what many people think all GEOs are like. But many other GEOs have only been slightly modified or ‘tweaked’ to address very specific crop pests or blights, or to produce additional beneficial effects.

For example, there is a GE yeast that produces a long-chain omega-3 acid that is essential to human health that was previously only obtainable though increasingly scarce wild fish. Or there are cows in Africa that have been genetically modified to resist the parasite that causes African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness. Cows are the primary carriers of the disease, which can get transmitted to people if they are bitten by mosquitos that have fed on the cows. No disease in the cows means no disease in the people. Considering that sleeping sickness used to kill over 30,000 people a year, it’s hard to argue there’s no benefit here.

All this may sound like I’m in favor of GEOs, but that’s not accurate. Just like apps, I can see that some fill a real need, and that some others require extensive scrutiny to ensure they are not malicious.

For me, my main objection to GE organisms can be summed up with the expression “When all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Too often, there are agricultural problems that could be solved by organic or more sustainable means, or by simply changing the policies on how things are done or financed, than by tinkering with the genetic code of some plant or animal. But those other methods are usually not as profitable as the GE route.

Recent high profile studies by the UN, Oxfam and other food security organizations have shown that genetically engineered organisms work best when they play a supporting role, not when they have the entire food system designed around them. GEOs will never be the killer app we need to fix our food system and sooner we accept that, the sooner we can have real conversations about what they can realistically do to help feed the people of the world.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society.  To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

The Inconvenient Truth About Small Farm

Part (1 of 2) This article talks about how industrial scale farming cannot match the productivity of small farms. The second part of the article describes in detail why small farms are better at securing world food security.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

In 2006, Al Gore released the book “An Inconvenient Truth” in conjunction with the film of the same name. The book and film raised the alarm about global climate change, and has since provoked much debate. One such debate occurred at the recent UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York City, where the world’s leaders gathered to politely discuss the problem. The Summit, in turn, inspired another significant event, the People’s Climate March, where almost 400,000 people noisily flooded the streets of New York to press the leaders to actually do something about it.

I think Al Gore hit the nail on the head with the title of his book and film. Sometimes a fact will be so inconvenient that the established order has a hard time accepting it, no matter what the evidence. Turns out, there is another ‘inconvenient truth’ that is becoming clearer to the world every day, but this time it’s about agriculture. More and more, it looks like small farms are the key to global food security.

Already small peasant farms feed about 70 percent of the world’s population. But that’s not the real kicker, it’s this – productivity per unit of land goes down rather than up with increasing farm size. This vexing “inverse relationship”, as it’s known to economists and development professionals, has been confirmed in study after study.

So why is this an inconvenient truth? To average people like you and me, it isn’t. In fact, it’s great news. But for the giant agribusinesses, research institutes and government agencies that have created technologies, subsidy programs and policies aimed at creating an industrial food system based on enormous farms that ship their products worldwide, it’s the last thing they want to hear.

For example, can you imagine the reaction of an executive of a mega-agribusiness like Monsanto to the news that in a small farm based global food system, products like genetically modified crops, even if they are proven safe, will have a minor role at best, and that most farmers won’t be buying seeds from the company anymore because they will have returned to the ancient practice of seed saving? That would be mightily inconvenient to their bottom-line, wouldn’t it?

Climate change is going to turn many cherished agricultural policies and goals on their head, because the more it worsens, the more it exposes the fact that our multinational food system is deeply flawed, often growing the wrong types of crops in the wrong places for the wrong purposes. Now, climate change is teaching us what really works in agriculture versus what we wish would work. And small farms work, so the sooner we start recognizing the leading role that they are already playing in feeding people, the better.

Does this mean the end of large farms? No, but it does mean we that if we start shifting our farming infrastructure, policies and subsidies to emphasize support of smaller farms instead of big agribusinesses, they will face stiff competition. Right now, many small farms are marginalized on poor land or have inadequate resources devoted to them, but when they start getting the support needed to establish themselves on decent land, they will out-produce the large farms that are working under similar conditions.

Here in Richmond, supporting the small farm solution to the global food security challenge isn’t a theoretical exercise, but one that will shape our city. There are currently 211 farms in Richmond, none of which are mega farms. However, much of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) lands in the city are empty. This is prime farmland that should be under cultivation, but since this land is close to an expanding urban area like Richmond, it is becoming prohibitively expensive for small farmers to buy a plot to start a business. This problem has only gotten worse because of a surge in land speculation after the announcement that the ALR would be reviewed for non-farm uses. Obviously, the city will have to come up with new ways to encourage and support Richmond farmers if they are going to thrive.

In my next article, I will examine exactly how small farms can fulfill their promise for securing food security. Hopefully, the farms in Richmond will be part of the solution. However, that future is cloudy. The survival of our farms will ultimately depend on us accepting our own local truth, which is that Richmond isn’t a city that has farms in it, but instead is farmland that has some urban areas on it. Understanding that will go a long way towards ensuring that are local farms are celebrated as the precious resource that they are.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure
that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that
strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and
find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Great Expectations, the small farm version

Part (2 of 2) This article describes why small-scale farming has the potential to be the solution to global food security and what is needed to unlock it.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

Small-scale farming is the key to world food security. There you go folks, that debate is done, the tale is told.

Or is it? Almost every day there is a news article that proclaims that the key to world food security has been found. The list ranges from well-known candidates, like genetically modified crops (GMOs), to very specific things, like micro irrigation systems or crops like Australian wild rice.

So why is small-scale farming the true key, and not these others? Well, pull up a chair, relax, have a coffee, because I’ve got a story to tell.

People like adversaries in stories, but in the real world, things are more complex. Saying small-scale farming is the key factor doesn’t mean that all the other approaches are wrong. Are we going to get rid of all medium- and large-scale farms in favor of smaller ones? Of course not. If you were building a house, you’d need more than just a hammer and nails. To build real food security, we will need all the tools in the box, but if you lack the key tool, it’s difficult to make something solid and resilient.

According to UN researchers and Oxfam, our first, best tool will be small-scale farms. In much of the world, that means farms that are 4 hectares (ha) or less in size. In Richmond, all our farms are small farms by Canadian standards, being on average 12.2 ha, and tiny compared to some large-scale industrial farms, which can be over 2000 ha.

Right now, across the globe, many small farms are subsistence farms, meaning they are usually attended by one family and only produce enough food to feed themselves and little else. Yet despite this, small farms already feed almost 70% of the world’s population, and they have the potential to do much more. With the right support, small-scale farms could see their production increase to almost double current levels by 2030.

So how do we tap into this potential? This is where the story might get contentious, because it will require shifting our agricultural policies, subsidies, and financing options so that they focus first on supporting small farms rather than large agribusinesses. Nobody is saying large farms shouldn’t get a share, but their current proportion (70-80% of these resources) is out of whack.

However, this significant adjustment of agricultural policies will probably cause some friction (to put it mildly), but it’s a crucial step. That’s because many small-scale farms aren’t managed like businesses, but function more like extended personal gardens. Poor farmers typically plant much less than they could on their land because they lack the money, resources and knowledge of advanced farming to do anything more.

But when they have access to all the supports that large-scale farms enjoy, small farms can become true businesses and flourish. For example, if small farmers can’t get crop insurance, they are forced to plant tried and true (but less productive) crops because they will starve if their crops fail. Access to crop insurance means they can plant higher risk, higher reward crops that increase yields and farm income.

Better farm support would dramatically change the pictures in other ways. It would mean many small farmers, especially women, would get access to financing to buy better land, tools, or support technologies, like advanced irrigation systems. Or they could afford to get training in the latest farming techniques, or learn basic business skills like bookkeeping, marketing and planning that are essential to turning their subsistence farms into productive farm businesses.

If you combine all this with improved community support, like establishing local processing facilities for crops, better storage, and comprehensive food waste prevention programs, the potential is enormous.

So what about large-scale farms and GMOs? Weren’t they supposed to be the key to feeding the world? When they were first introduced, these technologies created sharp rises in food production, but those increases are plateauing. That’s a great pity. If you are someone who is interested in feeding the hungry people of the world, there’s no joy in seeing these technologies stutter.

But it is not surprising that they are. Introducing GMOs and other advanced food technologies into our flawed food system is like adding an advanced fuel additive into the engine of a car that has flat tires and broken steering. However, if you fix the basics first, then these technologies might become the supercharged additions they were supposed to be. In our global food system, there is nothing more basic than small-scale farms, so let’s put them at the front of the line instead of at the back if we want our story to have a happy ending.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society.  To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Breastfeeding: A Winning Goal for Life!

Breastfeeding is fundamental to to the health of babies, but this article describes how recent research shows it is just as important to the well-being of mothers as well.

Richmond Review Article by Colin Dring

“Hold on, I have to feed Juni, she’s getting cranky!” my friend Janet says to me as we’re sipping coffees in trendy Kitsilano last week. Janet is visiting from Korea where she’s been working for the past few years. She’s also a very close friend, almost like a sister to me. Little Juni is adorable; she has two faces, frowning face, and a strange constipated face, which confounds description. Needless to say, very cute.

Janet shamelessly preps Juni for feeding time right there on the side of the busy street as I casually mention to her that I’ve been sitting on a Breastfeeding Advisory group in Richmond for the past couple of years. She jokingly points out my lack of children and maybe I’m starting to feel the pressure to move from bachelorhood to committed/devoted father figure to my own bundle of gurgling joy. While she jokes, she’s incredibly attentive to many of the lessons that I’ve learned being a part of the Breastfeeding Advisory group.

This years’ World Breastfeeding Week – Breastfeeding: A Winning Goal for Life aims to raise public awareness about the Millennium Development Goals developed by the United Nations. While breastfeeding hits all eight of the Millenium Development Goals, two are of particular interest this year: (1) Reducing Child Mortality & (2) Improve Maternal Health. Moms and their babies form an inseparable biological and social entity; the health and nutrition of one cannot be separated from the other, so it is important that breastfeeding should be high on the public agenda.

Lack of breastfeeding, particularly during the first half-year of life, is a significant risk factor for infant and childhood mortality and impaired development. The life-long detrimental effects includes poor school performance, reduced productivity, and impacted intellectual and social development.

Right after the birth of their child, many mothers get off to a strong start with breastfeeding their babies. However, after only a few weeks or months post-delivery, many mothers decide to reduce how often they breastfeed their children, occasionally using other methods like formula, or even stopping altogether. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.

This extended breastfeeding period doesn’t just benefit babies, but their mother’s as well, whose health is notably enhanced through regular breastfeeding. Studies demonstrate that increased bone density, reduced risk of cancer and a faster return to pre-pregnancy health are key benefits for mums. Also, enhanced bonding with babies and better rest and relaxation helps support the emotional/mental well-being of mothers and fathers. But the advantages of breastfeeding don’t end there. A number of key family and community benefits also arise from breastfeeding. These can include lower household costs, time saved for busy parents, less waste from packaging, and other benefits; not bad bonuses to go with having an overall healthier baby.

The best chance to succeed in life, for a large part, rests in what we feed our babies and children. Knowledgeable health workers are needed to provide the skilled support that mothers and fathers need to learn the best feeding practices and to overcome difficulties when they occur. We already know that Dads have a strong role to play as family providers and caregivers, helping out moms whenever possible, but too often in our busy world we forget that community networks are important too, bringing mother-to-mother support and trained breastfeeding counsellors to help guide parents.

It takes a community of people to create safe, inclusive spaces where mothers can do the best for their children. To learn more, visit the Richmond Public Library – Brighouse Branch on [insert dates] or talk to your healthcare professional.

Colin Dring is the executive director for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Mad Max, the Seed Warrior

This article describes how the ancient practice of seed saving can often produce seeds more capable of surviving the challenges of climate change, crop pests and blights than commercial hybrid or genetically modified seeds.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

A new Mad Max movie is premiering next year, a reboot of the hit movie series from the early 1980s. In the movies, regular guy Max Rockatansky is gradually transformed into Mad Max, the Road Warrior, by the hardships he faces in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Australia.

Many people love post-apocalyptic stories. I know I do. It’s fascinating to see how people like Max adapt and even thrive in the harsh conditions of the new world, where everyday objects like books, bullets and even bottle caps can suddenly become very important. Oddly, people rarely seem to covet the one thing that would probably be the most essential to re-establishing a normal, flourishing society – high quality seeds.

Without good seed stock, it is extremely difficult to maintain the food production levels that make our modern technological society possible. Everyone involved in agriculture, from the largest agribusiness like Monsanto or Syngenta, right down to local community non-profit groups like the Richmond Food Security Society, seems to agree on this, but from there, it gets…complicated.

That’s because not all seeds are created equally. Created is the key word here, because almost all of our crops come from hybrid seeds. For centuries, people have been cross breeding compatible plants to create crops that are more robust, tasty and productive. Even genetically engineered (GM) plants are hybrids, just a special type. Instead of cross-breeding compatible plants, GM hybrids incorporate genes from entirely different types of living things, like adding bacterial or even animal DNA to a plant.

A key problem with hybrids is that they are often unstable, meaning they don’t breed true (causing inconsistent yields from year to year), or they might even be sterile. Fortunately, some hybrids can stabilize over time and reliably breed true, and in fact, many of the heirloom crops that were staples of our agricultural system for centuries were created this way.

Seeds that breed true are so valuable because it means when you harvest your crops, you can save seeds from your hardiest and most productive plants to use to start next year’s crop. This is Seed Saving 101, a time-honored and crucial agricultural skill farmers practiced for millennia (in fact, RFSS runs workshops on this in late summer and the fall to maintain this tradition). You can almost say that by this cycle of ‘plant, grow, and save’, we can “Max” out our plants, allowing then to adapt to even the harshest local conditions.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how large agribusinesses do things. Seed saving doesn’t fit well into the modern agribusiness model because it creates a lot of localized varieties of crops that may have variable yields, the last thing you want when you desire yields that are as uniform as anything that comes off an assembly line.

However, companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont are aware of the strengths of saved seeds. Large agribusinesses have contributed heavily to the establishment of seed banks around the world (over 1400, according the UN’s FAO), including the famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the far north of Norway. Seed banks like these preserve the genetic diversity of crops and provide a resource for research. Agribusinesses have heavily accessed these seeds banks in their continuous research for new hybrids that can bypass the slow ‘plant, grow, and save’ cycle, but still be resilient and give consistent one-year yields.

But as they say “there’s no substitute for experience”, and yet agribusiness crops are planted with new seeds each season, creating a yearly reset that makes it more difficult to mitigate the vulnerability of monocultures to the threats of a changing climate. To continue our Mad Max analogy, it’s like each year inexperienced Max is forced to try to survive again, but facing an ever harsher world each time.

Will the research initiatives based on the vast collections of seeds in installations like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault help create a much needed blending of ancient agricultural knowledge with the new? A lot depends on how stubborn agribusinesses are in pursuing a technological fix to a problem that old-school farmers already know how to solve. Only time will tell.

But I know what I want to see come out of it. I want seeds that able to adapt, thrive and breed true in the even harshest conditions. If that means we end up with fruits and vegetables that aren’t all exactly perfect in shape or colour, or bruise more easily, then so be it. Seeds are too crucial to the health of our society to risk having them fail from year to year. We need seeds that are of the Mad Max variety, and given the challenges of climate change, crop pests and blights, we need them soon.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Keeping the SS Food Security afloat in hazardous seas

This article uses the ongoing threat to the health of the Cavendish variety of bananas (by far the most common variety available in stores) to illustrate the hazards of basing most of our food crops on a small selection of varieties.

Richmond Review Article by By Stephen C. Mullins

Recently I was reading about how banana crops worldwide are being threatened by Panama disease, a fungal pathogen that is very difficult to control that attacks the roots of banana plants. To my own surprise, the more I read about the pending banana disaster, the more I was reminded of the fate of the RMS Titanic, which sank over 100 years ago.

At first glance this association might seem strange, but it is not random at all. The causes of disasters are often quite clear afterwards, and the sinking of the Titanic is a spectacular example of that. The Cunard Line naval architects thought they had taken every precaution to make sure the ship was “unsinkable”. Turns out, the iron used in the hull became brittle in arctic seas, and the bulkheads dividing the ship into separate compartments weren’t high enough – when the ship’s bow filled with water, each bulkhead in turn was overtopped until the ship sank. And because the designers had downplayed concerns that
unanticipated problems might cause a disaster, there weren’t enough lifeboats to save everyone. The Titanic’s technology simply wasn’t robust enough to meet the challenges it faced.

So how does this famous shipwreck relate to the threat of a banana fungus destroying crops? The answer lies in understanding that our global food system is a product of technology just as surely as the Titanic was. From the machines that plant, maintain and harvest crops, to the trucks, trains and ships that transport them, to even the crops themselves (which are now often genetically manipulated), technology permeates everything in agriculture. And when that technology fails, you get problems like the banana blight.

The banana crisis can be summed up in one word: monoculture. The bananas you buy from your grocery store are almost guaranteed to be the Cavendish variety, the type grown worldwide almost to the exclusion of all other types of bananas, though there are hundreds of varieties in nature. Those others just don’t have as many desirable qualities as the Cavendish, which has the best combination of consumer appeal and ease of cultivation, so they are ignored.

Monoculture crops are notoriously vulnerable to attacks by pests, pathogens and adverse weather conditions like drought, factors aggravated by climate change and international trade (which makes the transmission of pests much easier). This is not theory, but hard fact. For example, the Cavendish banana is a replacement for the Gros Michel variety that was largely destroyed as a viable crop in the 1950s by Panama disease. The Cavendish variety was thought to be immune to Panama disease, so it was adopted worldwide, but the key problem, the hazards of monocultures, was erroneously thought to be more manageable with newer farming technologies. Now, unbelievably, it looks like the Cavendish is going to be wrecked by the same ‘iceberg’ that destroyed the Gros Michel.

This wouldn’t such a severe concern if only banana crops were at risk of worldwide failure, but the problem of crop diseases and pests is not just confined to them. According to a new research report in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, by the year 2050 opportunistic pests, viruses, bacteria, fungi, blights, and other threats to crops will saturate food growing areas all across the globe unless we take action.

The answer to this challenge lies in making our food system more robust. In essence, like in a ship, we have to build bulkheads to prevent one leak from flooding the whole ship. But right now our food system is moving in the opposite direction, creating more worldwide monocultures like that of bananas, not less. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), presently, only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food energy needs, four of which (rice, wheat, maize and potato) are responsible for more than 60% of our energy intake.” And within that narrow selection of crop types, less and less varieties are getting used. In fact, FAO suggested that “the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75% during the 20th Century and a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050”.

So it looks like our food system has icebergs on the horizon, and the SS Food Security, built with a thin hull and no bulkheads, is sailing full speed ahead into them. Fortunately, there are a lot of things we can do to make our food system resilient, which I will talk about in later columns, so this story doesn’t have to end in disaster. Unlike the Titanic, it is fortunate that we can see the threat long before we hit it, because the saga of that tragic ship is one best told only once.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved..

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Your Mom is not the only woman who feeds you

Learn how ensuring full gender equality rights for the millions of women farmers around the world is one of the best ways to ensure that we grow enough food to feed the world’s growing population.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

Did you know that recently some prominent commentators from North American media outlets have declared that feminism is no longer needed because gender equality has been achieved?

Yeah team! That’s great news, a big win for society on many fronts, including the field of food security, because full gender equality is arguably the single most important determining factor in establishing better food security worldwide. So let’s put that one in the win column, right?

Well, let’s not wave the checkered flag yet. When analysing these commentaries, I noticed that the authors seem to be focused almost exclusively on the state of gender equality in Western countries. That’s a huge mistake. Even if we ever succeed in establishing full gender equality in the West, it’s not enough, because the issue is nowhere near close to being settled worldwide. That would be like being satisfied that you put out the fire in one room of a burning building while the rest of the building was still ablaze.

The world is going to face difficult challenges in the coming years to ensure there’s enough food for everyone. War, climate change, population growth, crop diseases, falling crop yields – all are issues that will stress our food systems. To meet these challenges, we can’t neglect any strategy that will further food security. Among the best of these is ensuring full gender equality rights for the millions of women around the world who grow food to feed us. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in their report, The Face of Female Farming, women make up almost half of the agricultural labour force in non-Western countries, yet they face deep, systemic obstacles due to their gender.

Women are often barred from owning land, and if they do get land, it is commonly on smaller, poorer plots that lead to reduced crop yields. Women typically get less agricultural training, have difficulty accessing financing, work longer hours, get paid less for their work – the list of barriers is long and daunting.

But what if you removed these barriers, and women received the full range of legal, financial and educational rights that men enjoy? The FAO estimates that these women farmers could achieve crop yields 20-30% greater than current levels. This additional yield translates into an estimated reduction of hunger for 100-150 million people worldwide. It’s important to realize that with less and less food being grown locally as fruit and vegetable imports increase, some of the food that these women farmers will be growing will quite likely be feeding us in Canada.

Here at home, it’s true that gender equality is much better than in developing countries. In Canada, if women face barriers in their farm work, it’s typically the same barriers that other operators of small to medium sized farms face regardless of their gender – high costs for tools, land, fuel, shipping and supplies.

To help address that, RFSS is directly involved in programs that support farmers, no matter what their gender. For example, at an RFSS fundraiser this last March, three local women, Ashala Daniel, Esther Amezcua and Katie Robinson of Three Feet Below Farm, spoke to a crowd that included Mayor Malcolm Brodie about how the local training and support they received was crucial to the success of their business.

They first met and planned their farm while training at the Richmond Farm School, a 10 month program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University that is co-sponsored by RFSS and other partners. From there, they enrolled in the Richmond Incubator Farm Program, which is managed by RFSS in partnership with the City of Richmond and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. In this program, farmers get access to a half-acre plot to establish their farming practice. They get access to shared tools that would be prohibitively expensive for new farmers, to additional farming training from experienced mentors, and even to training
in business practices like record keeping and grant writing.

But in many other countries in the world, they would have been left to their own devices or actively barred from achieving their dreams simply because they were women. Farming is already hard enough without gender inequality making even harder, so we can’t stop striving for it yet. One day we might celebrate Worldwide Gender Equality day, or whatever we might call it, but that day isn’t here yet. When it comes, I’ll be the first one popping the champagne.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

The Manly Art of Food Security

This article talks about why it is important to get men to cook more. When people start cooking for themselves, their interest in food security in their community significantly increases, but if only half the population cooks, ensuring food security is much harder than it should be.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

Here’s something that puzzles me. When barbecue season arrives in BC, why is it that many men who normally shy away from cooking will eagerly take to their backyard grills without the slightest hesitation? Being a master of the grill is a point of pride for many guys, something that is easily confirmed by watching shows like Grill It! on the Food Network, where the host and his male guests create barbecued masterpieces on grills that look as shiny and as complex as NASA’s Mars rovers.

This isn’t to say women don’t enjoy barbecuing too, but in our society, it seems open flame cooking is one of the few areas of meal planning and preparation that most men embrace, even if they avoid other styles of cooking. Unfortunately for many men, cooking is considered women’s work, a misguided attitude that persists in countries worldwide.

I’ve often wondered why this is still a thing, or was ever a thing. When the great explorers like Jacques Cartier or Simon Fraser went adventuring, they usually had an all-male crew, so the cooks were men. In places like BC, rugged logging and mining crews were fed hearty meals prepared, in the most part, by male cooks. Most of the time these men weren’t barbequing, but cooking stews, roasts, pies and other meals on iron stoves, and nobody thought it was unmanly. So how is it that if the same meals are cooked today in pastel coloured suburban kitchens on sleek metal stoves, cooking magically becomes women’s work?

I wish I had the space in this article to delve into the psychology of this, but all I can do is point out the illogic behind this discrepancy and hope it will spur people to re-examine their attitudes about meal planning, food shopping and cooking, most of which is still done by women. Food security advocates have been urging men to get more involved in these activities for years now, and fortunately, there has been some progress.

A recent study by three University of North Carolina professors, published in the prestigious Nutrition Journal, found that:

“…the proportion of men who cooked increased from 29% in 1965–1966 to 42% in 2007-2008. For women, the proportion of women cooking declined from 92% in 1965–1966 to 68% in 2007–2008.”

Despite this welcome increased participation by men, the fact remains that the majority of men still don’t cook at all. While it’s true some men don’t cook because they were never taught how, it remains that many men don’t cook (other than barbecuing) because it’s not a priority when their partners are doing the cooking for them, or they are discouraged by outdated taboos. This is a big problem because getting people to cook more often, regardless of their gender, greatly helps the cause of food security.

When people cook, they quickly learn how hard it is to get fresh, wholesome ingredients at a reasonable price, and they start asking why this is so. They start to learn what’s grown locally and what’s imported, or they begin to wonder if organic ingredients might be better for themselves and their family. And by choosing to cook their own meals, it also means they have largely turned away from relying solely on poor quality fast or pre-processed foods. There are many favourable consequences that flow from the decision to cook at home, so the more people that do it, the better.

So the outdated notion that cooking is unmanly has got to go. The myriad of useful food security benefits that cooking brings can’t be maximized if half the population hasn’t been trained in how to cook or has been erroneously taught that it’s inappropriate for them to do so. What we’re left with is a call to action.

Men, forget what you’ve been told about cooking. Be fearless like those early explorers and pioneers, because it’s a man’s world in the kitchen, always has been. Creating food masterpieces can be just as satisfying on the stove as on the barbecue, if you want it to be. Your choices about what to buy, cook and eat will not only boost your own health, but perhaps that of your community too. So don’t be afraid to boldly take up the spatula and fry pan. Do it for yourself. Do it for your kids or your partner. Do it for your mom. But do it. Be a leader in the manly art of food security.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

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What an Army Sergeant Could Teach BC about Water

This article examines about how poor water management and record droughts in traditional breadbasket crop growing areas are forcing us to examine what crops we should be growing (or not).

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

Recently I asked a number of family and friends if they could recall the thirstiest they’d ever been, a question inspired after I was parched and sunburned in 35 degree heat on a visit to Port Alberni. Turns out, everyone I talked to had sharp memories of times they thought they were literally going to die of thirst. Not pleasant, to be sure.

For myself, the incident that jumped most clearly to my mind wasn’t the Port Alberni trip, but back when I was doing basic training in the Canadian Forces. My platoon had been marching for kilometers through the dry, dusty country roads of the Fraser Valley outside of Chilliwack, each of us lugging 40 kg backpacks through a July heatwave. Most of us, despite warnings from our sergeant, had emptied our canteens far too early in the day, ignoring our training in how to ration water. So when we finally got replenished from a supply truck later on, the water tasted like the nectar of the gods.

Yet despite the rigours of summer training, I also remember marvelling at the extent of the farms all through the Fraser Valley, flourishing with blueberries, peppers, cauliflower, corn and other fruits and veggies. Truly a breadbasket region, but one that faces dual threats: the slower disaster of water shortages in the summer, versus the rapid disaster of devastating floods in the spring.

Recently a major study commissioned by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce called for urgent action to prevent catastrophic flooding of the Fraser River that would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage to commercial, residential and farm development all down the valley. According to a separate study by the BC Government, climate change will make the risk of such destructive floods much more likely.

So water is on many people’s minds this summer. Too much here and in recently flooded Saskatchewan and Manitoba, too little in the north where forest fires are raging out of control, or in drought-stricken California. For food security advocates, the prolonged and worsening California situation looms particularly large.

In BC, 70% of our imported fruits and vegetables come from California, including staples like lettuce, oranges, berries and broccoli. Not only is the drought causing prices to spike, but the quality is dropping as well. With salary increases either non-existent or lagging far behind the rate of inflation for low-income or middle-class families, these soaring food prices are a vexing problem.

My old sergeant would have had some choice words about how Californians have managed their water – essentially, they used it all up in the first part of their march. For most of the last century, California’s climate has been unusually wet, so they largely ignored warnings that they would one day face mega-droughts that can last for decades. Now they have a big problem on their hands.

So how did California abuse its water supply? Green lawns everywhere in a desert-like climate? Check. Using and polluting huge amounts of ground water while fracking for oil and gas? Also check. Letting mega-corporations like Nestle drain precious local aquifers to sell the water out of state or to parched local residents? Big check.

But the biggest culprit is the farming industry. Farms use 80% of the water consumed in California. Much of this water goes to lucrative crops like almonds, which need tremendous amounts of water to grow. There is going to be a reckoning soon about what crops are sustainable or not in California’s drier future.

However, let’s not pretend BC’s resource management is superior to California’s. Here, we’re wrestling over the fate of the Agricultural Land Reserve, we import far too much food that we can grow locally, and we face complex challenges due to climate change. We even have Nestle here in BC, who were draining our aquifers without limit or fees until BC finally started regulating ground water just last year. We need to do better.

More than anything, all these problems emphasize that BC should be planning for food self-reliance on a larger regional scale. Too much of our planning is focused on piecemeal initiatives that will not stand up well to the stresses of a changing world. We’re lucky – perhaps we have more time to avert a water crisis like that which is overtaking California. What we do here to protect our arable land, to regulate our water use, and to balance the needs of business and development with the fundamental need of food security can be a model for communities everywhere – let’s make sure we get it right.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

The World Cup of Food Security

This article compares shows how a country’s wealth helps it secure better food security, but that political will to make the issue a priority can also lead to surprising advances towards the goal

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

The World Cup can be a humbling experience for rich countries when they discover that their team of football heroes can lose to one from a country they’ve barely heard of, but that is one of the things that makes the World Cup great. Top football talent can come from anywhere in the world, and the powerhouses of the sport can come from unexpected places.

In Brazil, the top thirty two teams in the world will meet head-to-head to determine which country will claim the honor of being World Champs. We will soon find out where these countries rank in the world of football, but I couldn’t help but wonder how these countries compare in their efforts to feed their citizens. How do these nations fare in the World Cup of Food Security?

But how do you assess where a country stands in the rankings of food security? Not surprisingly, that isn’t easy, since it depends on a great many factors that intertwine with others. To answer this question, the Economist Intelligence Unit (part of the Economist Group that publishes the Economist Magazine) designed a research tool called the Global Food Security Index to analyse food insecurity in 105 countries, looking at factors like food supply affordability, availability, quality and safety.  The Economist is keenly interested in this because good food security is a leading indicator of a country’s social and political stability, key factors that wealthy individuals and businesses need to assess before making investments.

So who is the World Cup of Food Security Champion? It’s the United States of America.

Was that surprising? They are the richest country in the world, so it shouldn’t be. But what makes them number one? The Global Food Security Index considers food affordability, availability, quality and safety as key indicators. Richer countries have the resources to address all of these concerns, and America leads in most of these.

But what about the other countries in the World Cup? How do they compare? Since there are thirty one other countries, we can only look at trends here. The host country, Brazil, is ranked 33rd in the world. The other South American countries all fall in the 30-40 range, with the exception of Ecuador at 56th.

Western European countries all fare well, filling out many of the top twenty spots, while former Soviet bloc countries reside in the 40s. Russia itself is ranked 40th. Asian countries like Japan and South Korea come in at 21st and 25th, while the African countries fare quite poorly, dropping way down the list, with the Ivory Coast at 76th and Nigeria coming in last at 87th.

It should be noted that these food security rankings are an aggregate/average of a country’s performance, and can mask those who are disproportionately affected by differences in socio-economics and race.

While these rankings seem to tell a predicable story, there is some welcome indicators that give hope. Chief of these is that overall, food security worldwide is improving. According to Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, in 2009 an estimated 1.02 billion people didn’t have enough to eat. But as of 2013, the number of people suffering food insecurity has shrunk to 870 million. Though this is still a horrendous number, the trend downward is welcome.

You can see this trend developing if you look at the 3-year indicator of change in the Global Food Security Index. The country that has shown the biggest improvement in that time is the Ivory Coast, which has improved 6.2%. Many of the other African countries have seen steady improvement. But not everything is well. Perhaps the most unwelcome news here is that the richest countries in Europe are showing noticeable declines on this scale.

And as for Canada, where do we stand? We are 8th worldwide, but showing a slow but steady decline in food security. While this may shock some Canadians, it is no surprise to people who advocate for food security. For example, poverty is a prime cause of food insecurity, and British Columbia has the highest child poverty rate in Canada, even though we are a rich province. The rate stands at 18.6%, a full 5% above the national average and almost double that of our neighbouring province, Alberta. Obviously food security is not just an automatic outcome of wealth, but of good policy and political will.

In football, the World Cup seeks to crown a single victor, but in food security, this would be tragic. In the World Cup of Food Security, the best result is if all sides win.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Playing in the Big Leagues

This article describes how food security is as important to human health as clean water and unpolluted air, but is still treated as a fringe issue by too many countries. This means that countries like Canada are lagging behind nations like India, which has made food security a core issue in their government’s policies.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

Imagine you are in a pub filled with excited football fans watching a World Cup match when you notice someone sitting nearby you, obviously puzzled by what they are seeing on the TV.

So you take it upon yourself to explain the rules of the Beautiful Game to them. You have it all planned out; you’ll start with the basics, like how it is properly called football and not soccer, then moving on to explain how many players are allowed on the field, how off-sides are determined, and finally you’ll finish with a carefully crafted narrative about strategies and playmaking.

But then, just as you begin your lesson, the puzzled patron stops you and asks “What is a sport?” And in that disconcerting moment, you realize that you have a much bigger education project on your hands than you realized. This is the problem many advocates for food security still face.

When I talk to people in Richmond about food security, the responses I get vary greatly. A few know exactly what it is, while others hold basic misconceptions. But many have never heard of the concept at all. This lack of basic knowledge leads to confusion that can create unnecessary resistance to the goal of ensuring public food security.

Some dismiss food security as a leftover hippie cause, or something they don’t participate in because they don’t use the community gardens. Others mistake the meaning of the ‘security’ part of the phrase and think it has something to do with guarding food. These responses, though inaccurate, are at least kind compared to some of the more virulent responses seen in parts of the USA, where efforts to promote food security have been denounced as a sure way to make people lazy, or as part of an insidious plot by the U.N. to take away their personal freedom.

What this indicates is that many people don’t understand that food security isn’t just some local issue, or a good cause you can support like many others, or something you can opt into or not at your whim, but something entirely more fundamental. It is like saying you can opt out of breathing air or drinking water. Food security affects people whether they’ve heard of it or not.

Every day, in Richmond and all over the world, people ask themselves “What am I going to eat today?” Their choices will be affected by the answers to other questions that are at the core of food security. Is the food affordable, or easy to get access to? Will it be nutritious, and free of contaminants? Is it locally grown, and will it be acceptable to their cultural or religious beliefs?

The thing is people usually don’t sit down and ask themselves these questions deliberately (if they ask them at all), any more than people debate the issues about our water supply when they’re thirsty. Instead, they just go and get a drink. No, usually most people are too busy to contemplate the broader context of their food choices. That quickly changes, of course, if they are hungry and they can’t do anything about it. When food security turns into food insecurity, then people become perfectly aware of how fundamental the issue is.

However getting people to recognize the broader truth that poor food security can be as damaging to public health as severe droughts or horribly polluted air won’t automatically cause everyone to stop fighting over it. After all, you’re talking about a topic that touches on GMOs, land development, and international trade agreements, so it will be a while yet before everyone is holding hands. But it’s a good place to start, and there is hope.

Just look at what happened in India in 2013, where their Parliament passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA), also known the Right to Food Act. This is a huge measure, on a scale almost incomprehensible from a Canadian point of view. Though there is sharp controversy over the merits of the Act, it provides subsidized food grains to almost 800 million of India’s 1.2 billion citizens, with a special emphasis on providing for the needs of pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children. This Act affects twenty two times more people than the entire population of Canada.

Food security is a much steeper problem in India than in Canada, so it is not surprising that their awareness of scope of the challenge to secure it seems to exceed our own. India is trying bring a measure of food security to hundreds of millions of people by acknowledging that it is just as important to the well-being of their citizens as clean air and fresh water, and by treating it as a right, not as an act of charity. They have recognized the challenge they face; now they just have to figure out the rules.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society.  To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Price Shock at the Supermarket

Learn how our international food system is supposed to supply our markets with cheaper food, but is often doing the opposite as it gets more complex.

Richmond Review Article by Stephen C. Mullins

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

What I tried to ‘pick out’ was the answer to the question “Why are the humble potatoes I buy in my local supermarket so expensive?” The question came up on my last trip to the supermarket. I was only buying a few items, including three large potatoes, which, when rung up at the cash, cost about a dollar each. I thought “That can’t be right!” But it was correct.

For most of my life, potatoes had always been really cheap, so I had maintained that assumption until now, a delusion helped by the fact I usually buy potatoes by the bag and not individually, so I didn’t really notice the actual per unit cost of them.

I was perplexed, because isn’t the modern international food system supposed to bring prices down?

Of course, I had to find an answer. And that’s when I found out the Universe was attached to this one simple question. I followed the chain of international food production and distribution to see what could be affecting imported potato prices and found the answer became very complex, very quickly. Ultimately my search led right back almost literally to my own doorstep, and I ended up with a renewed appreciation for the BC Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which is now under a controversial review.

So what affects the price of potatoes?

Poor weather is an obvious factor. In the past few years, floods, extended cold snaps, and huge droughts in important food production centers like California created shortages that drove up prices. Crop blights and insect infestations were also an issue, as were problems that made transportation of food more difficult or expensive, like increased fuel prices, tariffs, labor disruptions at ports, and deteriorating roads.

But that’s not all. Rising consumer demand for fresh produce in huge growing markets (like those in China and India) drove up the price of staples, a problem worsened by the fact that large tracts of food land worldwide are being turned over to biofuel production. Prices also rose because the global food market is vulnerable to financial manipulation by large stakeholders in order to increase profits, an example of which was the recent price fixing scandal of potatoes in the USA (where a cartel of producers are alleged to have throttled back potato production to artificially raise prices).

It’s clear we have built a long international food production chain that is getting longer and more intertwined all the time. Which brings us to the review of the ALR and to my original question, which I now realize was the wrong question. Given the complexity creeping into our world’s food distribution, economic and environmental systems, more and more the real question isn’t “Why are the potatoes in my supermarket so expensive?” but “Will potatoes be available at all?”

It’s a fact that we can grow potatoes and many other crops here in BC, but will we? Or will we continue to reduce our capacity to grow food locally and regionally while we increase our reliance on imports that are proving more uncertain and less of a bargain each passing year?

From all accounts, the ALR review is too focused on the ‘here and now.’ It ignores the long-term realities of food security, such that land that is capable of producing food, fibre and energy will become immensely valuable in the not too distant future. High quality soils take hundreds of years to develop and that is what we are paving over or replacing with residential or industrial developments across the province.

In many BC communities, people can buy locally grown food that was harvested that same day. We cannot lose that. The strongest food security chain is a short one, and in BC, the ALR is the strongest link we have.

Steve Mullins is the communications manager for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society.  To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF

Nutrition Month 2014

This article lays describes how Nutrition Month was established to teach people how to assess what food is nutritious or not for them.

Richmond Review Article by Colin Dring

Well, it’s another year, another Nutrition Month! This year’s theme focuses on getting Canadians cooking with a focus on food skills and preparation. Simply Cook and Enjoy! Eating right to feel right gets more and more complicated each and every year as another study, report, or fad diet or nutrition advice comes out. The question is often, how do you cut through all this extra information and avoid the worrying that results from too much information and sometimes conflicting information?

Our society has serious food issues ranging from environmental impacts of agriculture to diet-related illness causing unnecessary suffering and increasing health care costs. The nutrition information over the years has become simpler: eat fruits and vegetables, limit intake of sugar, oil, and salt, and eat more whole grains. Michael Pollan, in his book, In Defence of Food, reduces it even further: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

While the messaging may be simple, getting food habits and behaviours to shift away from convenient, tasty, pre-packaged foods is extremely difficult when limited by income and, consequently, time. Many of the food skills programs offered in Richmond are tailored towards creating common-sense, easy, and tasty meals while keeping the joy of eating and cooking in mind. Stir it Up, a youth program run by Richmond Food Security, brings young people together to learn how to cook simple, nutritious, tasty meals and simultaneously provides a great space to socialize. Many of our youth go on to work in the food industry.

Cooking skills are just one barrier to eating well. Over 85 per cent of low-income families identify healthy eating as important. However, just about 53 per cent are cooking dinners most weeknights. The cost and time to plan, shop and cook are the biggest impediments to improved nutrition.  Many foods that are nutritionally dense, kale, collards, cabbages, are often inexpensive, but require skill and time to bring out the flavours.

In Brazil, health officials have created new guidelines to protect against undernutrition and prevent diet-related diseases. The guidelines work across social classes and make an effort to consider the broader social, cultural, and economic implications of food choices.

The guide’s three “Golden Rules” are: (1) Make foods and freshly prepared dishes the basis of your diet, (2) be sure oils, fats, sugar and salt are used in moderation, and (3) limit the intake of ready-to-consume products and avoid those that are ultra-processed.

In addition to these priority guidelines, health officials add the following suggestions:

  1. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.
  2. Eat in company whenever possible.
  3. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.
  4. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.
  5. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.
  6. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.
  7. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

These guidelines provide a great foundation for folks that are trying to navigate the often overwhelming wealth of information available around the question: What should I eat?!? This Nutrition Month, focus on learning a few easy recipes and share them with your friends or families. Or better, yet, share these guidelines and post them in your kitchen. A few, basic recipes, coupled with cooking skills can make a world of difference in our personal and community nutrition.

Colin Dring is the executive director for Richmond Food Security Society. We work to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society. To contribute, check out and find out how you can get involved.

Click here to download this article as a PDF