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Who cares about Bangladesh? 1. Consumers and human security in the Global South

The collapse of a poorly-constructed building and the deaths of many garment workers in a textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has many Canadians talking, because some of the clothes sold in Canada, by the Joe Fresh brand, of Loblaws, were made in this factory.

The poor working conditions and wages, along with prior indications of cracks in the building, pointing to its instability, has prompted global and Canadian media to ask the question "will this change how you buy your clothes?" and articles with titles like, "Is your wardrobe killing Bangladeshis, or saving them?".

Garment Factory in Bangladesh

Photograph  by Fahad Faisal, via Wikimedia Commons 

I managed to get onto the CBC Noon radio phone in, last Friday (that's me at 17:40 mins into the podcast, What is the cost of a bargain?), to explain that I try to buy Canadian labels and locally manufactured clothes, that I encourage my kids to understand how much work goes into sewing clothes (please bring back Home Economics to schools!), and to ask questions in those mall chain stores, that in my opinion, are full of cheaply manufactured, but expensive goods, about their corporate social responsibility policies and fair-trade practices....  (seriously, I do..!).

The issues of sustainability - economic, social and environmental - are at the heart of this tragedy. This building collapse and high death toll has brought unwelcome publicity for Loblaws, who is sending senior representatives from its supply chain team to the factory, to Dhaka, in an effort to understand what caused the tragedy.  The renewed conversations and debates about the role of the consumer and corporations in affecting the livelihoods and working conditions of people in the Global South, are, in my opinion, most welcome, not least because this disaster highlights the complexity of this issue and the fact that it is a "wicked problem" with no easy solution. We must remember, for example, that Loblaws, is, in many respects an exemplary company, when it comes to leadership on sustainability issues: its Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and the Oceans for Tomorrow campaign, in partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council and World Wildlife Fund Canada, is a marvellous programme, that has resulted in increased consumption of certified sea food in my home - after many years of trying to NOT eat down the food chain.

Bangladesh, its people, its environment, and sustainability, have been in the minds of us at IRIS and the York University community over the years, as highlighted in many events and activities.

This is the first in a series in which I will be updating and re-posting blogs from the past, highlighting the issues faced by Bangladeshis, and the efforts of colleagues, here and abroad to bring attention to these complex challenges and propose solutions.

Dawn Bazely

DISCLAIMER - in the interests of transparency, I should say that my husband, Dr. Peter Ewins, works for WWF Canada. I, myself, undertook my first fundraising campaign for WWF UK when I was 11 years old! BUT, this doesn't mean that I have given WWF a 100% thumbs-up on all of its policies, programmes and actions over the last 40 years - there is always room for improvement.


Food Blog no. 10 – cities as sources of food – The Toronto Urban Veg Tour 2012 & 2011

The City of Havana, Cuba produces a tremendous amount of the food for its citizens, as we see in the BBC show, Around the World in 80 Gardens. In the 2004 documentary, The End of Suburbia, the futurist, James Kunstler talked about how people living in the 'burbs, will, in the future, use their front gardens to grow food.

Just how close are we to this being the case in Toronto? Based on my experience across the city, with schools, neighbours, various botanic gardens and teaching the Plants course, I would say that we are still pretty far off. But, there has been movement and a steadily increasing interest amongst youth (for me, that's everyone under 30) in gardening and growing food over the last 5 years - the same trend is happening for knitting. One example of why I think we are far off this, is that I spent a good chunk of my volunteer time in the mid 2000s on my knees, digging, with other dedicated parents (see Catherine Majoribanks, Pete Ewins, myself, Sheila O'Connell and Jeff Hanning above), and restoring an overgrown public school butterfly garden to have a focus on food and herbs, and installing a new native species garden. My various strategic attempts, at that time, to make the sporadic efforts of parent-driven efforts in school gardens more sustainable and widespread over incoming generations of parents, teachers and children, failed. There was simply not a broad enough interest and uptake on multiple fronts - in other words, the tipping point hadn't been reached.

In 2011, The Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto became a part of the local urban food movement. In an initiative led by Beth Kapusta, a resident of the High Park-Roncesvalles,  the Society supported the highly successful Veg Tour 2011. When Beth was looking for local gardens to include in the tour, my family's garden got volunteered as a stop on the tour by the owner of our local cheese shop, the Thin Blue Line.

In 2012, instead of a public Veg Tour the local gardeners previously involved in the tour visited each others' gardens as well as new gardens, and exchanged ideas, as well as a taste of  food grown in our' gardens (those are my tomatoes and nasturtium pesto on the tray - photo by Howard Rideout, used with permission).
It was very interesting and educational. This year's tour was an illustration of the principles of successful grass-roots movements. First, it was notable that the leads and participants in the Veg Tour were neighbours who are activists, gardeners, writers, etc. with lots of background knowledge and experience. For example, the 2011 Veg Tour included gardening writer Lorraine Johnson and social innovator Tonya Surman, while the leader, dynamic Beth Kapusta, grew up in Delhi, Ontario, a farming community. What the tour did, was to allow us to aggregate as a group. Reaching critical mass is important for grass roots efforts. As we say at IRIS, "if you're not networking, you're not working".

There are two main challenges for local urban food movements like the High Park-Parkdale Veg Tour. The first is to broaden the community participation to include diverse gardeners from varied cultural backgrounds, who might not normally think about getting involved with such a group. A few years ago, the Toronto Botanical Garden held a workshop aimed at figuring out how to be more relevant to the broader Toronto community. I, along with others suggested the idea of asking culturally diverse gardeners to plant gardens characteristic of those that various waves of immigrants to Toronto created when they arrived: so many immigrants have brought with them knowledge about growing crops. Many of us at the workshop also suggested increasing engagement with school gardens.

A second challenge facing these urban food movements is to transfer the knowledge to less experienced and skilled, but interested youth. Bottom line, is that sustainability-ideas such as growing more local food  in urban locations is not new. It's about getting to a tipping point where a critical mass sustains the movement. In Cuba they had no choice. In Toronto, it's more of a choice, at the moment.

Here are some of my favourite veggie gardens in my west Toronto neighbourhood.


Dawn Bazely

PS Through the Veg Tour events, I discovered some interesting York University connections. Clement Kent, the president of The Toronto and Parkdale Horticultural Societies is a post-doctoral fellow in the Biology Department. He was  featured in a Y-file article, about the Pollinator Advocate Award that he received for his Pollinator Garden Project.

Food Blog no. 9 – Thinking about how fossil fuels subsidize food production

Could you imagine having to grow your own food?

Industrial agriculture has, in the recent past, brought us wine and milk lakes and butter mountains. This industrial approach to agriculture is the main reason why the per capita food production continued to increase during the 1990s and early 2000s. Though there is concern that this upwards trend may now be declining.

The downside of industrial agriculture seems to be most often expressed in arguments for organic foods. What is very rarely mentioned, however, is that our ability to engage in industrial agriculture is primarily due to fossil fuels.The energy value of the apple that we buy in the store is about 60 kcals. The total energetic cost of producing that apple, is far higher. Energy was burned in the form of gasoline that drove the tractor, and in the production of the fertilizers. While financial subsidies to Europe, via taxpayers' money, are often a hot topic of debate, in general as a society dependent on fossil fuels, we are generally not considering the energetic subsidy from fossil fuels of food production.

The energetic cost to a Medieval peasant, working the land, of producing a kcal was explained to some of us in an excellent lecture in 2008, by Professor Verena Winiwarter. There was a very high human energy input, but the relative production efficiency was actually much better than it is today! If you saw any of the excellent TV series, the Victorian Farm, you may have been aghast to learn, as I did, that 100 years ago, a ploughman might walk, on average, 14 miles a day behind his horse and plough. And, that plough was a modernized steel version that was a direct product of the industrial revolution. No wonder he would sit down to a Ploughman's lunch.

Even WITH fossil fuels to run our tractors, bailers and harvesters, food production is HARD work. As a doctoral student in Oxford, I had to put in my time on the University Farm, with sheep dipping and bailing. Could you imagine what would happen without  fossil fuel energy replacing human (peasant-style) labour? Recently in Colorado USA, John Harold, a local onion farmer  decided to bring in less migrant labour for the harvest, and to offer the jobs to local unemployed people. But, they either did not apply, or if they did, could not hack the physical work involved... as reported in a recent New York Times article - "Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All" (Oct 5th 2011).

Dawn Bazely   

Food blog no. 7 – Canadian Food Inspection Agency lacks strategy for of surveillance of imported food

So, here I am am, happily blogging about Food Security and food sustainability, and there on the front page of Friday's Globe and Mail, above the fold, is the headline "Food watchdog asks who's minding the store: Canadians drawing more and more from foreign sources of food, but domestic regulation isn't keeping pace, internal audit finds". The article reports that an internal audit found that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency - CFIA - "has failed to develop a strategy to ensure that health hazards are not entering Canada in cans of spices and jars of cooking oil."

Now, I have had various interactions, on and off with CFIA for a decade, about the development and implementation of the Invasive Alien Species Strategy for Canada. CFIA and Environment Canada were two of the lead agencies on this issue. From a global perspective, Canada has been a laggard when it comes to the development of strong laws, policies and programmes for managing potentially invasive, non-indigenous, introduced species, and their potential threats to both agriculture and the natural environment. I have witnessed this laggardliness from when I was researching my book with Judy Myers at UBC, and in the decade since, as Canada has tried to move forward on this issue (see Myers and Bazely 2003). I have come to the conclusion, that one of the main reasons for Canada being at the rear of the pack when it comes to action, is the woeful under-resourcing of the various agencies, including CFIA, who are tasked with the issue. Who's at the front of the pack? New Zealand and Australia.

Therefore, Prof. Rick Holley's (University of Manitoba) observation about the lack of resources for CFIA in the context of screening imported food for quality and contamination, certainly resonates with my experience. For example, I referred to a US Department of Agriculture report on "Imports from China and Food Safety Issues" in an earlier Food Blog (no. 2) because I couldn't find a Canadian information source.

Dawn R. Bazely

Food blog no. 6 – putting up food in summer kitchens

In the 2001 reality tv show, Pioneer Quest: A year in the real west, two couples went back in time to live as pioneers would have done in 1875. Watching this show, all I could think of was how happy I was NOT to have been a pioneer in Canada. But, I foresee a future in which we will all be rediscovering and reverting to many of the practices of these amazingly resourceful people. They spent a huge amount of time harvesting and preserving food to see them through the harsh winter.

The Summer Kitchen is one great early Canadian pioneer idea. In Ontario, old houses often had two kitchens. One inside for the winter and one outside of the main house, for the summer. This summer was one of the hottest on record, and I made a summer kitchen on my back deck. We do not have air conditioning, except for a large American Elm shading the south side of our house, so I banished all heat-generating cooking to the summer kitchen. Putting up food, as it's known in North America took place outside in this kitchen over our propane camping stove. In the UK, preserving food in glass jars is known as bottling.

As part of my family's developing interest in eating more locally, in the last three years, I have officially progressed from freezer jam to boiling water canning. Along the way, I watched a ton of You Tube videos and amassed a library of very informative books, as well as scoured the USA Agricultural Extension Services' websites. This summer, friends and I embarked on an ambitious, comprehensive canning programme. This also involved picking our own berries at local Ontario farms - strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, and cherries. It's hot, hard work, but it's very gratifying to know which tree your cherries came from.

I also discovered some of the top people writing on this issue today - both recognized in the print world of publishing and the blogosphere.

Eugenia Bone - whose food-preserving recipes have been featured in Martha Stewart Living - is a simply outstanding writer on the whole topic of putting-up, local food and growing your own. She can be found at her Denver Post blog. She divides her time between the rural and urban worlds (New York - seen below in her SoHo loft) and is provides a reliable for starting point for anyone wanting to get into this topic.

A more organic, grass-roots source of information can be found at Tigress in a Jam blogspot. The blogger, who doesn't give her name, as far as I can see, is a young, local-food and animal welfare activist, and she has instigated all kinds of seasonal canning contests, where people experiment with one main ingredient and post their recipes. It's a great example of the web as capacity builder.

Dawn R. Bazely

Food blog no. 4 – essential reading on the topic of sustainable food

I thought that I might have enough opinions about food sustainability for 4 or perhaps 5 blogs. I am aghast to find that I could probably write one blog a week for a whole year. I shouldn't be surprised, since we all eat to live, and this is a universally interesting topic. Plus I have a professional interest in the subject as a plant ecologist, with an applied ecology focus involving animals that we eat - like geese, sheep and deer. This has taken me to many farms. I am also a keen gardener, and a keen cook.

I am not alone in my interest and there are superb writers and bloggers who inform me. My favourite book about diet, cooking and food sustainability is Hungry Planet and the photo essay, What the World Eats, reviewed in the following excellent You Tube video.

Alex Lewin's blog reviews books about food sustainability, including a number that I have mentioned.

Four other lists and sites worth mentioning include:'s sustainable food section's must-read books. This is a favourite, because the blogger admits to not having read Michael Pollan's In Defence of Food, which I haven't read either, for exaclty the same reason: I get the take-home message - "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."
Planet Friendly's website is worth a look, along with's sustainable food booklist for 2010 and's 2008 reading list.

Dawn R. Bazely

Food blog no. 1 – waste not, want not

My friend and colleague, Prof. Ellie Perkins recently forwarded an article to a number of us about the "cost of eggs". I assumed that it was all about the nutritional value of hens' eggs and expected to read that I could soon keep chickens in my back garden in Toronto - and why not? Vancouverites can. With the advent of the growing season, I am currently in an "urban agriculture" headspace, as well as engaged in the ongoing battle to increase the number of vegetarian meals that my family eats (for both cost and carbon footprint reasons) to over 50%. It turned out that Ellie's article was a very curious piece about the high value placed on the eggs of students with high SAT scores by couples hoping to conceive via fertility treatments and egg donations! Eggs are parts of life cycles, and all organisms need food as they go through their life cycles. Food security and sustainability of supply are huge issues. When I began teaching ecology at York in 1991, global per capita food production had been steadily rising. In recent years, per capita food production has been declining for various reasons, but there is still enough food to feed the world, if we could get it distributed.

Tristram Stuart's book Waste, highlights the issue of how much food is wasted as a result of our industrial-scale approach to agriculture and best-by dates which result in enormous quantities of food being thrown out. Many families throw out much of the food from their fridges and GOOD magazine tells us that the average American wastes 0.5 lbs of food per day. In London, England, 176,000 bananas are thrown out everyday. Both GOOD and Stuart point out that, if diverted appropriately, this wasted food, could address issues of hunger quite seriously and it could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Another way of putting into perspective the information about just how much food never makes it into people's stomachs, is to take a look at the excellent series, What the World Eats. It is based on the book, Hungry Planet, and shows photos of families from around the world with their weekly groceries spread out before them, as well as the cost. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and this is the book that I would want to see in everyone's house, on the kitchen table.

The 2001 AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment, is also an excellent resource.

So, take-home message number 1 - eat ALL of the food that you buy for you and your family. Do this before thinking about eating locally or organically or turning vegan - which I'll cover later. Reducing food waste at the local kitchen level takes a lot of planning and is hard work. I DO THIS, and so can you. Follow GOOD's and Martha's advice and plan weekly family menus. Freeze leftovers and use up food that's on the edge of going off. As Gordon Ramsay  points out, time and again, in his books and tv shows - good restaurants waste very little food - they would not make money if they did.

Dawn R. Bazely

Is there a connection between animal rights and sustainability?

Her Excellency, Michaelle Jean, Governor General of Canada's participation in a community feast in Nunavut, in which she helped to gut and eat seal, has ignited a storm of protest from animal rights activists.  As it turns out, I have some experience interacting with our local animal rights activists.  The research that I have done on the ecology of deciduous forests in Ontario in the last 20 years has brought me into contact with people with widely differing knowledge about and values relating to animals, including animal rights activists opposed to the reduction of high deer densities in small forest patches. Consequently, I have developed an interest in the questions of, whether and how, animal rights activists perceive their activism to be related to questions of the environment, climate change and the research fields of animal behaviour.

Here's some of what I have learned:

1.  Animal welfare differs from animal rights.  I am a strong advocate for animal welfare.  At Oxford University, where I did my doctorate on Animal Behaviour in the Zoology Department, I was lucky to get to know Prof. Marion Dawkins, an internationally-recognized expert on animal welfare. Most people that I know agree that the basic principle of animal welfare is a good thing.  As a result of my research experience, I hold, what I am sure many people would consider to be a number of radical opinions about pet ownership.  For example, I  generally disagree with the idea of urban dwellers  owning "working" dogs such collies, because, having worked with these dogs, I have seen what they are bred to do: they actually need huge amounts of exercise and they love to "work" - as in sheep herding, etc. - which they don't get much of as city-dogs.  But, I am not a supporter of animal rights - and I don't think dogs should have the same rights as humans!  This is an important point of clarification early on with animal rights activists.

2.  Most animal rights activists with whom I have spoken, are generally unaware of the broader issues surrounding biodiversity, ecology, ecological footprints and sustainability.  I usually encourage them to kick-start their broadened education by reading the international Convention on Biological Diversity.  In the case where animal rights activists do adopt scientific language, and refer to academic research, I have found that they often end up in similar territory to that which I have observed is occupied by representatives of groups such as climate-change deniers whose funding may be somehow linked to the lobbyists for big oil: their use of the primary and secondary literature is highly selective and biased.

3. There are many inconsistencies between the words and actions of animal rights activists.  Apart from the usual questions that I have, such as, why focus on seals and not cockroaches(?), I have observed that many animal rights activists are quick to accuse others of being disrespectful to them, but are, themselves, very comfortable with making extreme public statements attacking other people's values - such as "shooting a deer is barbaric".  I firmly believe that all voices and views must be brought to the table when it comes to considering sustainability, but, this does not absolve those voices from being held accountable for rude, disruptive and disrespectful behaviour.  Additionally, as an academic, I tend to pay rather less attention to uninformed, idealogically-driven, extreme opinions than to informed, nuanced opinions that take account of grey areas.

Dawn R. Bazely

The Healthy Butcher

The Healthy Butcher are two Toronto based organic and local meat shops, one on Eglinton West and the other on Queen St. West. While, specializing in local certified organic meat they are expanding to produce as well. In light of recent issues with processed meat and the always present concern over the ecological impacts of meat consumption and industrial agriculture, the Healthy Butcher offers an alternative to becoming a vegetarian. They are fundamentally committed to healthy, organic, and most importantly local meat. They buy directly from farmers and have extensive information on what certified organic means to them. For this company, organic meat means;

  • Livestock must be fed 100% organic food;
  • No use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in the growing of the animals’ feed;
  • No use of genetically modified organisms;
  • No use of growth hormones;
  • No use of drugs (such as antibiotics);
  • No use of animal by-products for feed;
  • Treating animals humanely (i.e. they have outside access at all times);
  • Inspections by an independent certification body occur on a regular basis;
  • All certified products records are kept for 5 years;
  • Strict Canadian and International standards are met.

In all they are making a commitment to healthy meat consumption, environmental and social sustainabililty by supporting local farmers. Organic meat is more humane as the animals are treated better and raised naturally without chemical hormones. The Healthy Butcher also makes the best effort to ensure that their prices are comparable to non-organic meats. Even if the prices are a little more, is it not worth it for a little piece of mind.

Africa’s Overlapping Crises

UNEP has just released a visually stunning and deeply disturbing atlas of Africa's changing environment. Using an array of satellite images, ground photographs and maps, the nearly 400-page publication depicts a sobering portrait of environmental destruction on a massive scale. While Africa's population has certainly increased in the 20th century, much of this damage is occuring due to continued unsustainable resource extraction or straight out plunder as in the case of many of the continent's bloody but underreported brush wars. The resulting widescale dislocation of populations as well as rapid urbanization have also taken their toll (Independent).

However, the transformation of African Agriculture has perhaps carried the biggest environmental and human impact. As noted economist Walden Bello has noted, a combination of ill-advised agricultural and economic policies have successively destroyed "the local productive base of smallholder agriculture" in favour of Western-style agriculture. These developmental disasters have been further compounded by unfair global trade that has broken the back of African farmers, even has the conversion of ever more land to cash crop production has claimed forests while only producing massive food insecurity.

Indeed, at the time of independence, Africa was a net food exporter, a situation that has been turned on its head under World Bank tutelage and IMF structural adjustment. Now famine perpetually stalks the land, while the African people's age-old coping mechanisms for drought have long overwhelmed by their economic weakness. As Bello argues, biofuels have only provided the coup de grace to a global food system that has been heading towards the current disaster for decades.