Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bread and Roses: The No Nonsense Guide to World Food

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Bread and Roses: The No Nonsense Guide to World Food

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

The lounge of Toronto Sprouts, an organic urban farm, played host to the launch of Wayne Roberts’ new book, The No Nonsense Guide to World Food (Between the Lines, 2008), on an evening in late September. BTL’s No Nonsense Guides are informed and easily accessible guides to complex global issues including sexual diversity, world poverty, climate change and international development. Wayne Roberts’ book is a valuable addition to the series, offering readers a concise introduction to today’s food systems, their shortfalls and the opportunities available to transform our food for the better.

The launch was hosted by radio personality, Ralph Benmergui, who humorously tagged Roberts’ writing as a unique mixture of depressing and uplifting. Other speakers included Solomon Boye, manager of the Toronto Urban Farm project and urban gardener; Janice Etter of the Toronto Food Policy Council; Bryan Gilvesy, Norfolk County eco-farmer; and Erin Shapero, city councillor for Markham. The speakers shared stories of Roberts’ many contributions as a food advocate and coordinator of the Toronto Food Council, a local citizen body of food experts and activists. At one point during the evening, Benmergui related a story of being at a local organic grocery store, the Big Carrot, and not recognizing brussels sprouts because they were still on their stalk. This increasing disconnect that we feel from nature and an overall food system is directly linked by Roberts to the myriad food crises we find ourselves in — obesity, escalating food prices, the effect of global warming on farming, declines in wild fish, etc. Roberts explains that all of these issues are linked to the larger problem of what he calls the “modernist food system” that has been governing food production for decades, to the detriment of the environment and our health.

The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food begins by explaining the term “modernist” within the unusual context of food production. Roberts’ pinpoints the 1950s era of technological bravado and innovation as when the modernist food system originated, and food began to be regarded as an industrial commodity by food companies, consumers and agronomists. He then goes on to identify a growing “fusion” food system, which encompasses the idea of food as more of a cultural product instead of an agro-industrial one, and respects the life processes of which food is an expression. Today’s food system includes 1.1 billion farmers, farm workers and fishers, 170 million of which are child labourers. Farming also has the highest rate of bankruptcy and suicide of any occupation. To quote Roberts, “A $6.4-trillion-a-year food economy that sells a necessity of life impoverishes more people than any other economic sector.”

Just as the facts of our modernist food system become too unbearable, Roberts is fast to jump in with motivating ideas throughout the book, discussing the positive growth of food scenes in communities, ranging from farmers’ markets, chefs who campaign for local and artisanal food production, community gardens, farm-to-school meal programs, green roofs, food policy councils, community kitchens and more. Roberts describes this food movement as one of the most powerful social movements since the 1790s, during which movements were formed in support of women’s rights, the end of slavery and national independence. An important aspect of today’s movement is that it isn’t a cohesive one with a single slogan, but is multifaceted, full of joy and “demonstration projects, not just protests.” The type of change that comes about through food initiatives is termed “the cascade effect,” where an initial action like planting a garden to improve nutrition results in an increase in exercise, socializing with neighbours, reductions in greenhouse gases, more tourist appeal in cities and so forth.

One of the truly revelatory moments in the book comes through Roberts’ explanation of the heavy cost of “cheap” food. He takes great care to explain that while sticker prices and the amount of our income that goes to cheap food is low, it is more of a “buy now, pay later” scheme than many of us realize. He summarizes the five major costs of cheap food as the cost of paying for the health care of a population affected by nutrient-poor food, the cost of farmer bail-outs given by the government to subsidize cheap food instead of positive incentives, the costs of mass inequality and poverty created by underpaying food workers, the costs of repairing the damage done to the environment through cheap food production instead of giving money to farmers to properly care for their land, and lastly, the cost of replacing the level of chemicals and artificial ingredients we have all become accustomed to in our daily food. We are moving into a new era of responsibility where food and energy can no longer be considered cheap and dispensable, and a book like Roberts’ is the ideal primer for citizens interested in learning how to affect change in their community. The focus throughout the book is on creating lasting systems that benefit the social, spiritual and economic health of everyone involved, from rural and urban farmers to chefs and everyday consumers.

For more information on the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food and Wayne Roberts visit

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