Editorial: Soylent Green is policy

Throughout the course of 2022, die-hard science fiction fans have trumpeted the fact that this is the year in which the 1973 film Soylent Green was set. Carried by heavyweight actors Charlton Heston and Edgar G. Robinson, this dystopian tale was one of the few to focus on the subject of food, or rather the lack of it. The story takes place in a future ravaged by climate change and population pressures, where agriculture has become a remote, heavily guarded activity, and food as we know it is all but unobtainable for the masses, who are left with heavily processed substitutes of dubious origin. Just how dubious is the question asked by the movie’s trailer, and if you are not aware of our hero’s unpleasant surprise, I will not spoil it for you.

This dark look ahead still serves as an admirable time capsule containing the most dire environmental fears of the 1970s. Those same fears inspired regulations and standards of management for resources, infrastructure development, and pollution that we now take for granted. And, as we compliment ourselves on how much better our 2022 looks than it did in Soylent Green, it bears remembering that much of this progress revolved around agricultural progress and innovation.

At the time, the “Green Revolution”, a campaign of aggressive fertilizer application, had successfully beat back looming famine in South Asia. A new generation of more sophisticated pesticides and crop varieties were likewise increasing farm yields around the world. And in well-fed places like North America, food manufacturers were being forced to share information about what was in their products. It is nothing short of astonishing to consider that Canadians regularly shop in grocery stores where essentially every item has a standardized table of information outlining technical details of its contents, such as proportions of salt, sugar, and fat content. Soylent Green’s tragedy revolved around the prospect that such oversight and control of the food system had been lost. Among its most poignant moments is a scene where two men make a veritable feast out of what we would regard as a very simple meal of groceries pilfered from a crime scene, which gives them — and us — a sense of how much is missing from their dietary lives.

None of the changes that enhanced the global supply chain of safe, plentiful food were inevitable or accidental. They were the result of bold, concerted policies, some of which were championed by leaders on a mission to defeat hunger. We hear little of such talk today, although there is still a need to refine the production and distribution of food. Happy talk about how the growth of human population will level off by the year 2100 does not negate the fact that between now and then, we will have to find a way to feed an extra two or three billion mouths. A changing climate is drastically altering where many foods can be grown, in some cases wiping formerly viable farmlands off the map. And among the leading culprits responsible for this environmental damage are the same technical innovations that made this agricultural system so successful, including industrial livestock rearing to supply an increasing global demand for meat.

However, these are just the challenges that receive widespread public attention. Out of sight — and out of mind for most of us — are even more sweeping changes within the agricultural sector, some of which are coming fast and furious. These have been recently highlighted by Statistics Canada’s latest five-year Census of Agriculture. Its findings may not portend anything like climate-caused famine, but they reveal subtle shifts in the way we are producing food, who is producing food, and what food production is doing to our landscape.

Since Soylent Green appeared, for example, the number of farms in Canada has dropped by some 44 percent, to about 189,000. That speaks to a major consolidation of farming operations that has accelerated in the last few years. Between the 2016 and 2021 Census of Agriculture, the number of people working on farms declined by 13.7 percent, but two-thirds of those still working are doing so on farms with at least $1 million in revenue — a 47 percent increase over those five years.

There are still plenty of small farms left in this country, but most of people in this line of work are not the owner-operators we nostalgically associate with roadside stands selling produce at the end of summer — single, white males in overalls wiping manure off their gumboots. Instead, they are part of large teams running corporate enterprises that buy and sell commodities on the scale of millions of dollars. This change has caused concern among long-time observers, who want to know if anyone in government appreciates the need for a new approach to agriculture.

“There is no longer an average farmer that can be targeted with extension or business risk management programs,” wrote Altons Weersink, a professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics. “Instead, there is an increasingly large share of farms with distinct needs, and therefore distinct policy approaches are also required.”

As an example of what “distinct needs” look like in action, consider the fact that StatsCan’s Census revealed the amount of Canadian farmland has declined since 2016, but the area under cultivation has increased. Within farms, managers are actively turning what had been pasture and grasslands over to cash crops that can pay the bills for things like higher fuel or equipment costs. Besides reducing the biodiversity of their land and diminishing its output, such steps will also diminish the ability of that land to store carbon, so that farms go from being part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions to become more of the problem.

The Census offers other worrying insights into the changing nature of the supply chain for your next meal. Unfortunately, we talk more about the supply chains for our next vehicle or our next electronic device. Those, too, are worthy of our attention, but unlike food, we are beginning to understand that these things do not magically appear on store shelves or at our front door in a box.

And from a national perspective, food is even worthier, because Canada has been and will continue to be one of the world’s major players in agriculture. This was recognized with the creation of what is now called Protein Industries Canada, which struggles to get Canadians excited about events such as World Pulses Day, because we are nothing less than a global leader in these crops, feeding giant markets whose populations are only too aware of our status. Meanwhile, the industry that sustains this status continues to quickly evolve, perhaps beyond recognition, or at least what the vast majority of us would recognize as farming.

Something to think about on your next grocery run. The answer to the mystery of Soylent Green, in the actual year 2022, is that it is a matter of policy that should call to us as loudly as the dinner bell.