Despite concerns around the availability of safe, nutritious and affordable food, Catherine Keske argues we can have our cake and eat it too — within reason.
Dr. Keske is an associate professor of environmental studies (economics) at Grenfell Campus. As one of five researchers and the only social scientist on the Boreal Ecosystem Research Initiative, Catherine says she’s here to contribute to Newfoundland and Labrador’s food security.
It should come as no surprise to anyone living in the province that there is a serious food security issue. Approximately 90 per cent of Newfoundland’s food is brought in from elsewhere. When things are going smoothly, when trucks safely make the voyage across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to bring food to the island, it is easy to forget just how dangerous that high percentage can be to security and survival. But when times get tough like they did last winter and trucks can’t make it across the Gulf, Newfoundlanders are reminded of just how isolated they are on a food desert island.
But Newfoundland has it easy compared to Labrador. Food shipped north faces even tougher obstacles. Hazardous road conditions, delayed flights, unreliable shipping routes and extremely high prices are just a few of the barriers standing between Labradorians and their supper.
The provincial government says addressing food security is a top priority. Among its efforts is a plan to engage more of Memorial’s researchers in uncovering, testing and implementing smarter strategies to combat the issue.
According to Catherine, Newfoundland and Labrador is capable of owning and maintaining a thriving agriculture industry. While the climate leaves much to be desired and the soil is variable, years of isolation have helped identify which crops grow best. Now the provincial government has engaged her to discover which conditions — price, quantity and markets — are ideal for economic sustainability.
Catherine’s true passion is problem solving. Specifically, applying economic methods to evaluate the feasibility of things like agriculture and the processes it entails. She understands that when other people think about food security, economics may not be the first thing that springs to mind. Still, it’s a monumental factor, perhaps one of the biggest Newfoundland and Labrador currently struggles with.
To illustrate the concept of economics in food security, Catherine gives the example of a farm. Without enough revenue, the farmer cannot stay in business. When the farm fails, the food goes with it, and the community loses a reliable source of sustenance. Food security is directly impacted by the viability of a local agriculture economy.
In a crash course on Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural backstory, Catherine, who moved to Newfoundland from Colorado less than a year ago, learned that for most of history, people fed themselves. They grew what they could with the resources they had and caught fish to supplement their diet and use for trade. They were self-sufficient and resilient, she said. And Catherine wonders what those long-gone inhabitants would think if they could see the current state of affairs of their descendants.
In just a few decades the people of the province have lost almost all control over food production and supply chains. This isn’t solely a provincial struggle; it’s a global issue. But what is unique about Newfoundland and Labrador’s situation, Catherine points out, is the precarious position of being reliant upon imports while also being at the mercy of Mother Nature.
When Catherine arrived in the province, one of the first things she noticed was the high cost of food. She observed that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians expect the price of a potato to be higher here than in Ontario or Alberta. They’ve accepted the cost of shipping the root vegetable from the mainland to be included in our marked-up retail price. Catherine, however, isn’t as willing to accept it.
In an effort to increase provincial food security, Catherine is now investigating whether potatoes can be grown here for a similar cost. She’s working on project that’s exploring the feasibility of growing potatoes, wheat and soybeans in a three-year rotation. She explains that these separate crops, when grown in annual succession, they have complementary benefits that help all three crops grow better. It’s an efficient, effective and environmentally-friendly approach to agriculture, one that would work well in Newfoundland and Labrador’s soil conditions, as well as other boreal regions.
With social issues such as this one, people look to governments and producers to fix the system. But Catherine says we all have a role to play in obtaining food security. Consumers have purchasing power and can make an impact if they choose to.
And that’s what it all boils down to — choice. Every choice an individual makes when dealing with the food system impacts its sustainability and growth. Buying local gives more power to small-scale, independent regional farmers who could support the province in our time of need. Catherine likens it to investing in ”food insurance,” a wise decision given the growing global food crisis.
A strong advocate for increasing our agricultural economy, Catherine says food security can give us many things. But perhaps most importantly, it gives us choice. We must exercise our purchasing power within the agriculture industry to enact change and build a food system that’s not only sustainable, but also secure. The province’s future depends on it.