Whether it’s suffering a shortage of bananas and coffee, missing a favourite restaurant or signing up for weekly fruit-and-veg boxes from a local shop, coronavirus has affected everyone’s eating habits. It’s also highlighted our dependence on imported produce: with lockdowns interrupting production and supply chains snarled up, the flaws of our previously invisible global food network have suddenly been writ large. For Canadian farmer and educator Jean-Martin Fortier, it’s an opportunity for change. Since setting up Québec micro-farm Les Jardins de la Grelinette with his partner in 2004, he has been on a mission to promote small-scale organic farming as a route to food security, a healthier life and a better environment.
Why is food security important and what should people know?
When you have a highly centralised or globalised food economy where food is travelling throughout the world, if there’s a disruption then communities at a very local level are affected. It’s always assumed that trade and the distribution channels will go on and that because of industrial production, the food will always be there. But we’ve seen that that’s not true. That’s why small organic farms are crucial. A lot of them are the backbone and the safety net of the food system. That has never really been acknowledged. And they’re accountable, which the global system is not.
On your website it says, ‘There’s never been a better time to get into farming.’ Why is that the case?
It’s funny because this message could have been there 10 years ago. What we’re seeing are the symptoms of a problem that has been there for a while. It really boils down to the fact that you want to know who’s producing your food and you want to be able to count on them. So with all the common knowledge that’s being shared right now, there’s an opportunity for people to put on their rubber boots, start a farm and just do it. My message is to keep those farms small and localised.
Do you think that people are starting to recognise the issues?
Here in Québec, food sovereignty has become one of the top issues in recent months. That’s because 40 per cent of our fruit and vegetables come from the US and they’ve closed the borders. There’s a real spectre of a vegetable shortage because our winters are very long. So that’s stirred up a lot of the debate about how we can achieve food sovereignty, such as using clean hydro-electricity that we have in abundance to heat greenhouses and produce vegetables out of season.
For people who aren’t able to set up a farm, what sort of steps would you advise?
Gardening is a good one. It’s empowering and you learn a lot – and it can also help to lower the cost of food. Going to a farmers’ market is also useful, or getting involved with community-supported agriculture, which is where people pay upfront for a weekly delivery share of the harvest. The success of local food systems is always dependent on other people supporting them so just buying local makes a difference.
The pandemic means that more people are buying local. Are you optimistic that this will continue?
Yes, because it is a trend that was already up-and-coming. Any time there’s a crisis, any time cities are shut down for whatever reason, people begin to realise the importance of local agriculture.
Monocle comment: We’ve long trumpeted the benefits of supporting smaller producers but this pandemic has made doing so more crucial than ever.
About the interviewee: Fortier is a farmer, educator and author specialising in organic vegetable production. His social enterprise, The Market Gardener, trains aspiring farmers around the world.