Arts & Culture

Digging deeper: Challenging the status quo of food systems

To the Root Workshop series guest lecturer talks about history of food systems and how to change them

written by Alexandra Biniarz
November 23, 2016 12:19 pm

Rosie Thompson’s idea of a utopic world is to live off the land.

She and her friends planned to buy a piece of land together, grow their own food and raise babies in a rural, self-sustaining community.

“I think it’s something that my generation is also really fascinated with, this dystopia and utopia,” Thompson says, “I kind of wanted to complicate that.”

Thompson sobered up her audience at the “Food Justice” talk at the To The Root workshop.

Hosted by The Loaded Ladle, the series featured a variety of courses and lectures on kombucha brewing, a film screening of Wi’kupaltimk: Feast of Forgiveness and an environmental roundtable discussion. The options for the food activists were endless.

Thompson provided listeners with a legal spin on food. She asked if anyone knew the definition of Terra Nullius.

The simple answer is “land that belongs to no one.” The extended edition is worth listening to.

“That’s sort of what European/British sovereignty was built on, was this idea that this land was unoccupied, there was no one using it, they discovered it so that gave them a right to assert their sovereignty,” Thompson said.

This license of occupation on the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people was disenfranchising; they were already living on this land.

When the Mi’kmaq people petitioned the Crown for access to good agricultural land and farming, the Crown hesitated.

“One of the things they said was that they didn’t want to fund education for Mi’kmaq kids,” Thompson says, “they said that they had to become farmers before schooling could work.”

This shows a link between agriculture and security, access to wealth, and access to education. Their school systems were built on agriculture.

Thompson adds that contrary to what she learned in school, slavery was common practice in Nova Scotia. Slavery was implemented through legal mechanisms and “was also paralleled with unfulfilled promises of land to African Nova Scotian people,” says Thompson.

The land that loyalists promised the people coming here was of poor quality and resulted in forcing African Nova Scotians to settle in areas that weren’t ideal for agriculture.

This “agreement” was good for the province – it provided cheap and available labour supply while making profit and building the economy, without forfeiting any legal rights.

The agreement kept and continues to keep workers in place due to laws controlling migrant movement.

The Preston community still sees problems in getting legal access to the land that they have lived on for generations. These same communities, and where they exist today, are more likely to be placed near sewage management or toxic waste dumps.

Thompson says, “That’s not a mistake, right?”

Thompson sees this as a complication to the food system.

“These are the things weighing heavily on our idea of what utopic food justice looks like. I think we have a responsibility to reconcile and make reparations for these kinds of things,” she says.

The Nova Scotia system for growing food relies heavily on the temporary foreign worker program.

The seasonal agricultural workers aren’t seen selling the vegetables at the local food markets; they are very much a hidden part of the economy. Seasonal workers are restrained under certain conditions.

They have their passports taken and are paid below minimum wage, renewing this idea of “disposable labour.”

Thompson considers herself privileged to be able to think about buying and owning land. This isn’t the case for most people.

“There are people that I’m excluding in that idea of what would be the most beautiful future for myself,” Thompson says.

“How can we reimagine a utopia that’s built on reconciliation and inclusion?” she asks.

Thompson disagrees with the idea that if we educate people then everyone will have access to good food. It’s not that simple; not when there are neighbourhoods without grocery stores and people who don’t have a choice in the matter of what food they buy.

So what can we do?

“It means becoming politicized and educating ourselves about why the roots of those structural inequalities exist,” says Thompson.

It means asking ourselves: why is that? What’s being done about that? How do we put pressure on our municipality to change that? What are the legal mechanisms that keep those structures in place?

“I think there’s a lot of local initiatives that are doing this work that you can be a part of,” says Thompson.