This spring we hosted a learning series called “Putting Youth on the Agenda” in partnership with Alliance 2030, Community Foundations of Canada, and Youth Climate Lab’s RAD Cohort. We heard from inspiring young people about youth-led, collaborative climate action toward the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. In the second event, we heard from Nika Moeini about the future of food.
Food. It nourishes us, supports livelihoods and communities, but it’s not all sunshine and daisies. Our food systems as we know them are playing a leading role in the climate crisis. But it doesn’t need to be this way. We have the power to change how we grow and raise our food and the way our food systems work to create a better future for us all.
In the second event in a learning series called “Putting Youth on the Agenda”, we were joined by Nika Moeini, Founder of Youth Climate Save Canada and Policy Analyst with Environment and Climate Change Canada, who walked us through the current state of our food systems. “It is quite challenging to wrap our heads around some of the scale of some of these systemic issues like climate change and reconciliation because not only are they complex, but there is a lot that we’ve done wrong in the past,” says Moeini, “It’s easy to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed but please do not take any of this personally. We are all part of a larger system that has failed people and the planet in the past.”
If we’re going to take a look at food systems, we need to take a closer look at the issues of climate change and reconciliation to really begin understanding where these issues came from. Unpacking food systems is a really large task and within it there is a lot of overlap between different systems, our histories, and the actions that are needed to start making inroads for change.
Moeini’s work starts with exploring the interconnectivity of five different United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as they relate to food systems. It’s easy to think that issues related to food would center around only Goal 2, End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, but we need to expand our thinking because there are climate impacts of food, the health impacts of food, the water use related to our food system. All of these and more are connected and that’s why we also need to weave collaboration into how we’re thinking about changing our food systems.
“We really do need some radical partnerships to be able to achieve climate justice, and sometimes we need to unlearn and unpack some of these issues or the way that we know them today so that we’re able to look at them in a new way,”
Moeini shares. But what does she mean by a radical partnership? According to her, while people hear the term ‘radical’ and think of the extremes, an outlier, it’s important to understand that the root word of radical means roots. Roots, and the idea of being rooted, is an important reminder for us all that our thinking should be rooted deeply in the idea of what is central, nourishing, and foundational to our work. This also means looking at the root causes of the issues we’re seeing, which is why Moeini’s work looks at the food system from three core perspectives, including those of Indigenous peoples, the climate, and health and wellbeing, in order to better understand how we got to where we are today.
Food insecurity, food deserts, zoonotic pandemics, workers rights violations, food waste, trauma, extreme weather, cost disparity – all of these things paint a pretty bleak and dismal picture of the current state of our food systems. So the question is, how did we get here? Moeini starts with an Indigenous perspective of how the food system in Canada has changed since European colonization of the Americas. With their arrival, Europeans imported the idea that their foods were essential to their existence as they knew it, both physically and culturally, so they brought with them their own animals, crops, and agricultural practices to Canada. This started the process of Indigenous peoples being forced away from the way they were practicing their relationship to food and the land into where we are today.
This is so clearly demonstrated in the mass slaughter of buffalo, an animal that is cherished and held in a sacred place in the lives and cultures of many Indigenous peoples. Within 100 years of European colonization, the number of buffalo went from millions to hundreds, which caused widespread issues for Indigenous communities. With their disappearance, Indigenous communities were forced to sign treaties, such as Treaties 6, 7, and 8, with colonial governments to fend off the starvation of their peoples. Part of these treaties required Indigenous peoples to begin to farm cattle instead of relying on their traditional hunting and farming practices. Moeini shared a number of in-depth texts as part of her research and links can be found at the bottom of this article.
We can still see the history of these colonial policies today when we look at our beef exports, the erosion of wild landscapes and native vegetation, and the impacts of Western practices on Indigenous communities. It’s clear when looking through an Indigenous lens, or rather the Indigenous history of the food system, that in the past European settlers and their descendents not only disrupted the holistic relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land but the health benefits too.
There are many negative health implications of following the standard Western diet. According to the World Health Organization, major diet-related diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, and dental diseases, are caused in large part by unhealthy diets and lifestyles. Moreover, pursuing a Western diet, one that is upheld through subsidies, advertising, and a focus on profit over health, doesn’t contribute to the wellbeing of people or the planet. From the quantity of meat and dairy in this diet, to the heavy processing and use of artificial flavours and sugars, consumers of these diets are at risk of life-limiting and threatening diseases more so than many other diets and cultures, including those that centre plant-based choices.
But it’s not just human health that’s being impacted, it’s also the health of the planet and the natural environment around us. With the climate emergency taking place, new research announced in a report showed that 20 meat and dairy farms emit more greenhouse gas than Germany, Britain, and France combined. This news is shocking. It also shines a light on who is responsible for the crisis we’re facing and it makes us think about how Western food systems are controlled by large conglomerates, which are one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses.
“While it’s so important we continue the conversation about transitioning away from fossil fields as a way to fight climate change,” Moeini acknowledges, “we also need to seriously take action on the way we practice animal agriculture.” Animal agriculture may be the second largest emitter after fossil fuels, but it’s the leading cause of other environmental problems, such as deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Why? Well, in order to make room for the animals people eat, entire forests are cut down to make room for pastures and for fields of animal food. Not only does this remove the critical areas for carbon capture oxygen production, it also destroys ecosystems.
So what can we do to repair the damage from our colonial past and create stronger, healthier, more resilient food systems? To start, Moeini emphasizes that people can start reducing the amount of animal protein they eat and replacing them with fruit and vegetables. Making this switch will have more of an impact than simply buying local, which is still crucial, says Moeini, as it reduces the carbon footprint of our food, and supports our local products. Moving toward a plant-based food system could result in up to a 90% reduction in the crop lands needed, a 96% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, and a 94% decrease in the use of nitrogen fertilizer.
A recent study finds that a rapid global phase out of animal agriculture has the potential to stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68% of CO2 emissions this century. These possible results give us hope and also make a just transition for ranchers and farmers not only important but necessary if we’re going to see the progress we need to start reversing the damage caused by our current food systems.
A just transition can look like a lot of different scenarios, but one thing is certain: we need to advocate for support for farmers so they can transition to more sustainable produce, products, or regenerative farming methods.
This is a call for change that we need to demand from our governments to implement, including redirecting support and subsidies to plant-based forms of farming, and restoring ecosystems.
“I imagine Indigenous communities, food and meat companies, youth, farmers, migrant workers, policymakers, activists – everyone really coming together so that we can have an open and honest conversation about what’s happening in our food system today, and how we can have a just transition for the future,” says Moeini.
There are plenty of actions we can take to empower people and work with nature to reverse the changes taking place. It could be steps at the local level, such as supporting community gardens and planting fruit and vegetables in public spaces, or at a higher level, endorsing calls for the Plant Based Treaty and where Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can collaborate to rewild land, and rethink policy at a food systems level so that healthy, sustainable food is more affordable and accessible to everybody.
Want to learn more about Canada’s colonial history and how it impacted, and continues to impact, Indigenous peoples and food systems? Check out these publications below.
- Dairy in the Americas: How Colonialism Left Its Mark on the Continent by Matilde Nuñez del Prado Alanes, 2022
- Animal Colonialism: The Case of Milk by Mathilde Cohen, 2020
- Treaty 6: Famine and Pestilence by Emily Lennox, 2018
- Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America by Virginia DeJohn Anderson, 2006
Missed this event? Hub members can find the video recording in the portal to watch at their own pace.
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