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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   

Live Green Toronto Festival

With the sun shining and the mercury soaring (30+ degrees), I think we can breathe a collective sigh and say, "summer is here". The July long weekend is the official start of cottage weekends, summer concerts, and events and street festivals in the city. From Pride Week to Taste of the Danforth, the Honda Indy to Caribana, there is no shortage of action this summer.

One of the festivals I am most looking forward to is the Live Green Toronto Festival at Yonge and Dundas Square on July 16. This is Toronto's largest outdoor green festival with hundreds of green products and services, outdoor vendors, and live music throughout the day!

I can't wait to check out the vendors, munch on some local (and wheat free!) food, and take in some great live music. I'll also bring some of my duplicate, or less loved, DVDs for the SWAPZONE. I'm always looking to update my DVD collection at home and at the cottage (I need to at least entertain the possibility that there might be a rainy day) and this swap event is a totally free way to add some new titles to my collection -- plus, unlike other no cost options i.e. holding up your local blockbuster or downloading titles online, it is legal! 

Meaning, after it's all said and done, I'll have some new movies and music, and some extra coin in my wallet for some more tasty treats or perhaps a local microbrew on a patio that evening…

“Why Woody?” – for an honorary degree

A very nice reporter from the Toronto Star asked me this question on the phone yesterday, as I was standing in a field in Milton, Ontario, next to 16-Milgiant 2e Creek. I was collecting seeds from Giant Hogweed, an invasive and somewhat toxic plant (see right).

Tomorrow, York University will confer an honorary degree on Woody Harrelson. Back in January, when I wrote my nomination letter, I had no idea that the announcement of this would coincide with the recent release of a popular commercial movie, starring him! I also had no idea as to how receptive the university committee responsible for Honorary Degrees would be to our nomination! After all, universities are very conservative institutions, as I found out from the raised eyebrows, back in the mid 1990s, when I had the temerity to suggest to some colleagues that we ought to consider nominating Oprah Winfrey for an honorary degree. At the time, she was dictating what America and my local Mum's Book Club was reading, through her book selections.

There have been a lot opinions offered about York conferring this degree on Woody Harrelson, in response to the CBC story. In the wake of my interview with the Star reporter, I think there's a few things worth mentioning from my answer to her question "Why Woody?"

1. The whole idea can be traced back to 2006 and the conversation that IRIS started about making York's course kits carbon neutral. Along the way, not only did we discover a huge interest amongst our students in the issue of climate change, but we also learned a lot about how unsustainable the publishing and printing industry is, in terms of how it produces books:  inks, paper, and the energy footprint of shipping books; akin to shipping bricks, a friend in publishing has told me.

2. Then, in August 2008, I was invited by the committee organizing our Fall Green Week, to suggest environmental and sustainability-related documentaries for screening. Since I am always forcing my family to watch educational docs, I had lots of ideas, as did others, and we had a lively discussion. I thought that An Inconvenient Truth was too ubiquitous to have much appeal at the time, and that Who Killed the Electric Car, was just a wee bit too boring. But Go Further was different from anything that I had ever seen, and might just be the ticket for an undergraduate audience. It was not at all preachy and took a very different approach to engaging youth than  found in the standard lecture.

3. When we screened the film, through a colleague at York, who turned out to have a brother in publishing, we also learned about the companion book to the documentary, which is incredibly sustainably produced. From him, we learned that the appearance of these kinds of books tends to have limited appeal to the purchasing public. This is why the books in stores don't tend to look like the Go Further book: they don't really sell that well. In other words - environmentally friendly, unshiny, dull-looking books don't cut it on the shelf - YET.

So there you have it, the boring story of why I got involved in this nomination. We did a bunch of research into and learning about a couple of key items of academic life - documentaries and books and learned about Woody Harrelson, too. And, as a good academic should be, I was also rather skeptical about the nomination venture. As I  wrote in my  letter:

"Mr. Harrelson has turned out to be an embodiment of our new York slogan and our old motto, that the way must be tried. Who would have thought that the goofy bartender from “Cheers” would turn out to be such an important environmental leader and activist?"

If universities are to be leaders, then we must be receptive to different modes of teaching and learning, and be prepared to recognize and honor them.

Dawn Bazely

Quiz: How green is your food?

Source: BBC Nov 2004.

1. The energy used to import a kg of fresh spinach from California to the UK is equivalent to running a 100 watt light bulb for:

A: 1 year
B: 1 month
C: 2 weeks
D: 1 week

2. It takes 3.5 times as much of what to produce a litre of non-organic milk compared to a litre of organic milk?

A: Energy
B: Water
C: Fertilizer
D: Land

3. A typical British family of four emits 4.2 tonnes of C02 from their house each year and 4.4 tonnes from their car. How much is emitted from the production, packaging and distribution of the food they eat?

A: 1 tonne
B: 2 tonnes
C: 4 tonnes
D: 8 tonnes


1. B
2. A – Organic milk comes from cows which are fed on pasture which is not treated with fertilizers and pesticides. Much of the extra energy used in the production of non-organic milk is energy used in the production of the fertilizer.
3. D

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.

Buying Locally Produced Foods

Did You Know?
The majority of the money spent on grocery-store food goes to suppliers, processors, middlemen and marketers. Only 3.5 cents of each dollar actually goes to the farmer. (approximately, I've read other figures but generally it's in this area) If you buy food from a farmers market or farm stand, you can be sure that most, if not all, of your money is going directly to the farmer.

Communities reap more economic benefits from the presence of small farms than they do from large ones. Studies have shown that small farms re-invest more money into local economies by purchasing feed, seed and other materials from local businesses,x whereas large farms often order in bulk from distant companies. Large factory livestock farms also bring down local property values with the intense odors they emit.

Food transported short distances is fresher (and, therefore, safer) than food that travels long distances. Local food has less of an opportunity to wilt and rot whereas large-scale food manufacturers must go to extreme lengths to extend shelf-life since there is such a delay between harvest and consumption. Preservatives are commonly used to keep foods stable longer, and are potentially hazardous to human health. Industrially-produced foods are also difficult to grow without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones, all of which can be damaging to both the environment and human health.

A large amount of fossil fuel is used to transport foods such long distances. Combustion of these fuels releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change, acid rain, smog and air pollution. Even the refrigeration required to keep your fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats from spoiling burns up energy.

A typical carrot has to travel 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table.

In the U.S., a wheat farmer can expect to receive about six cents of each dollar spent on a loaf of bread-approximately the cost of the wrapping.xiii
Farmers markets enable farmers to keep 80 to 90 cents of each dollar spent by the consumer.
Cheap energy and agricultural subsidies facilitate a type of agriculture that is destroying and polluting our soils and water, weakening our communities, and concentrating wealth and power into a few hands. It is also threatening the security of our food systems, as demonstrated by the continued e-Coli, GMO-contamination, and other health scares that are often seen nowadays on the news.
If you are concerned about genetically-modified foods, you can select local farms that grow food from heirloom seeds. And you can support organic practices in your region.

Local Food: Where to Find It, How to Buy It
This 30-page booklet was developed by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture for consumers who are interested in supporting rural communities by buying locally grown food, but don't know how to begin. You can get the full free PDF version here:


The rise of local farmer’s markets in Toronto: Parkdale-High Park

Eating foods that are in season and buying local foods are suddenly back in fashion. Witness the slow food movement, and the 100-mile (or km) diet. BUT, there have always been farmer's markets in Toronto, and Foodland Ontario has been around ever since I can remember, urging me to eat more squash in the Fall. This "rediscovery" of local foods and farmers isn't just happening in Ontario. In the UK, Gordon Ramsay's brilliant F-Word tv show is urging Brits to remember their forgotten local foods, as well as trying to get the younger generation, who have apparently forgotten how to boil an egg, back into the kitchen. Check out Gordon on CBC's The Hour below.

Doing the homework around local foods, and sustainable shopping, and fair-trade coffee can be very tiring. These tomatoes in my local supermarket looked identical, but one batch came from Mexico and one from Canada (talk about needing to read the fine print). SO, I was thrilled to hear that I can access reliably sourced local and organic foods much more easily now that Sorauren Farmer's Market will be in walking distance from my house. The Westend Food Co-op which runs the market has posted clear statements on its vision, mission, and values.

This goal of transparency at the Westend Food Co-op is fantastic, because when it comes to ecological footprints, the intuitive idea that ALL local foods must have lower footprints for energy production, is NOT always true. A Swedish colleague once told me about a full life cycle assessment comparing local produce with that coming from Spain, which found that the ecological footprint of the Spanish fruit and veggies, was actually lower than the Swedish produce! In sustainability, full life cycle assessment or cradle-to-grave analysis looks at the total amount of energy and resources that it takes to produce some object, including food. It embodies the concepts inherent in full-cost economic accounting.

Dawn Bazely