Volunteer Projects In Thailand: Food And Sustainability Workshops With Melissa

MelissaAfter completing her university education, Melissa from Toronto chose to focus on her passion for sustainable community/international development. She currently works as a consultant and educator in the field of sustainable food systems, sustainable agriculture and the global food network. Melissa’s current work in Toronto involves supporting farmers, teaching about local food and sustainability, as well as writing about food.

Recently, she presented us with some workshops which focused on learning how to understand the differences between industrial agriculture and sustainable agriculture, with particular emphasis on discussions related to the global food system.

Having grown up working on the family farm, Heritage Line Herbs, and helping to found a food co-op in Toronto called Westend Food Co-op, Melissa spoke passionately on this topic.

She began her workshops with the following quote from Thich Nhat Thanh, which also serves as the silently offered pre-meal prayer at New Life:

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard work…in this food we see the entire universe supporting our existence.

She continued by asking participants to reflect upon the interdependence of the food system and how it relates to sustaining the earth and ourselves. She pointed to a common tendency which we could all relate t0 – that of a certain nostalgia for the farms of our childhoods. However,we were reminded that these memories have nothing to do with the presence and reality of worldwide industrial agriculture.

What is Industrial Agriculture?

Industrial agriculture is essentially commercial farming and often on a  large scale. It relies on producing a mono-culture of central crops such as wheat, corn, rice, and soy, all of which are heavily fertilized. Workshop participants were invited to share their understanding of the problems of industrial agriculture. It was quite poignant to note that issues of waste, greed, reliance on fossil fuels, seed owner monopoly by companies such as Monsanto, and other problems associated with industrial agriculture, were similarly observed by participants from many parts of the world.

Melissa then spoke of the global food movement and sustainable food systems, both of which are worldwide phenomena that comprise responses to the planetary devastation created by commercial agriculture.

What is a Sustainable Food System?

Melissa used the example of the Ashram as a full circle, self-sustaining system. She spoke of the food movement in Canada: community-based, urban agriculture, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), local processing (as opposed to the warehousing/transporting aspect of industrial agriculture), farmer’s markets, attempts to change policy, food security councils, the West End Food Co-operative and community canneries. It was inspiring to hear workshop participants from around the world report similar efforts in their own local communities.

Examples from New Life Foundation:

New Life is on its way to being organic and intends to increase sustainability in as many areas as possible. The foundation currently engages in the following practices:

  1. Organic agriculture, which relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of pesticides, insecticides, or chemicals.
  2. Composting using food waste and manure from the animals, weeds and hay for nourishing the land, flowers, trees and fruit and vegetable gardens.
  3. Grazing our two new cows: instead of corn, we feed them grass and weeds.
  4. Permaculture: planting different plants together, which boosts nutrients in the soil and encourages healthy growth.
  5. Mulching between rows in the garden, which cuts down on weeds (especially as we don’t use chemical sprays).
  6. Raised beds, which conserves water in tropical countries.

In closing, participants contemplated the interdependence of the food system through its relationship to nature, in the form of earth, water, sun, our bodies, and seed. Melissa also reminded us to give gratitude and acknowledgement to farmers and food workers. These are the people who grow our food (particularly in the case of commercial agriculture), process it, ship it, and sell it to us. We gave our thanks, and recognized how hard they work, whilst surviving on very low wages, to bring us the nourishment we often take for granted.

*Many thanks to workshop participant K for this guest post

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