A Blast From The Past

One thing that is certain in our changing world is that societies evolve, and have been evolving over  hundreds and thousands of years. An example of this evolution, can be found with our agricultural/farming systems. It is truly amazing to see how these systems have changed throughout the years, into what we have today – the typical grocery store model. But how did this happen? How did we go from a simple agricultural society, to today’s modern urbanites? In truth, it’s history that has changed our food.

One definable moment when our food systems changed forever was during the Industrial Revolution (1800’s), when urban cities took control, and our relationship with the land began to diminish. This great TED talk by Carolyn Steel, author of the book “Hunger City: How Food Shapes our Lives”, offers a nice introduction to the history of food industrialization, and why it is still a relevant topic today.

Don’t you just love it? I find she has a GREAT way of explaining things! And, while she mostly focuses her lecture on the city of London, much of what she presents could be applied to our own city and province as well.

The most noted sign of the industrial revolution was the introduction of machinery to make farming more efficient. Having just come out of the  Civil war, American companies needed to find a way to utilize the left over war machinery. Then, a light bulb went off, and an idea was born.  American companies, such as Massey-Harris, John Deere, and Allis-Chalmers, transformed various parts of the war machines into farm machinery to speed up the process of creating food. What was once a war tank was transformed into a tractor that took half the time that the traditional animal plow would to till the fields. Indeed, industrialization changed the face of our earth, and provided a way for societies to mass produce food and feed their growing populations.

Farm Tracktor is also War Tank
Farm Tractor is also War Tank

Chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo! Then came the train, which again greatly altered our strained relationship with farming the land and the struggle to feed a growing number of people. The invention of the train made things much easier for people like you and me to live in the city. We no longer had to travel to the local farms to get our food. Instead, the train brought the farm to us in what we now know as the modern grocery store. Simply put, trains brought us food from all parts of the country, without us moving a finger. Apples from BC, fish from the East Coast, chocolate from the far south – no problem. The train became our lifeline, providing us greater access to all types and kinds of food.

And while that was fine and dandy for many of us, many argue that it has created within us a loss of the connection we once had with the land. It separated us farther and farther from the places where our food was grown. Helena Norbreg-Hodge, in her book “Bringing the Food Economy Home” explains this by saying,

“The industrial revolution further undermined local food systems by drawing people away from the rural sources of their food, into urban areas where their food had to be imported from the countryside, and increasingly, from abroad…farmers as a whole were systematically replaced by machines and were consequently forced into the emerging urban slums.”

And this change wasn’t something that just impacted the large city centers of the world. While places like New York and Toronto were impacted the most, and had become the epitome of industrialization, Saskatchewan too was hit hard with industrial agriculture and the paradigm shift it created.

Statistics Canada reported that these agricultural pressures and changes drove a new trend in Canada: “fewer, but larger farms”. Canada’s land mass devoted to farming was still the same, but the problem was that the number of farms was decreasing. While the average farm size was 96 hectares in 1941, by 2001, the number jumped to 273 hectares. In addition, when we look at the number of farms in Saskatchewan, we see that the number of farms has gone down 12.4% from 2001 to 2006. So, Statistics Canada wasn’t that far off. A new farming trend has developed – bigger farms+ fewer farmers = farming monopoly.

Almost MINE
The New Farming Trend

Knowing that these vast changes have happened around the world, including in our own backyard, what does this all mean? Well, the answer is not so simple. It is true that our food systems have evolved throughout the years and each phase in time has its advantages and disadvantages. Some would argue that the cons of this evolution outweigh the pros by a large amount, and that our food systems are doomed.

What do I think? The world is bound to change, and with it, so are our food systems. The most important part is that we learn, as a society, how to cope, adapt, and use the changes to benefit all, rather than just a few.



Statistics Canada: http://web.archive.org/web/20070402091734/http://www41.statcan.ca/0920/ceb0920_000_e.htm

Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food: http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=fbd4a3a8-c237-41a7-99ec-02ffe9899724

Tanks AND Tractors: http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/machines_01.html

A Blast From The Past

One thought on “A Blast From The Past

  1. wourliem says:

    This is a great video from TED, thanks for sharing it Taouba.

    What I really like about the video is how Carolyn Steel cuts to the heart of what cities require to function; food. I would add water and sewer to food as the basic certainties all urban centres must have.

    I think a lot of people take access to the above urban life-support systems for granted, especially when their designing or planning for bright futures. In Regina, one concern I have with the move of our rail yards out from the city centre to the GTH is how it embraces the current oil dependent modes of goods transportation. Regina, the walking city, pre-First World War, is centred around the railway as transportation/goods corridor. Much of that infrastructure, older neighbourhoods on grid roads, warehousing and the commercial district are within a short distance.

    In the past century, a lot of capital was put into creating the auto-city, with free ways, suburbs and loads of parking. I’m concerned what major oil shocks could do to the current transportation paradigm and if Regina’s organized in a way it can survive possible shocks. I also wonder about how future infrastructure investments may be financed as the current debt at national level and tax loathing public leave little clue to where the money for a new paradigm will come.

    I suppose an alternative to a return to the old scale of urbanism, which maintains the industrial model described above of goods from a far coming in, would be a more dispersed, self-sufficient place where agriculture is again front and centre. This formation might be better suited to areas near open land on the periphery of the city.

    Regardless of possibilities, Regina plans to grow, fully expecting a global food supply system and abundant water to be intact in the future. Given our semi-arid climate, distance from major natural transportation options, distant from major markets and best agriculture areas, limited growing conditions and car dependant urban formation many different challenges that may come in the future could seriously disrupt not only a growth agenda but the current population size.

    I wonder what the city might look like if it were conceived of foremost as a place to collect around safe water, efficient sewers and resilient access to food?

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