A Report Stirs the Agriculture Pot

Farms occupy half the landmass of Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe, and are the foundation of the biggest employment sector in the province – food, beverage and agriculture – a highly effective cluster that rates third in North America in terms of output.

The central role that agriculture plays in society, the economy and environment rarely gets its due. But David Crombie’s recent report to the Ontario government, a review of the Greater Golden Horseshoe called Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth, is an exception. It’s an exception that should become the rule. (Crombie is pictured above along with me and Mary Delaney, who leads the province’s major farmland protection crusade.)

Crombie’s treatment of agriculture in the report seems to lack passion for the operational details and human dimensions that make agriculture, food and beverage work.

Fair enough, I thought; Crombie is first and foremost a problem solver and community builder, not a farmer, food marketer or public health worker. But then I thought, maybe that’s just Crombie the problem solver and community builder at work.

Crombie’s gifts as a senior statesman are serenity and magnanimity. These gifts, as the saying goes, require the grace to accept what you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and  the wisdom to know the difference. Crombie must have known, I’m guessing, that he could not overturn deeply embedded decisions, such as the export obsession of Ontario’s agriculture ministry — the proverbial elephant in the room that can never be discussed in polite company – in the course of reviewing the four reports he was asked to review and update.

Crombie does not challenge this orientation of government’s ag ministry. He simply ignores it. Crombie seems to just rattle on with the tried and true: the importance of protecting agricultural lands, making it possible for farmers to make a living, supporting healthy and local food, and inserting agriculture in all the important policies related to the rural economy, natural resources, infrastructure and climate change.

Pretty safe clichés, same old same old: until you realize that agricultural policy in Ontario (and almost anywhere else in the world, for that matter) has almost nothing to do with growing healthy food for local consumers, and that agriculture is kept far away from other policy domains, such as natural resources, climate change and infrastructure.

Indeed, the policies of the Ontario agriculture ministry is blatantly on the wrong side of every one of these issues. Government subsidies for corn ethanol result in burning at least as many global warming gases as are taken up in the course of growing corn, for example. Support for pork is support for red meat, which is known to be associated with cancer, especially when the ham is processed in certain ways.  When governments chose which farm products to protect with supply management methods that ensured local farmers a decent living, they  chose milk, chickens and eggs, not fruits and vegetables. Nor has the government made any significant moves to instruct government-run cafeterias to give preference to local or local-sustainable farms. Nor is there support for farmers to branch out and produce fiber, fabric and environmental services, as promoted by the inspired farm grouping, Alternative Land Use Services.

I could go on, but the list of what the government does wrong is long, relentless and indisputable. But what’s the point?

I assume Crombie is silent on these obsolete policies because he is more serene than I, and because these issues do not fall within the ambit of his instructions.

But what Crombie lays out in his seeming safe catchwords is the European-inspired farm agenda of “multi-functionalism,” which holds that food is  one valuable product of agriculture, but there are multiple other co-products – including contributions to the rural economy, natural resources, infrastructure, climate change, tourism, employment, sustainability and health. When all these co-products (a much better word than byproducts because co-products require advance planning and extra effort) of growing food on local farms are taken into account, that means multiple other departments and mandates have to be brought into play, which means that agriculture can never again be just about producing as much food as cheaply as possible.

Someone in government needs to take that bit between the teeth – because without the co/operation of co-workers, colleagues and collaborators, the co in co-product won’t happen.

Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, but that’s how I read his chief agricultural recommendation about linking agriculture to all other public projects of the province. He almost snuck that reference to multi-functionalism past me; I hope it wasn’t missed by the government.

The Crombie recommendation that knocks a homerun out of the park is 32: “Provide policy direction to promote access to local and healthy food for all communities,” through such measures as local food strategies, hubs, distribution centers, “and other measures to support urban and near-urban agriculture.”

I read that as a call for “infrastructure of the middle” (a term developed by my wife, Lori Stahlbrand), the essential missing piece in a successful local food movement, which is up against Big Food gatekeepers who control the flow of farm products from farmgate to supermarkets, where almost all food is sold.

Right now, Big Food has the food supply chain controlled by the pinchpoint, and Crombie sets out the policy framework to liberate farmers and consumers from that – a region-wide project that would bring prosperity and health to all.

How to work with farmers to make the changes to orient toward buyers of local and healthy foods?

Recommendation 37 on “positive planning” is the most provocative in the report. Most people, including fierce environmentalists and fierce anti-environmentalists, assume that greens will bring down  regulations on agriculture like a ton of bricks.

Recommendation 37 comes as a big surprise.

“Work with agricultural stakeholders on mechanisms to build greater understanding and awareness about agricultural and rural issues, and support a ‘positive planning’ approach” to better land use planning, Crombie writes. Use education and training and “user-friendly guidance,” he advises.

More carrot than stick, for sure, which farmers and others should take note of.

I may be projecting my own thoughts onto Crombie, but I think he’s figured out that the old-style tight classifications  that imposed certain behaviors on people have commonly backfired – much like rote learning that’s tied to passing the exam, not learning the subject matter. The point of a positive state – or as my daughter Anika calls it “servant leadership” — is to help people change, and give them the resources to do the job.

This represents a revolution in policy – not toward deregulation, but toward regulation of empowered citizens.

The approach has been tried in Wales and in the UK, where positive planning is described as devolving power to decide on the best methods to meet a goal to councils in local communities. In general, the initiative goes to empowered individuals who proceed as if the default position is to move toward sustainable development today, rather than wait for the government instruction a few years from now.

In my old job at Toronto Public Health, that was called “don’t ask for permission; beg for forgiveness.”

Maybe Crombie has come up with a term that can be forgiven more easily: positive planning.

He’s given us some powerful ideas to be positive with.

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