This report from the field comes from sunny Alberta, where the people are not cloudy all day, despite a sharp downturn in the economy resulting from the oil industry’s mass lay-offs.

The sun is going to power up what is now Alberta’s Number One industry — food production, processing and preparation — which was the topic of my keynote speech at an Edmonton conference called Cultivating Connections: Alberta Regional Food System Forum 2017.

Sunny ways will prove even more important to an economy that relies on cultivating connections.

As usual — this is why I can do this blog — I came away from the Edmonton conference with more knowledge than I brought.

But before we get to what we can all learn from Alberta’s sunny ways, I want to plug my keynote proposals in favor of identifying food as a strategic and enabling sector that can serve as the foundation of a renewed and renewable economy.

The reason we need to think about food as a strategic sector is that most of food’s yields come from a broad understanding of food and of the partnerships needed for successful implementation of a whole-of-society food-based economic strategy.

THINK BIG AND STICK AROUND!

Earl Butz, head of the US Department of Agriculture during the 1970s, was infamous for bluntly telling any farmers slow to embrace the demands of Big Food processors and retailers that they should either “get big or get out.” My advice is the opposite: Think big, and stick around!

If food producers think big and wide about food strategy, they won’t need to get out.

An example of a narrow (not wrong, but narrow) approach is to support increased food exports as a way of increasing farm income and employment. In Alberta, this idea is often applied to boosting exports of beans and pulses, almost all sold in unprocessed form to Asia.

Increased sales of unprocessed pulse exports might encourage some existing growers to expand their operations, might lead successful pulse exporters to buy more goods from local retailers, and might encourage some new farmers to shift into pulse production. But it’s unlikely a boost in unprocessed pulse sales will move any employment or revenue needle very far. It’s a tactic without a strategy.

Feeling the pulse of Alberta’s new export crop

Many ag experts believe Albertan food exporters should also strive to increase local jobs by increasing the value of processing added to raw material exports — up from the Alberta norm of about 40 per cent to the 65 per cent level common in Ontario and Quebec.

According to Stats Canada figures, Alberta exported $10.2 billion worth of agri-food in 2015; value-added food exports comprised 47.2 per cent of that, a significant improvement over past years. If value-added had risen to 65 per cent, that would have meant processing jobs working on over a billion dollars worth of raw materials.

Why use rich farmland, and then invest in agricultural capacity, without taking the next step of ensuring that crops are processed to keep residues for composting in farm country, and to reap the full benefit of Canada’s hard-earned reputation for food safety, rather than liquidate value by selling anonymous commodities with no connection to place?

Such improvement of food’s job-creating potential is long-overdue, but it’s still a tactical, not a strategic, initiative, and is not yet the game-changer needed to use good food as a foundation for major job creation.

Yet another limited (not wrong, but limited) view is “import substitution.” Instead of importing apples, grow them near home, import substitution fans argue, and thereby increase the number of people growing, distributing and processing apples.

Many Alberta greenhouse operators are already moving in that direction, as are many craft beer producers, who can add value to some of Alberta’s premium barley crop. There’s lots of potential.

Such import substitution can be especially generative — that’s the word I’m looking for, generative — when public agencies, schools and hospitals contract with suppliers who order a certain percentage of local and sustainable foods, and thereby scale up the availability of both local and sustainable foods. That’s an example of scaling out, not just up.

Public sector purchasing, because of the volume sales provided, has the potential for game-changing job-creation improvements because of this capacity to generate scaling up and out through volume purchasing that supports infant industries.

But even with this twist, import substitution of food commodities is not where the big opportunities lie.

We still need to think more strategically.

The real job creation opportunities come from branching out beyond food as an edible commodity, and working with food as a multifunctional and value-creating service that requires many different kinds of workers to implement.

The most obvious example of such opportunities waiting to happen comes from envisioning a food-based economic strategy to promote health and reduce chronic disease.

GENERATIVE AND TRASFORMATIVE OPPORTUNITIES

According to the Alberta auditor general’s report of 2014, the costs of treating over 700,000 Albertans with at least one chronic disease came to a whopping $4.5 billion — and that’s without counting the costs of lab tests, long-term care, home care and the lost productivity while workers undergo treatment and rehab, all of which could easily double the economic value unnecessarily lost to productive economic use to about $9 billion a year. The auditor general was very critical of the province’s failure to intervene more constructively on such runaway costs.

Food strategy can link food, health & jobs

Imagine what could be done with just 10 per cent of $9 billion invested in preventive and curative treatments featuring delivery of healthy diets and exercize programs. Such job-intensive non-medical interventions (9000 jobs, at a cost, including overhead, of $100,000 per job, would cost $900 million) would have the greatest long-term impact if invested in youth, who can in turn influence their parents.

Such interventions are obviously sorely needed. Alberta’s food programs for youth got an embarrassing D in the overall 2016 report card prepared by the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention. The government got a F on its record for financial incentives to support youth consumption of healthy food. My recommendation would turn the report card to an A.

Such a strategic orientation linking food and health could create 9000 new jobs at no net new cost to taxpayers by investing in nutrition to prevent chronic disease, support local food producers, and protect the well-being and economic productivity of Alberta citizens.

Think of what it might mean to Alberta’s emerging potential as a major grower of pulse crops. A campaign to boost increased consumption of such nutrient-packed crops — even a modest increase to one cup per week for each of Alberta’s four million people — would double pulse sales in the province. It would also have positive impacts on the environment, because pulses drawn down nitrogen into the soil, and pulse roots break up soil at risk of being compacted, while helping bring down the rates of heart disease and diabetes.

That’s the kind of quadruple-win for jobs, financial savings, health and environmental improvements that a strategic orientation to food can double down on.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

Doubling down with strategic partnerships could work similar wonders in the field of culinary tourism and agro-tourism, as well as in the field of green infrastructure, which can easily incorporate food-bearing plants into what are called “living machines.”

But in the short-term, the greatest possibilities come from preventing, reusing, recycling and upcycling food waste. Alberta has been a North American leader in such efforts since the 1980s, and presenters at one major workshop revealed the province’s continuing leadership and entrepreneurial excellence.

Fuelling a carnival of waste-elimination opportunities

If recognized as part of a strategic sector, managing the food lifecycle to eliminate waste and strive for increased job creation and environmental benefits, the food un-waste industry can convert some $3 billion in annual costs of dumping food waste in landfill into its opposite — some $3 billion of value-added resources and revenues.

One Calgary-based company, BioCan, keeps 2000 tonnes of wasted food a month out of landfill by mixing up wasted food from food retailers with wasted elemental sulphur from the oil industry to produce high-quality and clean fertilizer and soil conditioner, which is sold to farmers. In the waste field, two bads can make a good!

Another company, Sustainavil, got its start in 2011 turning wasted vegetable oil into fuel for rides at an Edmonton carnival. It’s still turning heads as a world leader in turning waste into energy for food production — in one case into heat for an aquaponic fishery.

Marc Legault manages a unit within Alberta’s ministry for Agriculture and Forestry, where he describes his job to “ferment chicken turd” and create probiotic “chicken manure smoothies” that can be used as a premium fertilizer that substitutes for synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuels. Legault thinks such soil additives can support a new growth industry of year-round greenhouse-grown cabbage, celery, beets, Swiss chard, kale and fig production, all of which take up his fertilizer well.

Mike Dorion, who sometimes goes by the name of The Compost Kid, is based in Calgary and is excited about the city’s forthcoming bylaw banning organics from landfill. He will have his work cut out for him.

In the discussion that followed, all panelists agreed there was a huge amount of space for new entrepreneurs in this field. Composting of humanure is not likely on the immediate horizon, one speaker suggested, because the cost of synthetic fertilizer is so low. But urine is the product to watch, one said. Maybe there’s merit in the trickle down theory of wealth-creation.

Indoor farms incorporating products from the end-of-life phase of the food cycle are also about to happen, says fuel maker Joey Hundert, considered one of the province’s most visionary entrepreneurs. Moore’s Law — the notion that the prices of computer chips drop in half each year while ability doubles — is coming to greenhouse lighting, and will make local, year-round “indoorification” of high-value crops a viable business, Hundert said.

“There’s a real blue ocean out there,” Hundert said — a reference to the idea that upstart entrepreneurs can find room to move by finding out-of-the-way projects that look like too much work to interest bloated corporations.

Alberta may be landlocked, but Albertan food system entrepreneurs don’t need pipelines to get to blue oceans, where jobs producing environmental benefits are plentiful.

Such opportunities come into view when people have an eye for a strategic sense of food, which leverages food’s ability to create job opportunities across the board, in a variety of services valuable for environmental and human wellbeing.

That strategic sense is lacking across the world. By challenging the obsolete food-as-commodity understanding of food that comes from silo-style thinking in today’s fragmented departments of agriculture, water, environment and health, good food advocates will play the same central role in creative disruption that was once the norm in automotive and computer industries.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Let me change gears and talk about what amazed me most about the Alberta conference — the sunny personalities and friendly openness of everyone I met. In a world where brooding anger is creating Trumps, Brexits and worse, Alberta is doing something different that we all need to take note of.

Alberta’s oil industry, cornerstone of its economy for almost 75 years, has been clobbered by the global drop in oil prices. The latest evidence confirms that old oil sector jobs will never return, even if prices for oil go up and make tarsands production viable. And if oil jobs aren’t coming back to Alberta, why would any governments support construction of pipelines through food- and water-sensitive terrain?

Alberta could well be a gloomy rustbelt. Instead, it’s the opposite. Young people are still moving there. Albertans recently elected the leftish New Democratic Party, led by former labor lawyer Rachel Notley. As well, many cities and towns are led by exceptionally smart, articulate, open-minded and food-savvy mayors.

Naheed Nenshi won world attention when he was elected mayor of Calgary — a surprising feat for the media, because Calgary has a reputation as a Conservative, Anglo and a rancher-oriented Stampede City, yet elected a dark-skinned Muslim as its mayor. Without introducing himself, Nenshi came up to ask me several very detailed questions after I gave a presentation on food and cities (what else?) to a group of Calgary councilors on the day of the provincial election almost two years ago. He was so casual, lively and engaging that I asked him if he knew of anyone going to a pub to watch the election results. Why don’t you join me, he asked, pointing to his office. Only then did I realize I was talking to the mayor! No standing on ceremony here!!

Other mayors are equally worthy of note, especially in an era when cities are showing themselves to be responsive to the world’s social and environmental crises, in ways that more “senior” levels of government are not.

Edmonton’s mayor got the food memo

Edmonton hosted a packed public meeting in its City Hall foyer to launch the Cultivating Connections food conference. The meeting featured offerings of delicious local food and beverage specialties, followed by a food and cities panel featuring several outstanding civic leaders.

Mayor Don Iveson, a former student leader, hopes to grow Edmonton as “Canada’s food capital,” and is proud it is already Canada’s food truck capital, with 140 food trucks in operation. “I got the permaculture memo,” he told one questioner. “Permaculture has a lot of triple bottom line benefits” that can deliver biodiversity, climate protection and community engagement, as well as food, he said. “It’s growth-oriented, just a different form of growth.”

Joining him on the panel was Chief Billy Morin of the Enoch Cree Nation, a nearby First Nations community. Morin sees food as a “catalyst for decolonization” reconciliation, and wants to limit the number of fast food franchises to make way for local entrepreneurs selling Indigenous foods.

Mayor Lisa Holmes of nearby Morinville, is also president of the Alberta Urban and Municipalities Association. She wants to see schools equipped with proper kitchens so “we can grow food advocates as well as food,” and believes “food offers way to connect as people.”

I found the same enthusiasm for food among Edmonton’s civic staff. About 40 of them came to an afternoon workshop I gave that was sponsored by the local Edmonton Food Council, which leads the way to implement the city’s visionary food program called fresh.

Food Council staffer and City Planner, Kathryn Lennon (also a poet)

In Edmonton, food is linked strategically to planning, and that makes for a very creative interface, as well as an open door to many different departments, all of which are used to connecting with planning.

My pitch at the workshop was that people should stop seeing Food Councils as advocates for food policy in the narrow, and start seeing Councils as a group of creative brainstormers with good listening skills, who can serve as a sounding board when they had non-food challenges that might usefully incorporate a food element. By the end of the workshop, plans for future get-togethers were already being hatched.

SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT CHECKLIST FOR GOOD FOOD ADVOCATES

As we start to appreciate what a difference it makes to propose positive and progressive ideas in such a congenial and open environment, food advocates can look to Alberta for ways to bring sunshine into their own local work environments.

That’s especially important now that Trump and Brexit have taught us that sunshine sheds more positive light on solutions than gloom. This version of solar power comes from social capital — a form of wealth few people recognize because, like sunshine, it’s free in a warm and supportive society, and is therefore not of much interest to people with big bucks.

Sunshine Kids, Susan Roberts and Mary Becky cooked this up

It so happens that helping people break bread, bond and form social capital is food’s strong suit. Can we put two and two together here? That’s what the food conference I spoke to was trying to do, and why its central theme was “cultivating connections.”

First, let’s take a few measures of Alberta’s astonishing sunshine wealth. Although the province lost 40,000 oil sector jobs in 2015, and has been bleeding resource jobs ever since, and although youth in the province suffer from a 12 per cent rate of unemployment, people continue to come here. Population grew by 11.6 per cent from 2011 to 2016 — over twice the rate of Canada as a whole.

This is not what happens to a typical rust belt on a death spiral. Rust belt blues are not inevitable. They can be prevented, just like heart disease can be prevented — with good food programs.

I encourage good food enthusiasts to comb through the list to see what we can do to be of more service to all our communities. Can we use food programs to start the scaffolding for social capacity and resilience they enjoy in Alberta?

Here are some indicators about Calgary which reveal the breadth and depth of social capital in the province’s biggest city, long looked down upon as dominated by uncultured yahoo-conservative business and political leaders:

— 2nd highest level of educational attainment of Canadian cities

— 3rd top place for raising kids

— 26.2 per cent of people are immigrants, 28.1 per cent visible minorities

— 3rd highest rate of self-employment of Cdn cities

— Highest small business presence in a Cdn city

— 1st in population growth, labor participation rate

— Top 5 Cdn cities for tech talent

— Frequently identified as 5th most livable city in world

— #2 of Cdn cities for quality of life

— #2 overall in attractiveness to newcomers

— Highest charitable contributions of any Cdn city

— Most extensive bikeway and pathway system in Canada

— 10 per cent rate of dog ownership; rationale for 1250 hectares of off-leash socializing

— Calgary Co-op is one of the biggest co-op food retailers in North America, with 440,000 members, annual sales of a billion dollars, and 3400 employees (a feature amazingly overlooked by Calgary’s review of its strengths!)

— Grow Calgary, a highly unorthodox and innovative volunteer food program using hundreds of volunteers and donations to grow food for food banks on 11 acres of reclaimed land, just outside the city (also overlooked in the city publication)

Levels of volunteerism and charitable donations also speak to the social capital expressed through direct engagement and sharing with people in need. According to a statistical overview of this, half the population takes part in some project or other, donating an average of 161 hours a year. When it comes to donating money, 85 per cent do, and the average is $863 a year.

This reveals a healthy and vibrant level of “collaborative infrastructure,” the ability to bring different groupings of people together, which I and others have identified as a hallmark of the successful cities of the future; an ideal way to promote collaborative infrastructure, I argue, is through food projects, many of which are non-profits or charities.

There are two other indicators revealing the social strength of the province as a whole, especially when it comes to food.

Co-ops, which both express and foster social capital in communities, have long been a way of life here, thanks largely to the farm community. There are almost a thousand consumer and producer co-ops in Alberta. According to one reliable report, they handle about $5 billion worth of sales a year to their million-plus members — a quarter of the total population.

Farmers markets, held in some 125 communities across the province, have an opportunity unparalleled anywhere else in North America. According to detailed surveys of farmers market attendance up to 2012, 99 per cent of the population knows about farmers markets, 93 per cent have grown their own food or bought at a specialized local food outlet, 79 per cent of the population had bought from farmers markets and/or from such outlets as farm stands and local-oriented restaurants, and 29 per cent hoped to buy more from such places in the future.

This is an astonishing indicator of food-centered social capital. Farmers markets foster social capital in a neighborhood by presenting food in a community setting, providing community oversight and governance, and providing a range of community benefits, such as educational and fun events for kids. But markets equally reveal the social capital in a community — the extent of links between people in cities and countryside, for example, or the commitment and solidarity to use personal buying power to support other hardworking people, even when it doesn’t always lead to the very cheapest purchases.

As UK journalist George Monbiot has argued, this capacity to work together is fast becoming the essential safeguard for our common needs. He has written another article (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/08/take-back-control-bottom-up-communities ) identifying the importance of a healthy society being like healthy yoghurt — thick with connections.

Alberta has these assets in spades, and good food advocates everywhere should look for ways to match what they have.

 

Teaser photo image: Halifax Farmers’ Market facebook page