FOOD: How to Feed a Province

Dr. Ivan Emke
Retired Professor, Memorial University

Imagine a province where just about everyone has a garden, many have chickens (and maybe a cow), there are more sheep than people, and we ship in only a small proportion of what we eat. Welcome to Newfoundland and Labrador’s past. We’ve been there. But then our diets, and expectations around food, changed.

Once upon a time, it was the backyard gardens, grazed cattle, saltwater sheep, and hunting and gathering that kept people alive, and available to work in the export-oriented fishery. As a result, we ended up with lower quality fish at home but the best doggone turnips around. However, modernization helped us sink to our oft-stated failing level of 10% on food sustainability. People wanted bread in bags and beans in tins and thought that growing your own cabbage was a sign of poverty.

We also lack a healthy sector for the secondary production of food. We have just one commercial cheesemaker (bless him), even though we have an over-supply of raw materials. In contrast, with a population of 357,000, Iceland produces around 80 different types of cheese, all across the country. The ownership structure of Icelandic dairies may have helped (dairies and abattoirs there tend to be cooperatives).

“People need to be empowered well beyond the passive role of “consumer” – we each need to feel that we play a role in increasing our food sustainability.”

In November of 2016, the NL Provincial Government first announced a plan to increase food production to 20% by 2022. At that point, food production indicators were in a freefall. In the five years between 2011 and 2016, we lost 20% of our commercial farms, and saw reductions in acres of potatoes, number of dairy and beef cattle and other indicators. In 2016, the total area of greenhouse production (including flowers) was the size of only 33 hockey arenas.

However, the increasing interest in self-provisioning is one of the most optimistic indicators for food security in our province. NL’s “Backyard Farming and Homesteading” Facebook group now has over 17,000 members. As the largest conglomeration of food producers in the province, this is no time to ignore their messages. Will self-provisioning feed us? No. But we’ll be far worse off, as a culture, if we do anything to restrict the desire to provide for oneself.

Yes, food security in NL is a challenge. But we are already doing more than our metrics are showing. People need to be empowered well beyond the passive role of “consumer” – we each need to feel that we play a role in increasing our food sustainability. That is the way that places learn to feed themselves.

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