Why some think Canada’s beef business needs more smaller players

As big plants deal with COVID-19, there’s talk of whether Canada needs a more diverse meat processing industry

Beef being prepared for sale at Ben’s Quality Meats, a family owned, small-scale processing facility in Picture Butte, Alta., which handles about 200 head of cattle per week. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Michael Munton’s family has been ranching in southern Alberta for four generations.

The Angus cattle they raise are the same they’ll later take to their small processing facility and sell to customers as roasts, ground beef and steaks from their own store in the town of Picture Butte. They handle about 200 head of cattle per week.

“That relationship, that network of knowing that person that cuts your steaks, that package your ground beef — that’s a real value in my mind,” said Munton, owner of Benchmark Angus and Ben’s Quality Meats.

As COVID-19 has interrupted production at big meat processing plants across North America, there’s been greater attention on smaller facilities and the role they play in a complex meat supply chain.

The pandemic has led to the slowdown or temporary closure of meat processing plants in Canada, including last week’s shuttering of a processing facility near Montreal after it reported 13 per cent of its workforce had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The Canadian Meat Council, which represents meat processors, recently said that all plants are running slower than usual as they move to protect employee safety.

And there’s discussion among industry observers, the National Farmers Union and players within the supply chain, about whether Canada needs a greater number of smaller-scale and mid-sized processors to help make the overall system more resilient to potential slowdowns, or shutdowns, at large plants.

‘Other processors will be able to step up’

It’s something Munton has heard from ranchers and retailers alike.

“The big processors, nothing against them, they are that size and that’s wonderful,” Munton said.

“But if there’s lots of other smaller processors that are able to fill the void —  if someone being shut down, whether it’s COVID-related or mechanical or some other type of situation that causes them limitations — the other processors will be able to step up and … not leave such a large void that’s in the marketplace currently.”

‘That relationship, that network of knowing that person that cuts your steaks, that package your ground beef — that’s a real value in my mind,’ says Michael Munton, owner of Benchmark Angus and Ben’s Quality Meats in Alberta. (Erin Collins/CBC)


The Canadian meat industry is big business. According to the Canadian Meat Council, red meat consumption and exports supported 288,000 jobs across the country in 2016. From farm to fork, it generated $15.3 billion of economic activity in Canada the same year.

Normally, two Alberta plants produce around 70 per cent of the nation’s federally inspected processed beef.

But neither is running at full capacity these days because of the impact COVID-19 has had on more than 1,500 workers at these facilities. Three workers employed by the Alberta facilities have died, as well as the father of a worker.

The situation, including the temporary closure of Cargill’s plant near High River, has resulted in a backlog of more than 100,000 cattle in Alberta alone, according to an estimate last week from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

‘We count on cheap food’ 

Across North America, consolidation in the meat processing industry over the past few decades has also seen the emergence of larger plants. It’s been a process driven by both business and consumers.

“We count on cheap food,” said Mike von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph.

“These larger plants allow for large volumes and greater efficiencies.

While those larger plants have made meat more affordable for shoppers — and profitable for processors — some argue that it has also made the system more vulnerable.

“Big is not bad. It is fragile,” Temple Grandin, a prominent professor of animal science at Colorado State University, wrote in Forbes earlier this month.

“When a supply chain becomes more concentrated, there is greater loss of supply when a single plant is closed.”

Bob Low, a rancher and part-owner of a feedlot just west of Nanton, Alta., has about 4,000 head of cattle waiting to be processed in his pens. They were bound for the Cargill plant in High River, which is now temporarily closed to due the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC News)


Grandin wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a wake-up call, adding that she expects many to become interested in more distributed local supply chains.

In Canada, von Massow also expects there will be discussions again about diversifying the country’s meat packing capacity so it isn’t as vulnerable to either border closures, strikes or another pandemic.

But it won’t be the first time such discussions have happened.

He said that when mad cow disease hit Canadian farms in the early 2000s, closing the U.S. border to live Canadian cattle for a time, there were efforts to build more processing capacity in Canada.

Export market relies on larger plants

However, those plants have also disappeared to a significant degree, he said, partly due to the economies of scale. They weren’t big enough to compete in a North American or global marketplace, he said.

I think it’s definitely something we should look at, but we also need to make a realistic assessment of what the risk is of another disruption of this scale,” said von Massow, referring to COVID-19.

“My guess would be that in the next months and years that we do things within packing plants that reduce the risk.

That might include automation, which would reduce the density of people in such facilities.

Cattle at this feedlot in southern Alberta are waiting to shipped to processing plants. There’s a backlog of over 100,000 cattle in the province due to the impact of COVID-19 on processing facilities, according to an estimate from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. (Erin Collins/CBC)


The larger plants, which are capable of processing thousands of cattle per day, are important for many ranchers as well.

Bob Lowe has about 4,000 head of cattle waiting in pens at his feedlot located less than an hour’s drive from Calgary. Many are destined for Cargill’s meatpacking plant.

He said having more smaller plants might help the system deal with the current pandemic.

But Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said Canada needs major processors to fill export quotas and keep costs down. A plant like Cargill’s at High River can handle up to 4,500 cattle per day.

“To go to a 400 or 500 or a 1,000 head-a-day plant would cost more money just because of the inefficiencies in it, which would mean that in the case of beef, the beef would be higher priced at the store and we would be getting less money at this end,” said Lowe.

In the case of our international commitments, I’m guessing if I was a country, if I was in the U.K. and I wanted to import from Canada, I’d rather import from one or two people than from 300 different people.”

Back in Picture Butte, Munton and his staff of 25 people are as busy as ever, turning out meat for stores, restaurants and direct to customers.

He hopes that there will be more discussion about diversification of the meat processing sector, but he’s also glad that more people are thinking more about their food in general, these days.

I think it goes back to the consumer knowing and wanting to know where things come from,” he said. SOURCE

Not so ready-to-pick: Canadian growers left hanging by COVID-19

First harvests are here, but the full seasonal workforce is not

Norfolk County’s asparagus, seen here in a previous season, should be ready for harvest this long May weekend. (Bernt Solymár/Asparagus Farmers of Ontario)

In any year, a series of early May frosts killing off tens of thousands of dollars worth of asparagus might keep Norfolk County’s asparagus growers up at night.

But this year, Ontario produce farmers have another problem: not enough workers to pick their crop, with the first harvest starting this weekend.

“This will go down as the worst year in history for asparagus, and likely for a lot of other crops,” said Bernie Solymár, the executive director of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.

The green shoots maturing in the sandy soils around Simcoe may be as tasty as ever. But “we’re looking at, at best, fifty to maybe sixty per cent of our crew. And that’s it,” he said.

If it isn’t picked, it isn’t sold.

“Probably we’re going to harvest maybe 50 per cent of our crop,” Solymár said — the equivalent of leaving $12 to 15 million in the field.

The COVID-19 pandemic imposed travel restrictions and safety regulations that delayed, discouraged and in some cases prevented seasonal agricultural workers from arriving in southwestern Ontario this year.

Fearing a pandemic “hot spot” that could overwhelm the region’s medical facilities, Haldimand-Norfolk’s public health unit imposed extra restrictions on the part of Ontario that normally employs more foreign farm help than any other.

Bunkhouse accommodations with multiple kitchens and bathrooms, normally housing three dozen or so workers, were only allowed to house three during the two-week quarantine period.

As asparagus-picking season gets underway in Ontario, growers warn they have only half their usual workforce in place, limiting the size of the harvest and leading some farms to plow their acres under instead. (Bernt Solymár/Asparagus Farmers of Ontario)

Local farmers demanded this order be rescinded, arguing it left them at a disadvantage against growers elsewhere in Ontario — or even across the road, in a neighbouring county. Several got together and hired lawyers.

“It’s quite serious,” Solymár said. Despite federal financial assistance, “it just got to the point where logistically, you couldn’t bring in enough people.”

Hiring local ‘risky,’ ‘inefficient’

Some growers already have given up, Solymár said, and are plowing under dozens of acres or choosing not to cut this year.

He scoffs at those who suggest local workers could have been found. The offshore workers who return to Norfolk County year after year are trained and efficient, he said. He estimates it takes 120 locals to do the work of 60 professionals.

Temporarily laid-off local workers may be interested in farm work only until their regular jobs resume, leaving farmers in the lurch. Others might agree to work but never show up. And as long as $2,000 per month is available from the federal government as an emergency benefit, many Canadians won’t want to work more than a week or two, for fear of losing their benefits.

So far, Quebec is the only province to take the federal government up on its offer to top-up the wages of essential farm workers.

The way Solymár sees it, there are unappreciated health risks to farmers and their families in hiring local workers. An outbreak at a greenhouse in Chatham Kent started with a local worker, not with offshore help.

Greenhill Produce, a greenhouse operation near Kent Bridge, Ont., had a COVID-19 outbreak last month. A local worker brought the illness into the facility, infecting other temporary foreign workers who then also got sick. (Amy Dodge/CBC)


“A farmer that’s isolated his crew from Mexico or Jamaica has some sense of comfort that those guys are clean, that they’re not infected,” he said. With locals, “you have no idea where they’ve been, who they’ve been with, what they’ve been exposed to …”

The late spring gave growers extra time to get workers out of quarantine. But this first crop affected by the labour shortage won’t be the last. Many who pick asparagus move on to other crops later in the season, like sweet corn and apples.

On May 5, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau touted the federal government’s extra efforts to bring in temporary foreign workers for Canadian farms, including expedited visa processing and extra diplomatic interventions to get charter flights moving.

With this push, 11,200 workers arrived in April — about 86 per cent of the 13,000 who arrived in April 2019. But some of those were workers who normally arrive in early March.

Extra measures this year

“We were actually the first flight that got cancelled,” Niagara vineyard manager Matthias Oppenlaender said, remembering the anxious days in mid-March when the growers who supply Ontario’s wine industry suddenly learned their help couldn’t come.

The board chair for the Grape Growers of Ontario counts himself lucky now: 21 of the 23 Mexican workers he normally employs were on the first flight available on April 9. Their visas were processed and ready to go before the lockdown hit.

Matthias Oppenlaender, board chair of the Ontario Grape Growers Association, says he understands why extra precautions have to be taken this year, but they might add up to 20 per cent to the cost of his labour. (Matthias Oppenlaender)


The delay was costly. Local help was hired to prune and tie up vines in the meantime. Some of that help is staying on, because everything will be harder this year.

Local hotels provided discount rates to help quarantine workers safely. After the self-isolation period, Oppenlaender’s operation rented extra housing so workers could spread out.

Groceries are delivered now, so foreign workers don’t make their own way into town. And they stay in the “bubble” of the peers they room with: teams don’t mix in the vineyards. The same operator uses a vehicle all day, then wipes it down.

“We make sure they can social distance in the field, which is easy for us — our vineyards are spaced every eight or nine feet,” he explained.

Workers in Niagara’s vineyards this season are working under new physical distancing rules, labouring in teams based on their accommodations. In the fields, the grapevines are already spaced eight or nine feet apart. (Matthias Oppenlaender/Grape Growers of Ontario)


All in, the extra labour costs could run as high as 20 per cent. But when grapes are sold come November, they’re unlikely to bring 20 per cent more revenue from winemakers facing a crisis of their own: the collapse of Niagara’s hospitality sector.

Oppenlaender said two major wineries across the road from him are normally like a beehive in the summer. “Now there’s nobody. There’s no cars in the driveway and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

While some patriotic isolation drinking has kept online sales relatively strong, the money the tourists bring isn’t easily replaced, especially when it comes to finer restaurant wines.

Visas snagged by lockdown

More than nine in ten seasonal agriculture workers in Canada are employed in horticulture.

The agency that facilitates this in Ontario — the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (“FARMS”) — says 15,000 workers have made it to Ontario so far this year, down from about 17,000 last year. A declining tobacco industry, and other farmers cancelling because of COVID-19, account for about 1,000 of that gap.

On April 29, New Brunswick banned new temporary foreign workers, catching the federal government off-guard and leaving the future of 190 farm workers already approved for that province unclear.

Last week’s announcement making it easier for temporary foreign workers already in Canada to switch employers may help.

Visa processing remains the biggest problem. Jamaica was able to file paperwork electronically, but Mexico, which provides half of Canada’s seasonal agriculture workers, has struggled with some of the paperwork requirements.

Its embassy in Ottawa says that the Mexican government has now reopened some previously-closed offices to fulfil requests. Canada’s embassy in Mexico is streamlining parts of the process. But everything there’s been taking longer.

As a result, May arrivals remain uncertain. There’s no public, real-time data for specific regions or sectors, but the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council is aware of about 2,000 workers expected to arrive from St. Vincent, Jamaica and Guatemala. That’s only about one-third of a typical May.

“Workers who had the necessary work permit approvals before lockdown have been, by and large, making their way to Canada,” said CAHRC’s Debra Hauer. But so long as processing remains difficult, “the number of TFWs will likely slow to a trickle.”

On May 8, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and his officials told MPs on the Commons Human Resources committee that his department is “pushing as hard as it can” with the countries involved to process 4,000 outstanding visa applications.

Nearly 11,000 workers with recently-approved visas are now ready to travel, MPs were told.  About 2,500 of those are in Mexico, according to the Mexican embassy.

‘United Nations’ normally picks B.C. cherries

About 300 workers from Jamaica were expected in the B.C. government’s quarantine facilities this month. But the progress politicians talk about rings hollow in the Okanagan Valley, where Glen Lucas is the general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

Only a month out from peak cherry picking season, “I don’t believe we’d be at 80 to 90 per cent of what we’d expect this time of year. Probably closer to 50 per cent or less,” he said. “So we are behind in the early maintenance work in our orchards.”

That cherry crop is normally picked by what Lucas called a “United Nations” of farm workers: roughly 3,000 Mexican and 1,500 Caribbean workers who return each year, plus a crew of about 3,000 backpackers, roughly half foreign (in B.C. on open work visas), and half Québécois, with a few locals thrown in.

In the Okanagan Valley, growers fear they won’t have enough workers to pick their full crops of apples or cherries this year. (Glen Lucas)


“It’s hard, physical work,” Lucas said. “It requires stamina and dexterity, and those are things common between all these groups of workers.”

The backpackers make their own way to the Okanagan from ski hills or tree-planting operations where they’re employed earlier in the year.

Backpackers and locals are cheaper for the farms involved than the government’s seasonal agriculture worker program, because they don’t require accommodations. But recruitment and stubbornly low retention is a perennial concern — even more so during a pandemic, when hitting the road for backpacking adventures seems ill-advised.

Lack of pickers costs billions

Lucas investigated recent government assistance announcements, including the new and revised student employment and wage subsidy programs, but didn’t find they offered much to horticulture.

“We don’t like to have volunteers,” he said. “We pay them for the work they do.”

In the meantime, B.C.’s centralized quarantine system for incoming workers — which growers appreciate for taking that responsibility off their hands — meant B.C. farms weren’t eligible for the full $1,500-per-temporary-foreign-worker the federal government promised.

The fact that growers aren’t housing them for their self-isolation period doesn’t mean they don’t have extra costs from COVID-19, Lucas said.

Housing is sitting empty, as workers only began arriving over the last two weeks or so.

“Growers are really under a lot of stress to figure out what’s going to happen,” he said.

One Canadian Federation of Agriculture estimate put the lost sales caused by farm job vacancies in 2017 at $2.9 billion. 2020 is set to beat that.

The Okanagan is short of workers in a good year. Some growers are already grappling with the question of whether to leave some fruit on the trees — to cut costs and to make sure they don’t prepare for more than they have the labour to pick.

Workers already work long hours and can only be pushed so far.

“To the extent that we have ten per cent less labour, we would harvest ten per cent less apples,” Lucas said. SOURCE


The System Is Broken: Post Pandemic Adjustments Not Enough

“This is the time for a Great Reset,” writes George Monbiot in a recent Op-ed in The Guardian. He refers to “a collective failure: a crashing lapse in education, that is designed for a world in which we no longer live.” The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing all of us, individually and collectively, to wonder what the new normal will be. Returning to business as usual is no longer on the table.

(This article is primarily sourced from CommonDreams under its creative commons licence.)

Over 200 artists and scientists issued a demand to world leaders that the planet’s leaders not attempt to “go back to normal” post pandemic. What the world needs is substantive and swift action to address the climate crisis, consumerism, and economic inequality in the wake of the crisis.

Post-Pandemic adjustments are not enough

“Adjustments are not enough,” the group says in a letter published Wednesday in France’s Le Monde newspaper. “The problem is systemic.”

UN Biodiversity

“We believe it is unthinkable to ‘go back to normal’.”

200 stars & scientists unite to call for change post . They’re asking us to rethink our economies & consumption habits for the health of people & planet.🌏✨

Read the letter via @lemondefr👇https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/05/06/please-let-s-not-go-back-to-normal_6038793_3232.html 

Please, let’s not go back to normal

TRIBUNE. If we want to avoid ecological disaster, world leaders and citizens must act now, write actress Juliette Binoche and astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau in a call to arms signed by more than 200…


The pandemic is a tough lesson in the workings of the natural world – and proves how vital a knowledge of ecology really is. — George Monbiot

The letter, written by actress Juliette Binoche and astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, calls for a “radical transformation” in how the world works and to address the oncoming climate crisis with the urgency it deserves. The letter was signed by artists, activists, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, medical experts, philosophers, an economist and a buddhist monk.

As the letter explains:

The ongoing ecological catastrophe is a meta-crisis: the massive extinction of life on Earth is no longer in doubt, and all indicators point to a direct existential threat. Unlike a pandemic, however severe, a global ecological collapse will have immeasurable consequences.

The system is broken

“Pollution, climate change, and the destruction of our remaining natural zones has brought the world to a breaking point,” says the letter.

The letter: Please, let’s not go back to normal (first published in Le Monde)

The Covid-19 pandemic is a tragedy. This crisis is, however, inviting us to examine what is essential. And what we see is simple: adjustments are not enough. The problem is systemic.

The ongoing ecological catastrophe is a meta-crisis: the massive extinction of life on Earth is no longer in doubt, and all indicators point to a direct existential threat. Unlike a pandemic, however severe, a global ecological collapse will have immeasurable consequences.

We therefore solemnly call upon leaders—and all of us as citizens—to leave behind the unsustainable logic that still prevails and to undertake a profound overhaul of our goals, values, and economies.

The pursuit of consumerism and an obsession with productivity have led us to deny the value of life itself: that of plants, that of animals, and that of a great number of human beings. Pollution, climate change, and the destruction of our remaining natural zones has brought the world to a breaking point.

For these reasons, along with the urgency of renewing with a politics of social equity, we believe it is unthinkable to go back to normal. The radical transformation we need—at all levels—demands boldness and courage. It will not take place without a massive and determined commitment. We must act now. It is as much a matter of survival as of dignity and coherence.


Pointing Out The Glaringly Obvious: Oil is Dead

Finally we have one politician in Canada with the courage to point out the glaringly obvious truth about the Oil Sands: Canada’s oil sector is in a death spiral. And sinking more money into a dying industry is a gross mismanagement of our tax dollars. Both Jason Kenney (Premier of Alberta) and Prime Minister Trudeau are spending billions on the construction of two pipelines to nowhere (Keystone XL and TransMountain) as analysts warn of an energy market armageddon(Editor intro)

By Elizabeth May

When I pronounced during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday that “Oil is dead,” I expected neither surprise nor outrage. I thought I was just pointing out the glaringly obvious.

Of course, our dependency on fossil fuels has not ended; it hasn’t yet become an economic casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. But fossil fuels are assuredly — in Canada and around the world — an endangered commodity. And Canadian oil in particular will be, for the long term, a product lacking investors.

Years before the pandemic hit, major oil giants started leaving the oil sands. Many actually pointed to the fact that bitumen was the most carbon-intensive oil in their asset base. They talked about wanting to avoid being stuck with unburnable carbon; “stranded assets.” Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA, Statoil (now Equinor), Conoco Philips, Imperial Oil, Marathon Oil, Exxon Mobil and, even Koch Industries had pulled out.

If you follow the money, what was going on?

The bitumen produced in the Alberta oil sands is both very expensive to produce and of inherently low value. To be profitable it takes two things — government subsidies and a price of $70 a barrel. Canada’s subsidies to get the oil sands in business started in earnest in the mid-1990s when oil was selling for less than $30 a barrel. Without billions of federal dollars (primarily delivered as generous Accelerated Capital Cost Allowances from the feds, and the world’s lowest royalty rates from the province) the oil sands would not have moved beyond half a million barrels a day (mbd). Today, they are approaching 3 mbd. And even at their height, oil sands contributed less than 3 percent to Canada’s GDP.

As the price of oil plunged, so did investment. Teck had relied on oil prices of more than $80 barrel in its environmental review for the Frontier Mine project near Fort McMurray. As oil prices dropped, the potential for profitability withered, and Teck withdrew its application for the Frontier Mine. The accompanying statement from Teck CEO Don Lindsay was memorable for its forthrightness about the role climate change played in the decision. “The promise of Canada’s potential will not be realized until governments can reach agreement around how climate policy considerations will be addressed in the context of future responsible energy sector development,” Lindsay wrote in a letter to the federal environment minister published February 23. “Without clarity on this critical question, the situation that has faced Frontier will be faced by future projects and it will be very difficult to attract future investment, either domestic or foreign.”

And that was before Saudi and Russian collusion to really open the taps and flood world markets with cheap oil. The main target of their action was U.S. unconventional oil — Bakkan shale. It is the shale plays that gave the U.S. unprecedented energy security. But like Canadian bitumen, shale is very expensive to produce. It is essentially fracking for oil. By flooding the market, the OPEC-Russian play was to knock out the more expensive competition.

There are two triggers.

Eric Reguly wrote in the Globe and Mail on March 31: “By this week, West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, was trading at about US$20 a barrel, down from its 12-month high of US$66. The price of some minor grades of U.S. crude, such as the thick oil used to pave roads, actually turned negative, meaning the producer was paying the buyer to cart the guck away,” adding that the strategy of the shale guys of ramping up production by record amounts until the United States surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s top oil producer was bound to backfire (Canada’s rising output from the oil sands also helped to flood the market). “The triggers were the pandemic and the decision by Saudi Arabia and Russia to pump like mad to intensify the shale industry’s pain. If they hand a life jacket to the shale boys, it will be made of concrete.” As will be any life jacket for the oil sands.

Canada’s bitumen is still a product of low value. Whether at “tidewater” or moving in pipelines to the U.S., on arrival it must be separated from the diluent with which it was mixed to allow a solid lump to flow, and then go through an expensive upgrading process in order to be refined. In a world awash in cheap refinable oil, Canadian bitumen was being priced out of the market. But then the future of oil globally got even more wobbly. Over the past few weeks, it seems every day a new report comes out that makes it clearer that fossil fuels are done.

The International Energy Agency in its Oil Market Report for April said that if the pandemic continues to spread globally, global oil demand could fall by a record 9.3 mbd in 2020CNN reported on April 29th that “the oil industry is bracing for the effects of the crisis to linger.” This week, the IEA Global Energy Review predicted that “Energy demand will never be the same,” per the Forbes headline. The only energy product in demand is renewable energy, which will grow 5 percent in 2020 to produce 30 percent of the world’s electricity by year end.

We need future energy winners

It is debatable how long demand will stay low, but there is no doubt that the shock to the energy world is profound, and coupled with the imperative of meeting Paris commitments and the pressure from people accustomed to clear skies during the lockdown, governments around the world are going to bank on future energy winners, not a polluting legacy of the past.

On Tuesday, a major study was released by the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, with lead authors, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Nicholas Stern, advising that in re-starting the world economy after the pandemic, investments going to renewable energy and energy efficiency were the right moves for the economy. Trying to support fossil fuels would be far less effective.

But the world is not the same as it was last year, or even months ago. Oil, as the energy of the future, is dead. — Elizabeth May

As Sir Nicholas had warned last week at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, a major global discussion among 30 governments, investing in the fossil fuel sector for job creation was short-sighted. “The jobs of the past are insecure jobs,” he said. “[To create future jobs] we need the right kind of finance in the right place at the right scale at the right price.” And two days ago, Royal Dutch Shell CFO Jessica Uhl warned investors of “ …major demand destruction that we don’t even know will come back,” during the company’s latest earnings call.

When the establishment energy agencies, top economists and multiple governments — and even the executives of major fossil fuels companies — speculate that oil will never bounce back, and that of all global oil, the weakest market case is for Canadian bitumen, I was only saying, in announcing the demise of oil, something that needed saying.

The irony is that we always thought the death of oil would be due to an exhaustion of supply. But it is, it seems, a drop in demand that has hastened the industry’s obsolescence. More than a century ago, whale oil ceased to be the way people lit their homes, not because the industry killed all the whales but because – kerosene- wiped out demand for the product.

The combined impacts of the world glut of cheap oil, low demand and the arrival of disruptive innovation in the form of renewable energy will not end our use of oil overnight.

But the world is not the same as it was last year, or even months ago. Oil, as the energy of the future, is dead. SOURCE

Elizabeth May in a Member of Parliament and leader of the Green Parliamentary Caucus. She is a Contributing Writer for Policy magazine. 

Rediscovering Traditional Ways during a Pandemic

‘There’s so much medicine that comes at springtime.’ A camp to connect Gitxsan families with their territory takes on a special role.


Richard Wright at the Madii Lii camp: ‘There’s always something to be harvested or processed. It just changes with the season.’ Photo via Facebook.

By early May, winter is sending its final frigid breaths up the Suskwa Valley in northwestern B.C.

Patches of ice and muddy pools linger on the rutted road. The Suskwa River runs fast and silty as it delivers meltwater from the Babine Mountains to the Bulkley River about 20 kilometres from its confluence with the Skeena.

Everything, save the valley’s prized conifers, is brown. Deciduous trees, which account for a small part of the valley’s forests, have not yet leafed out.

But at Madii Lii camp members of Wilp Luutkudziiwus, a house group of the Gitxsan First Nation, are already harvesting some of the land’s bounty.

The towering cottonwoods are beginning to release the sweet scent of spring and their gummy, fragrant buds are being turned into oils and salves said to have both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Juniper and cedar are harvested and simmered on the stove to purify the air.

“It’s both medicinal and spiritual,” says Richard Wright, whose Gitxsan name is Gapaygy’m Ganauu. “There’s always something to be harvested or processed. It just changes with the season. There’s so much medicine that comes right at the springtime.”

At a time when things like casual trips to the doctor’s office can’t be taken for granted, members of Wilp Luutkudziiwus are ramping up traditional cultural practices at the camp. Like other camps in the area, such as the Wet’suwet’en land occupations 150 kilometres to the south, Madii Lii’s purpose is twofold: block a pipeline proposed for their territory and bring house group members back to the land.

This year, the house group is putting greater emphasis on the skills and self-sufficiency that have sustained them for millennia.

“This pandemic helped us prioritize what we need to be focused on and working towards — less focus on battling the multi-levels of government and more effort in the well-being of Wilp members,” Wright says. “The pandemic has certainly put food security at the forefront of our minds.”

The camp’s cluster of buildings and the locked metal gate at Kilometre 15 of the Suskwa Forest Service Road, where it crosses a bridge over the river, have been here for six years.

What started as a place to protect traditional territory from a pipeline project has become a centre for traditional learning. Photo via Facebook.

But the Luutkudziiwus have been here much longer.

At the point where the road crosses into Madii Lii territory it also joins the Babine Trail, part of an ancient trade network that connected First Nations in the interior to those on the coast.

Traditionally, the trail was used for trade, travel and accessing trap lines and berry patches. It was here, in the Suskwa, that the Gitxsan would meet their Wet’suwet’en neighbours to form alliances and strategize against a common enemy.

In the 1800s, the Babine Trail from Hazelton to Babine Lake was upgraded by the provincial government to open access to mining and allow the shipment of goods to the interior. Pack trains of up to 100 animals would travel through the area and Indigenous guides were hired to carry staggering loads.

By the mid-20th century, the Great Depression had slowed prospecting and the fur trade. Many local families returned to the territories and the wildlife, berry patches and traditional skills that had sustained them in the past.

Traffic through Madii Lii territory dropped as motor vehicles and trains began to take travellers on other routes. Then, in the mid-1960s, the Suskwa Forest Service Road was built to facilitate resource extraction up the valley. The road leaves Highway 16 about 25 kilometres east of Hazelton and runs roughly 80 kilometres into the Babine Mountains.

The Gitxsan blockaded the road in the 1980s and 1990s to protest clearcut logging on the territory while their land claim was before the courts during the historic Delgamuukw trial. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en chiefs, affirming that the nations’ title to the land had never been extinguished.

For nearly two decades, things were relatively quiet. The valley is home to a handful of residences, most within a few kilometres of the highway. The river hosts four types of salmon and five types of trout, including the prized steelhead, which draw avid anglers from around the world.

Mountain goats, grizzly and deer also live in the valley, as well as moose that feast on the valley’s abundant balsam fir. Hemlock, pine and spruce are part of its ecological makeup and the Suskwa marks the eastern boundary for cedar, which comprise one per cent of the valley’s forests.

Logging continued. According to the BC Forest Service’s 2007 Atlas of Resource Values in the Gitxsan Watersheds, 27 per cent of the watershed is considered “operable” to the forest industry. Of that, 41 per cent, or 9,650 hectares, had been harvested by 2002.

Then came the pipeline, and the Luutkudziiwus decision to create a permanent camp on the territory.

In 2014, TC Energy — the company currently building the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory — proposed the 900-kilometre Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline that would pass through Madii Lii territory on its way from Hudson’s Hope to a planned LNG processing plant at Lelu Island near Prince Rupert.

Wright was out patrolling when he discovered the company’s contractors surveying the territory. He asked them to leave.

Soon after, the gate went up.

Planning also began on the camp. That fall, a 1,000-square-foot bunkhouse with kitchen and meeting area was built next to the forestry road, just beyond the bridge over the Suskwa River. Since then, a second sleeping cabin, smokehouse, woodshed, two greenhouses and an open-air feast hall, which will eventually be enclosed, have been added.

Wright spends weeks out here at a time, making the half-hour trip from his home in Gitanmaax, 30 kilometres to the east.

Normally, things would be starting to build in the camp this time of year. Wild onion harvesting begins any day. Berry season kicks off shortly after, with soapberries in spring and blueberries and huckleberries closer to fall. Salmon would be brought from the house group’s fishing territory on the Skeena River and moose traded with coastal First Nations for oolichan — just as they have since before anyone can remember. Soon, the smokehouse would be running to preserve the food.

Deer, moose and goat are all hunted on the territory. When a family gets a moose, it is hung for several days before the women — aunties, grandmothers, mothers — arrive to butcher and distribute it.

Throughout the summer, the camp would normally host a rotation of families who come to help, learn the traditional practices and spend time on the land. On those days, Wright is busy cooking for the masses.

But right now it’s quiet.

“It’s always just rockin’ and packed with house members, he says. “Now I think we’ve got to discourage the larger gatherings and the possible spread of this virus,” he says. “We’ve had to make some changes due to this COVID virus, not to have any crowds. So whatever’s going to happen will be on a really small scale.”

Plans for family, men’s and women’s land-based healing camps have had to be put on hold.

But that won’t stop the Luutkudziiwus from using the camp to teach Traditional Knowledge.

Pansy Wright-Simms shows off oolichan. Madii Lii camp keeps alive traditional practices like preserving the fish, obtained by trading with coastal First Nations. Photo via Facebook.

A rotating schedule for families using the camp is being planned and strict cleaning protocols implemented. There are also plans to make video and photo tutorials about harvesting foods and medicines as a way to transfer Traditional Knowledge while staying socially distant — an innovative mix of modern and traditional.

“Even if it’s just photos, step by step on how to make salve and oils and some of the traditional medicines and what they’re used for,” Wright says.

“We also have to focus on creating our own Indigenous economy as well.”

Some house group members had hoped to return to the territory this year to build cabins that would allow them to spend more time at Madii Lii. While the construction is now up in the air, plans are under way for creating a local, Indigenous-owned economy that would allow people to spend more time there.

The Luutkudziiwus recently received a grant to buy their own equipment to mill lumber and fill custom orders as a way to create employment in the area.

Although the Luutkudziiwus have avoided the police actions that have made headlines on Wet’suwet’en territory to the south, the locked gate at Kilometre 15 has not gone unnoticed.

Shortly after it went up, the province tried to get through to replant an area that had been logged.

Wright declined. “I said no. You have not consulted with us. You have not even attempted to uphold your own legal obligation,” he says. “They were furious.”

A week later, free seedlings were being handed out in the community.

Hunters have also been “highly confrontational” about not being able to access the area and two military officers in camouflage fatigues once visited, driving up to the gate one morning and walking in, Wright said.

“I was just sitting on the porch having a coffee early in the morning,” Wright says. “I had to tell them that we don’t have a relationship with Canada, so if you want to start working on a relationship let’s get this meeting set up. Otherwise, we don’t recognize your authority and we can’t authorize you access to our lax yip (territory).”

While discussions with the province have proved unsuccessful, Wright says the house group has been making headway negotiating with the federal government. “We had to put a lot of money into legal expenses to get them to the table to negotiate with us,” he says, but the parties are now moving forward with terms of reference for negotiations.

The pipeline, which was approved in 2015, was shelved two years later when Petronas pulled out of the terminal near Prince Rupert. On its website, TC Energy says it continues to review its options for the pipeline.

Meanwhile, beyond the gate, life exists much as it has for thousands of years. The Suskwa River gurgles as it hits a small rapid next to Madii Lii camp. Warblers are returning to the valley and their songs join the chickadees that have overwintered here. Moose and deer venture onto the quiet roadways, leaving their tracks in the melting snow.

For Wright, who says he regularly preserves about 150 mason jars of salmon and moose each year, the pandemic won’t significantly change his summer. In any given year, he could easily subsist on a season’s harvest.

Instead, he’s putting his efforts into ensuring the rest of the community has what it needs.

“I’ll be out there working on our food security,” he says. “It’s a tough new world and we don’t know how long it’s going to last.”  [Tyee] SOURCE

COVID-19 has forced us to address who we are

A tiny virus, barely 1/500th the diameter of a human hair, has done something no political figure, leading scientist or powerful social leader has been able to accomplish. Photo: Shutterstock

A chain-smoker develops pneumonia and nearly dies — and quits smoking.

An alcoholic is informed by his family they’re leaving — and sobers up.

It is well-recognized that a sudden, unexpected shock — frequently painful — can terminate a long and apparently unshakable pattern of self-destruction.

Dragged out of its usual wild host species, COVID-19 has shocked humankind into massive, unprecedented change.

A tiny virus, barely 1/500th the diameter of a human hair, has done something no political figure, leading scientist or powerful social leader has been able to accomplish, precipitating conduct that, if sustained, could save us and the planet from untold further suffering.

It has compelled us to openly and selflessly care for one another, across every traditional barrier of race, colour, age, ethnicity, wealth, language, culture and social station.

It has made us reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, almost overnight.

It has slowed our reckless and relentless consumption of the planet’s resources to a trickle.

It has made us radically curtail the extraction, processing and combustion of fossil fuels.

It has improved air quality everywhere, allowing people to breathe more easily and see the world around them, clear and bright.

“A tiny virus, barely 1/500th the diameter of a human hair, has done something no political figure, leading scientist or powerful social leader has been able to accomplish.”

It has induced scientists, political leaders and business figures around the world to altruistically co-operate and collaborate.

It has made us set aside petty rivalries, partisan politics and narrow self-interest in favour of elaborating on common solutions that benefit everyone.

It has led us to endless acts of kindness, creativity, generosity and selflessness.

COVID-19 has made us think

As we stay home, avoid crowds, wash hands, wear masks and avoid touching one another — challenging steps that protect our own health and, critically, the health of others — we have begun reflecting on who we are, what we have been doing in our world and why we have been doing it.

Most of us know we’re heating up the planet, melting polar ice, raising sea levels and causing wildfires, droughts and extreme weather events.

Most of us know of the tsunami of plastic filling landfills and accumulating in vast swathes in the ocean, inflicting agonizing death on sea life.

Everyone in a big city has breathed in dirty air, knowing it will harm their health.

Many have read the detailed accounts from the scientific and health communities spelling out the harms of air pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gases and especially radically unsustainable overconsumption of Earth’s vast store of beneficent riches.

But we have been paralyzed by our addiction — not just to fossil fuels or plastic, but to the delusion the planet is our plaything.

We have expanded our species’ influence on Earth’s metabolism, fantasizing irrationally that we can always make it right, tuning out warnings of “tipping points” and ecosystems in “irreversible decline.”

We fly anywhere on a whim, shop as entertainment, intrude into any space we want, eat as much as we can of anything we like and amuse ourselves with any pastime — indifferent or willfully ignorant with respect to the effects on others and our planetary home.

The lesson

Now, a 120-nanometre virus, impartially inflicting disease and death on humanity, has spoken with a voice of thunder.

Its message? Invade Earth’s spaces with your structures, your activities and your pleasures, and you will pay a price. Act irresponsibly and heedlessly, and you will bring suffering on yourselves, and on your children, and on your children’s children.

This tiny microbe has inspired the most profoundly positive aspect of our nature: love for one another and for our planetary home.

It has also triggered false steps — throwbacks to our old addiction to irresponsible selfishness.

It has gifted us with a lesson, and a choice. There is only one right answer.



After the Covid-19 crisis, will we get a greener world?

Pollution and emissions are down, but we will squander these gains if governments fail to push ahead with decisive change

A worker paints signs for a new cycle path in central Milan. Photograph: Claudio Furlan/AP

The current crisis has revealed a sobering truth: the global economic shutdown, which has been achieved at a devastating social cost, has barely dented our carbon emissions. The latest analysis, by the International Energy Agency (IEA), expects this year’s annual emissions to be down by just 6-8%. Such a small drop in emissions would have no measurable effect on the world’s carbon concentration, or its warming potential. Indeed, 2020 is currently on track to be the hottest year ever recorded.

“You’d need about a 10% drop to have a noticeable effect on the rising CO2 concentrations, but even then concentrations would still be rising,” says Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the Met Office. “The rate of rise of CO2 varies from year to year anyway, as the natural carbon sinks get stronger and weaker because of natural processes, like El Niño.” During an El Niño event, tropical forests don’t take up as much carbon, so the atmospheric CO2 rises a bit faster. And in La Niña, the opposite occurs. “That effect is probably more important than the small drop in emissions we’re seeing now.”

Considering that emissions have to fall by at least 7.6% every year to 2050 in order to keep global warming below 1.5C (above pre-industrial levels), this internationally agreed target now feels alarmingly unachievable.

“It shows that the challenge of avoiding dangerous climate change and getting to zero emissions is unbelievably hard,” says Simon Evans of climate science website Carbon Brief. “Even something which seems to be having seismic implications for the global economy, at least in the short term, like the current crisis, is something of a drop in the ocean compared to that challenge.”

And yet, the cleaner air, burgeoning urban wildlife, and our sudden, dramatic shift to a less carbon-intensive lifestyle reveal the scope of what we can achieve in just days. This is something to cling to as we navigate the twin storms of Covid-19 and climate. We know that the climate crisis will not wait for a more convenient time; we must deal with it and the pandemic crisis concurrently. It is, however, the killer disease that has provoked the strong and urgent response. Governments have been forced to step in and deal with the catastrophe in a way that is unprecedented, including supporting business and industry, and public and private infrastructure. 

Across the world, government has never been bigger. Many experts argue that this provides us with a huge opportunity to also deal with the other crisis: to make a transformational leap towards a sustainable society that enables us to keep the world below dangerous warming. How we respond to this unique opportunity could set our climate trajectory for thousands of years to come.

“It means we can’t be fiddling around the edges,” says Betts. “If we are going to have a substantial impact on long-term CO2 concentrations, we need huge, lasting changes in energy systems and other things that rely on fossil fuels.”

It’s worth noting that the IEA analysis was based on the expectation that human activity will return to some approximation of “normal” within months, so the shutdown period itself is likely to produce a far steeper drop in emissions – CO2 emissions in China fell by an estimated 25% during its February lockdown, for example. India, meanwhile, recorded its first ever annual emissions fall for the year ending March, and is expected to show a 30% drop in emissions for the month of April. “But what we’re seeing at the moment is, for the most part, very temporary,” Evans says. “When we drive again, the car still burns petrol.”

 Empty motorways near Sydney in April. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images


Instead, structural change could mean people swapping their combustion engines for electric vehicles. More fundamentally, Evans says, “it would involve reimagining the way our cities are built and organised, so that going without a car becomes easier, through how roads are laid out, and how provision for walking and cycling and public transport is changed.”

All of those things go far beyond the individual choices we make in our everyday lives. “Our choices are bounded by society,” Evans says, “so a shift towards a low-carbon society can’t happen via individual action alone.”

Cities have been leading this transition with innovative buildings and infrastructure projects. Some are already banning cars and trucks as a temporary measure. Others are going further: Milan is reallocating 35km of street space to cyclists and pedestrians; Brussels is creating 40km of new cycle paths; and France is tempting cyclists out with subsidies. In the UK the government has announced a £2bn infrastructure scheme to encourage more walking and cycling and the mayor of London has unveiled measures to create car free bridges and streets. Many cities are exploring some form of a circular economy, in which waste is minimised with resources kept in use as long as possible through recycling and reuse.

The economist Kate Raworth says: “We live in a world that is complex, deeply interconnected, and human health and planetary health are woven into one. So governments need frameworks and ways of thinking that can hold that complexity – that can think about climate and health and jobs and financial stability and inequality in one space.”

For instance, quite apart from the pleasure of experiencing cleaner air, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed how deadly pollution is. One recent study found that a tiny increase in particulates was associated with a 15% increase in the Covid-19 death rate, almost certainly contributing to the terrible rates seen in cities. In Italy, the high death rates seen in the north of the country correlate with the highest levels of air pollution. Reducing air pollution would lower the general health burden and may also help prevent future pandemics from being so deadly.

“We have created a framework, which invites a place to answer: how can our cities be home to thriving people in this thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of all people and the health of the planet?” Raworth says. She is working with the city of Amsterdam to apply her “doughnut” model of a socially and environmentally sustainable economy to the Dutch capital’s post-pandemic recovery.

The Amsterdam project, like many others, predates Covid-19. Momentum for environmental protection has been building over the past few years, and it may be that this crisis proves a tipping point in public consciousness, leading to a meaningful shift in policy. For one thing, the pandemic has shown us how valuable expertise is, and now we’re all au fait with the role of infectious disease modellers in guiding public health policy, it should help us appreciate the role climate modellers could play in guiding economic policy.

 A stray cat has Taksim metro station, Istanbul, to itself. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images


“Just as we have seen that early action to deter the spread of the virus was far more effective than trying to contain the damage after the virus already spread, transforming our energy system now to prevent the spread of excessive heat over our planet will be far more effective than trying to adapt to the consequences of this excessive heat later,” says Ken Caldeira at the Carnegie Institution for Science, which is based in Washington DC.

Government is not there just to fix the same system, but to shape the kind of economy and society we want to live in—Mariana Mazzucato

City initiatives can only go so far. Ultimately, this is the time for governments to forge a new relationship with the private sector, to produce a sustainable economy. As industry, businesses and individuals plead for state aid, government has never been in a stronger position to push a sustainable agenda, and it’s vital this is not squandered on kneejerk bailouts. We’ve already seen the US and UK bailing out oil giants, and the UK giving supermarket giant Tesco a business rates holiday, only for it to pay a dividend to shareholders. “What the government should be doing is thinking about the interest of the public that it represents, that it was elected for, and not simply giving out money that benefits private interest,” says economist Mariana Mazzucato at University College London. “This is not about helping business make money. It’s about giving them that cashflow to survive, but also helping them transform themselves to be a more functioning part of society,” she says.

“The government will never have the negotiating hand it has now. There’s trillions being poured into the economy, given the tragedy. So, this can be used as a way to make sure that the “public private partnerships” actually become a symbiotic mutualistic partnership, not a parasitic one, as we’ve had in the health sector for a long time,” Mazzucato says.

Governments, she says, must take the long view and use stimulus packages to actively mould a cleaner economy, something that South Korea has pledged, for instance. “Government on its own cannot solve climate change, or create an equitable production system. It needs the private sector, and the private sector needs the public sector.”

Mazzucato and others argue that there’s a danger otherwise that we will repeat the mistakes that were made in the aftermath of the 2008/9 financial crisis (during which emissions also fell), by not attaching conditions to the bailouts. “Goldman Sachs was back making record profits after it was given a $10bn bailout,” she says.

 Grounded planes at Schiphol airport, the Netherlands. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/Rex/Shutterstock


“We need to learn that government is not there just to do bailouts to fix the same system, but to really co-create – to shape the kind of economy and society we want to live in. We know that’s not a fossil fuel-driven economy; we know it’s not a financialised one; we know it’s not an unequal one. But that’s not going to happen on its own. It needs to be embedded inside the policies,” Mazzucato says. “Governments need to put strong conditions into bailout contracts, which require investment, innovation, transformation of industry, but also in society more broadly, to help us achieve these longer-term objectives.”

Ending state subsidies to fossil-fuel companies would be an easy win. The plunge in oil prices, rather than spurring a rush in fossil-fuel investment, as has happened in the past, now makes oil a volatile, uncertain commodity to invest in, especially when nations are worried about foreign dependency. The dip in oil prices may actually hasten the end of domestic extraction of all fossil fuels. So it now makes sense to shore up local renewable infrastructure, especially as costs are getting cheaper and there’s long-term certainty in the market. The scope for public sector jobs and growth in this decentralised industry could prove transformative as we stare down the tunnel of a long recession.

The IEA believes that renewable investment could power recovery with global GDP gains of almost $100 trillion (£80tn) between now and 2050. Meanwhile, the economic risks of not meeting the globally agreed greenhouse gas emissions targets could be severe, according to research published in Nature.

There is a risk, though, that while we are so preoccupied with the pandemic, the environmental movement, which made significant progress over the past year through the activities of striking schoolchildren, Extinction Rebellion and the leadership of Greta Thunberg, falls off the agenda. The much-anticipated 2020 UN climate change conference, which sets out how nations will meet the UN climate emissions targets agreed in Paris in 2015, has been postponed from November to early 2021. In the meantime, we might forget the deadly wildfires that ravaged Australia mere months ago, or the extreme weather that displaced some 7 million people last year, or the near-record Arctic melting.

Environmental campaigners are sanguine, though, preferring to wait until the world is less distracted by the pandemic. With the US presidential elections due this year, next year’s climate talks could now get the chance to benefit from an enlightened leader ready to engage with the crisis.

“As environmentalists we have a role even during the lockdown, for instance in opposing the aviation bailout,” says Alice Bell from Possible, an organisation campaigning for a zero-carbon society. “For now, we’ve shifted to community action, people have made new relationships within their communities, and we’ve been looking at, say, the debate around park closures. This pandemic is going to profoundly change the way we live and how we work.”

 Goats roam the streets of Llandudno. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images 

Global problems require global collaboration, and despite the nationalistic responses of some states, the pandemic has revealed that its solutions are international: scientists and medics have been sharing data, resources and equipment, and have been advising and supporting each other as never before, united in the quest for effective treatments, tests and vaccines. This same spirit of international cooperation is essential in producing solutions for our energy and economic transitions, and the technology and pace of information sharing make it possible. Wouldn’t it be great if wealthy nations collaborated with resource-rich (poor) nations in an inclusive global economic programme? Sustainable production of crops and minerals in the global south could help fuel the rich world’s low-carbon transition. Instead of unsustainable industrial expansion, the post-pandemic economy could be steered in a way that protects people and the planet from the kind of ecological destruction that produces new diseases, and the climate disaster that threatens us all.

In the Netherlands, for instance, 170 Dutch academics have put together a radical five-point manifesto for economic change, which includes investment in critical public sector areas, clean energy, education and health, and radically scaling back the oil, gas, mining and advertising sectors; debt cancellation, especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the global south; and redistribution, with universal basic income, reduced working hours and the recognition of care work.

Perhaps because we’ve experienced a cleaner, quieter and kinder alternative, most people don’t actually want to get back to normal (one poll found only 9% of Britons wanted to return to pre-pandemic conditions). We should perhaps recognise this as a mandate for change, and look at the alternative to normal, taking lessons from this catastrophe to create a better world from its broken parts. SOURCE

Gaia Vince is the author of Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time (Allen Lane £20)


The Gift of Soil: How Composting Builds Community

The perfect soil mixture can do more than grow food.

It took more than two decades for Kevin Holtham, 49, to formulate what he reckons is the perfect soil mixture. And he’s working just as hard at giving it away.

Holtham comes from a farmer lineage in Niagara County, western New York, but his home for the past 15 years has been Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he collects compostable waste that people are happy to get rid of and uses it to cultivate his land.

Each week, Holtham rounds up several thousand pounds of plant-based food waste and wood chips from restaurants and contractors around town. The food goes to a landfill if he doesn’t take it, and workers who would otherwise have to pay to dump their wood waste are eager for him to take it off their hands.

“One of my biggest problems was I can’t afford to buy all this soil,” Holtham said. “So I figured out how to do it with wood chips and food waste, and then suddenly you’re negating a huge waste problem. Soil is being made from food waste 100 percent free, and it’s just up to me to do all the hard work.”

Holtham’s special soil recipe requires mixing a medley of composted carrots, beets, and kale with the wood chips. He learned that the fertility of compost is largely contingent upon its carbon-to-nitrogen ratio; the vegetables provide a source of nitrogen, the wood emits carbon. The microbial breakdown of the organic material produces heat as a by-product, causing the mixture to homogenize within three months. Holtham places that into his worm bin to infuse it with microbes and nutrients from the castings.

Though he can imagine his operation as an income-generating business, Holtham prefers to give away his soil and educate others on how to build it. In that way, increasing food sustainability and access is at the heart of his initiative.

Holtham estimates that, so far, he’s given away a couple of dump truck loads of soil. He’s created around 30 gardens in four states within the past decade, all free of charge. Neighbors know they can come to him with buckets, he said, and he’ll send them off with his soil mixture. He’s also given soil to the Bulb, an organization that provides fresh produce and educational tools to communities in food deserts.

Last April, Holtham gave soil to friend and local herbalist Brandon Ruiz and taught him how to make soil on his own. Ruiz said that knowledge will give him better access to food and medicinal plants regardless of his financial situation.

“That was just really significant to me with wanting to really encourage sovereignty, whether it’s over food or herbalism—all the things relating to our health,” Ruiz said of Holtham’s gift. “Our soil is where it all starts, and so being able to do that and learn how to create it on my own is really powerful.”

Across the country in California, soil also came in the form of a gift to Lake Tahoe resident Susi Lippuner.

Lippuner, 60, always wanted to garden, but she just couldn’t get started. Living high in the mountains poses unique challenges—hard soil, a short growing season, and severe weather. Moreover, Lippuner’s sensitivities to a number of environmental irritants have made most yard work unbearable.

So last spring, neighbor Polly Ryan assembled a vegetable patch for Lippuner outside of her mobile home using leftover topsoil, chicken manure, worm castings, and seedlings from her own garden. Lippuner then added an irrigation system.

She grew cauliflower, bok choy, and several varieties of kale.

“I would enjoy being out at night, just as the sun was going down, watering my plants and cultivating life.”

Now she’s paying the gift forward. Lippuner estimates that she gave away about half of her first harvest to neighbors. It’s been “a bonding experience and community building in a small way,” she said.

For similar reasons, Holtham plans to expand his agricultural projects to include other Charlotte-based farmers and food groups who can assist with materials and labor. This could make a larger impact.

Most people interested in his soil generally have an affinity for growing their own food. He hopes to help others who might not—especially those who are food insecure.

“I believe food should be free, and it actually can be free,” Holtham said. “Because soil is free and seeds are free. You can go to the store and buy 30 seeds of red amaranth. Those 30 plants grow and they give out millions of seeds. So you have amaranth for life.”

Kevin Holtham’s Soil Recipe

1. Carbon to nitrogen, 4 to 1: Carbon is dead things; wood chips create a nice surface area for aerobic bacteria. Nitrogen is food scraps and green things.

2. Heat: The piles should get to 120 degrees from bacterial activity.

3. Water: Keep a 50 percent moisture level.

4. Aeration: He uses a little tiller to go through the rows every few days.

5. Extra nutrients: A microbial finish in the worm bin.

6. Time: About three months.


Liz BrazileLIZ BRAZILE reports for Crosscut and KCTS 9 as Cascade Public Media’s Emerging Journalist Fellow. She is a former solutions reporting intern for YES!

The Lost Art of Seeking the Powers of Wild Plants

An excerpt from ‘Feasting Wild,’ a tribute and testament to nature’s ‘untamed’ foods.

[Editor’s note: Full disclosure, I was eating some spicy Doritos when I first picked up this book, which were wild and not in a good way. To write the excellent Feasting Wild, out this month via Greystone Books, geographer and writer Gina Rae La Cerva roamed the planet to chronicle the stories of truly wild foods and the people, largely women, who know, cultivate and protect them. “Today, most people will never eat anything undomesticated or uncultivated,” La Cerva writes in her prologue. “Eating something truly untamed has become incredibly rare.” We’re pleased to publish an excerpt from Feasting Wild below.]

As agriculture became the dominant method for sourcing food, wild plants took on new spiritual value. During spring fertility rites in the Iron Age, human sacrifices were made to the goddess Nerthus to ensure good harvests. The victims first ate a ceremonial meal, which consisted, at least in one case, of more than 63 different varieties of seeds, mostly from species we would today consider weeds.

Wild plants were also increasingly sought out as remedies for the diseases caused by moving toward agriculture in the first place. Ancient Greek and Roman doctors believed that the power of herbs to cure was not inherent in their buds and leaves but lay in their complementary resemblance to human needs and desires — a system called the doctrine of signatures. If a flower resembled an eye, it could treat eye infections. If the petals were triangular or flesh-colored, like the human heart, the plant would remedy chest pains and heartbreaks. This belief became popular again in Europe during the medieval period, and wild plant-based treatments were sought after for both spiritual and corporal ailments.

Wild plants were also eaten in times of distress. In the mid-1300s, the Black Plague lifted souls out of bodies by the millions, killing nearly 60 per cent of Europe’s population. With the population decline, there were fewer farm laborers, and many agricultural fields were abandoned to the weeds. Food became scarce. While the rich ate grand displays of game meat, wild birds, and exotic fruit, the poor survivors surveyed their deteriorated society and cooked pottages of whatever could be found free-growing in nearby fields, hedgerows, and woods: plantain and mallow, dock and nettles; woody roots of wild carrot, parsnips, leeks, skirret, and turnips; the leaves of wild strawberries, the leaves of violets and roses; moss, samphire, succory, colewort, nosesmart, peppergrass, bellflowers, scurvy grass, primrose, cowslip, beach mustard, and arrow grass; buttercup, yarrow, rye-grass, and smooth hawksbeard! One hundred herbs to add to the pudding. The strong, bitter flavors of these wild plants seemed to define the lives of those who ate them.

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Initially, the church did not discourage foraging and the use of herbs. Many monasteries had extensive medicinal gardens, and the monks produced numerous herbal manuscripts. Most of these were based on texts first created in classical antiquity, such as the De Materia Medica, a five-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine written in the first century by the Greek physician Dioscorides. Over the course of centuries, these books were copied and recopied by hand, modified bit by bit — ever-evolving manuscripts with new stories and quips inserted, slowly accumulating into the considerable tomes that existed by the Middle Ages. One of the most comprehensive was the Leechbook of Bald, a medical text written in the ninth century that laid out herbal cures for numerous afflictions, ranging from headaches to aching feet.

But until the printing press was developed in the fifteenth century, these handmade books remained rare, and inaccessible to the ordinary person. Most herbal knowledge was therefore kept alive as folk medicine, handed down from mother to daughter, a kind of inheritance that might do her more good in staying healthy than any other sort of wealth a poor old country woman could offer.

Perhaps the most widespread use of wild plants was for contraception. Many species of the parsley family, such as wild carrot, contain estrogen-like molecules, and consuming them can prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies. But a woman in control of her own body was a dangerous thing, and the church, along with male medical professionals, began to limit the unsupervised use and trade of gathered plants. The wise women who continued to practice their art were considered witches. Between 1450 and 1750 in Europe and North America, an estimated thirty-five thousand to one hundred thousand people, most of them women, were accused of wildcrafting and put to death.

The loss of common knowledge about wild edibles accelerated during the colonial period. Prior to European contact, the Americas were home to nearly 100 million Indigenous people, who between them spoke some one thousand to two thousand languages. The number of different plants they relied upon was enormous. Across North America, it is estimated that pre-contact people used over twenty-six hundred different species, nearly half exclusively for medicine. Less than one hundred of these plants were cultivated. The rest grew wild.  [Tyee] SOURCE

Are We Ready to ‘Meat the Future’?

Liz Marshall describes the subject of her latest documentary as the ‘genesis phase of something that could change the world.’

Video trailer for Liz Marshall’s documentary Meat the Future, screening now on the CBC Gem app. 

Even before COVID-19 highlighted the dangers, industrialized meat production was one of the grimmest industries on the planet, contributing to greenhouse gases, pollution and the misery of untold numbers of animals, as well as humans.

Marshall is an activist and documentary filmmaker. Her 2010 film Water on the Table looked at the pioneering work of Maude Barlow, and The Ghosts in Our Machine followed animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur as she set out to uncover the realities of animal exploitation.

Meat the Future charts the birth of a new industry — “clean meat.” As the film explains, clean meat is grown in a lab using stem cells taken from living animals. “Clean” refers to the idea that it’s both more sanitary (created in a sterile environment) and less morally fraught than the conventional stuff (meat from butchered animals). It’s also better for the environment as it doesn’t require feedlots, seas of manure and slaughterhouses.

While still in its infancy, the concept has attracted investments from billionaires and giant corporations and may offer a solution to a hungry world.

Meat the Future is available on the CBC Gem app and will also screen as part of the online programming offered in Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival beginning on May 28.

The Tyee spoke to Marshall about the possibility of a large-scale transition in how we live and eat on this planet, as well as how we conceive of the lives of animals. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Director Liz Marshall: ‘The timeliness of cell-based meat couldn’t be more prescient.

The Tyee: Meatpacking plants in the U.S. and Canada have become the epicentres for many COVID-19 outbreaks. Do you think this will hasten the end of these industries?

Liz Marshall: Meat the Future is an exclusive story that chronicles the birth of a revolutionary industry through the eyes of its innovators and change-makers. Contrary to how it might seem to those learning about “cultivated meat,” also referred to as “clean meat,” “cell-based meat” and “cultured meat,” it’s not a story about disrupters taking on a powerful villain. Instead, it is about an idea whose time has come.

Dr. Uma Valeti, a Mayo Clinic-trained cardiologist turned entrepreneur is the co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, the startup story at the heart of the film. Uma’s approach and philosophy and his rise in prominence is charted over 3.5 years in Meat the Future, as he successfully attracts historic investment, including from two of the world’s largest meat industry companies: Cargill and Tyson.

In the film Uma says “The meat industry knows that they can’t meet the demand of the people. And if the demand for meat is going to double by 2050, there is just no method of production that they have at their disposal now that would satisfy that hunger for meat. There just isn’t.”

With the meat industry in our view more than ever, the timeliness of cell-based meat couldn’t be more prescient, and perhaps the transformation needed will accelerate under the weight of this COVID-19 reality.

With meat consumption doubling by 2050, and the connection between climate change and factory farming being well-established, people are looking for alternatives. Can “clean meat” meet the demand in the coming years?

To provide some context, the conventional meat industry is valued at roughly $1.4 trillion per year, providing animal protein to the vast majority of the world.

Since 2015, the emerging field of cultured meat has evolved rapidly, with startups popping up all over the world from North America to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The anticipated trajectory of the cultivated meat industry is for products to be regulated and available by 2022.

To begin, people will pay a premium, the same way people pay a premium for grass-fed beef. The ability to scale up significantly, to be on par with conventional meat, will take time. By 2030, the cell-based meat industry could be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

‘Clean meat’ on the plate. Still from Meat the Future.
Given the explosive growth of plant-based meat alternatives, what does “clean meat” offer that’s different?

“Clean meat” is real meat grown from animal cells in a sterile environment without the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals. Memphis Meats and the other clean meat startups — scientists, researchers, food innovators — are laser-focused on mastering the taste and texture of their product, with the goal of appealing to meat eaters.

I am sure some ethical vegetarians and vegans will try or integrate cultured meat into their diets, but ultimately this is a food innovation geared towards a hungry meat-eating world. As populations increase and as developing economies grow, meat consumption is expected to double in 30 years.

Do you foresee the movement away from factory farming expanding into other areas of food production like eggs and milk?

Yes, it is already under way. The umbrella term is “cellular agriculture.” The production of real meat, fish, eggs and dairy grown and harvested directly from cell cultures.

When your film The Ghosts in Our Machine was released in 2013, some people were scared to watch the film because they didn’t want to witness acts of cruelty against animals. But people are still able to disconnect from the reality of what happens on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. How do you understand this level of cognitive dissonance?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is challenging because of its moral complexity. And the cognitive dissonance you refer to is pervasive and profound. Yet the film has reached hundreds of thousands of viewers on every continent.

John Robbins’ influential book Diet for a New America changed my life. In 1990, I chose to stop eating meat for ethical reasons related to a newfound awareness about the cumbersome volume of resources necessary to produce meat, its inequities affecting world hunger, its treatment of animals and the consequences to the environment.

I recognize that I am still a minority in my decision to not eat animals and that most people, even if they intellectually or emotionally agree with my perspective, continue to eat meat. So, it seems both intuitive and logical that we are ready to embark on the next frontier of human ingenuity.

What do you think it will take to truly shift public perception?

I would hope that people make decisions based on ethics, like the plight of stressed and sick workers in meat packing plants, the misery of billions of animals, environmental destruction such as air pollution, water shortages, water pollution and the loss of biodiversity. Consumer polls show, however, that cost, taste and convenience largely determine people’s choices when it comes to meat consumption, not ethics.

Will this change, and/or will people adapt to a changing world? Will cell-based meat become normative? Like a historic document, Meat the Future is timeless, about the genesis phase of something that could change the world.  [Tyee] SOURCE