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Why We Farm the City

October 26, 2016 By: Muska Ulhaq

The MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) are proud to announce the 2016 RBC Impact Entrepreneurs who will be showcased at the 9th annual Social Finance Forum. Taking place on October and 27th and 28th, the Social Finance Forum is the best place to engage and profile leaders in Canada’s diverse social finance scene and to capture advancements from the world stage.

Entire libraries have been written about the many problems facing our food system.

The causes are complex but the symptoms can be summed up fairly succinctly. Our food system: uses too much energy, relies on too many harmful chemicals, creates too much waste and produces too much unhealthy food.

Before addressing these in turn, let me first clarify one crucial issue. The very real problem of food insecurity in rich societies like ours is actually an economic system outcome masquerading as a food system issue. The reason whole swathes of our fellow citizens cannot afford enough healthy food — as our robust foodbank industrial-complex can attest — is because of income and wealth inequality. Quite simply, food is as cheap as it has ever been but the burgeoning costs of housing, transportation and education are squeezing our most vulnerable. The moral stain lies upon us, not our farmers.

As to our real food system problems — many of the greatest challenges of our time are intimately intertwined with how our food is produced and distributed.

Climate change? Up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions relate to agriculture.

Obesity? Corn, the underlying ingredient for obesity-driving soft drinks and fast foods, is subsidized to the tune of $5 billion each year in the US. Biodiversity? Pesticides used in farming can decrease the number of species by 27% to 42% in adjacent streams. Ocean health? If present trends continue, we’ll have basically no viable wild fish stocks by 2050. Labour rights? An estimated 20,000 farm workers, among our society’s most vulnerable, are poisoned by pesticides and herbicides each year in the US. And the list goes on.

Yes, it is depressing. But the problems are not insurmountable.

At Fresh City, we are chipping away at these problems from our little corner of the world (Ontario represents about 0.1% of the globe’s population).

We started with the idea that people need to be re-introduced to healthy food production and healthy soil. We need to go beyond mere words (“organic”, “local”, “seasonal”) and to create primal and sensory experiences. To set the stage for Eureka moments. We do that by farming right in the city, where 80% of Canadians find themselves. We farm in the city not because it is easy (it is not) or because it is environmentally friendly (it can be), but because we wanted to create a living billboard for an alternative food system. So we run volunteer Sundays, events, public tours, media trips at our farm. And we are building a new glass greenhouse off Highway 427 that will be visible to 280,000 drivers each day.

We deliver the produce that we grow in addition to what other Ontario farmers grow to several thousand homes across Toronto. We are not dogmatic about local – you can have your banana and eat it too. There’s no shame in importing certain food. But the prevailing situation, where 90% or more of produce in a typical grocery store is from outside of Ontario even during the growing season, is a travesty. It is especially tragic because over half of Canada’s best farmland can be seen from the CN Tower on a clear day.

We grow using no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. Don’t think for a moment however that we don’t avail ourselves of the past century’s technological fruits. Your great-grandfather would not recognize most of the equipment we use to farm: from back-saving rototillers, to water-saving drip tapes, to season-extending poly-greenhouses, to pest-defying row cover. We also run what we call a “member farmer” program. This provides up to 15 would-be farmers a plot of land right in the city, access to tools and storage and most importantly, a supportive community. Over the last five years, we are proud to have helped launch over a dozen successful commercial farmers, food activists, food entrepreneurs and farm managers.

Compared to a typical grocery shopping trip, our delivery system is extremely carbon efficient. Since we know our demand ahead of time we can harvest/order exactly how much we need so there is no food waste. We also do not store our produce in open refrigerators, unlike a typical store. We deliver using route-optimizing software and each van-load saves 60 individuals from each spending an hour or more a week (a.k.a. time they could be spending cooking or sleeping), getting into their cars (a.k.a. 2,000 pounds of steel), driving several kilometers (a.k.a. lots of GHG emissions) to go buy groceries. And we deliver in either best-in-class fuel-efficient vans or, in denser areas, with electric cars and bicycles.

We do not pretend to have all the answers. But we do know we are making small dents in several of the problems I mentioned at the outset. And that is more than can be said for most of the big players in the system, from the seed and chemical companies, to the mega farms, the fast food industry and to the grocery oligopoly that reigns in Canada. We need to challenge them to trade-in their green-washing initiatives and token efforts for a modest serving of courage to truly change the status quo.

By: Ran Goel, CEO of Fresh City Farms