EcoUrbia Network

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| our broken food system | chewing on it | red tennis balls | the food we eat | beckoning green economy |
| invisible transparency | sustainability-why quibble? | the perfect standard | eating organic | resilient communities |

our broken food system

posted by Karen Morton
August 12, 2012

Most people do not fully understand how broken our food system is, and that local food truly is a ray of hope. As David Tracey iterated in a column recently published in Common Ground, “our food system problems are the result of institutional forces making decisions far from our own neighbourhoods, and it is vital that local groups combine their efforts & work together” - a local food charter is an opportunity for us to bring it back home, and enter into policy agreements as to what that will look like in our local communities. From both a human & ecosystem health perspective, a food charter supports local, organically grown food within our cities, and across our region & province. Simply put,

  • it plays a multifunctional role in terms of protecting our farmland, watersheds & wildlife;
  • it encourages soil fertility, soil conservation, and composting;
  • it minimizes environmentally-persistent, petrochemical contamination of our food, soil & water;
  • it achieves a modest reduction of food miles & greenhouse gases;
  • it provides for plant biodiversity, adaptability & open pollination;
  • it increases the nutritional value of the food we eat;
  • it ensures fair living wages for farmers & workers.

Most nutrients are currently bred out of the hybridized varieties available to us in the marketplace where crops are bred to be “tough” for the purpose of transportation & “tasteless” because they are picked green & gassed with ethylene, and it is little understood that food is priced in the global market - farmers earnings are not increasing, offshore corporate interests are. A local food charter is a powerful tool that fosters support for & promotion of farmers markets, farm gate sales, local food outlets, and local products, including within our food services industry and public institutions.


chewing on it

posted by Karen Morton
August 8, 2012

There’s something I’ve been chewing on recently…my growing awareness of the use of chemicals in our food supply, in particular, the prevalence of artificial sweeteners, aspartame in particular, and our limited choices when we try to avoid it in our chewing gum - never mind that there appear to be dozens of options available to us at the checkout counter. Choice is an illusion.

While living in Chicago many years ago I worked for a patent, trademark and copyright law firm whose clients included Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, Wrigley’s, Sealy (to name a few). I recall one of the paralegals sourcing foreign language dictionaries that published Kleenex® as a generic term for facial tissues when in fact it’s a trademarked brand name. How many of us have referred to facial tissues as such? It’s part of our vernacular. Sealy, synonymous with mattresses, and a case that involved a competitor selling mattresses under the name “C. Lee”.  Wrigley’s, famous for their chewing gum, and a file that included the formula for it; the ingredients meant little to me at the time, but I was fascinated by the science behind the creation of this substance. I can also attest to having worked on a trade secret for artificial cheese for a frozen pizza manufacturer, a product that Michael Pollan today calls a “food-like substance.”  So here I am now, more than two decades later, examining what the ingredients in the gum we buy means, and how the seemingly innocuous activity of chewing gum with aspartame is so much more than that. So why does it matter? 

We’ve been led to believe that it’s okay to consume aspartame - that it’s safe, less likely to cause weight gain, and when its added to our chewing gum that it can prevent tooth decay, such as the ubiquitous slogans telling us "dentists recommend chewing sugar free gum" and that “sugar free gum has been clinically proven to positively impact oral health.” Why would we challenge endorsements by the dental associations?  One would hope they know what’s best for us. But it’s not that simple. What flummoxes me is how chewing gum is marketed to us – that it needs to be sugar free in the first place, yet the bubble gums, and some of the breath mint brands are, for the most part, sugar-based. I must concur that sugar, when consumed in excess (as with carbohydrates, fats, and sodium) can have a negative health impact. [ full article]

story of the little red tennis ball

posted by Karen Morton
March 12, 2012

I recently began reading Thomas Pawlik's book "The End of Food" - and as an advocate for sustainable food systems, and in working to dispel the invisible transparency that surrounds our food, I was compelled to share with you what Mr. Pawlik calls "red tennis balls" (aka hybridized tomatoes) in order for us to better understand the loss of nutritional value in our food supply as a result of our industrialized food system, and the sincere loss of variety within the fresh and processed tomato market. If you've ever wondered why we [EcoUrbia] are passionate about creating an awareness of the food we eat, this helps us to better grasp why it matters. We've traded our health and well-being for the sake of our own perfect standard by allowing profit over people over planet.  

The Story of The Little Red Tennis Ball, a nutritional comparison

the "food" we eat

posted by Karen Morton
February 6, 2012

Systems are in play to keep us ignorant of what we’re really eating - including the ‘fresh’ produce we buy (what I call “invisible transparency”), along with processed substances (junk food in disguise) - case in point: a ‘nutrition’ bar with 12 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 3 teaspoons). Food processors and marketers use word games to confuse us. “Distilled celery extract” is, in fact, a nitrite – Maple Leaf’s packaging claim of “all natural” deli meats came under scrutiny by CBC’s Marketplace in their recent “Lousy Labels” expose – Maple Leaf changed the label once they were exposed, and now confess that this product does indeed contain nitrites (kudos CBC!); that Canada and the U.S. are the only two industrialized countries in the world without regulations requiring mandatory labelling of GMOs (consider that Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of GE crops); and we’re dumbed down by a litany of false nutritional claims: Wonder’s bread with fibre includes the “hull” of the oat, but not the actual grain – a “fibre” with zero nutritional value - we might as well eat dead leaves off the ground. We don’t know what we’re eating or the real cost of bad food. We buy it because it’s often cheap and always cheerful. What we’re eating are “food-like substances” as Michael Pollan puts it. Bad food contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure at alarming rates – we’ve heard how the treatment of these diseases, most often linked to obesity, is overwhelming our health care system, and that its going to get worse with an aging baby boomer generation. Dr. Andrew Weil told us more than a decade ago that 70% of all diseases are lifestyle related – a lifestyle of bad food and improper nutrition – something we have the power to control – so why don’t we? When it comes to the food we eat, why aren’t we demanding the truth so that we can make informed choices, and why doesn’t government stand up for us? Health Canada is not protecting our health - they refuse to ban trans fats, that it would burden the food industry and that they're doing a good job of 'self-regulation'. Get a grip Minister Aglukkaq.

Everything is linked. Who benefits from the making and selling of high fat, high sugar, high sodium food substances? Processors, government, media, pharmaceuticals? Bad food and the cost to “fix” our health is big business. Big companies bring in tremendous revenues for their shareholders. Follow the money. Big government is not looking out for us. And big media exists because of advertising revenues, the selling of the brands that contribute to the scourge of poor health and disease. Then there is the “do-goodedness” – the promotion of charitable works such as the “pink ribbon” campaign – it’s everywhere – and it has lost its meaning since it became a brand to be trotted out as a poster child by the mega corporations and mass media for the purpose of generating revenue, and a sacred cow that we dare not criticize. I undertook a UBC course a couple years ago called, “News Media: Trash Talkers or Truth Tellers”- one of my takeaways comes from Izzy Asper (Canadian media magnate), that news is selling soap. Think about it.

I am mindful of the meaning behind the messages – and what we’re up against. I’m frustrated every time I see something food-related in the media – its non-stop really - and the “food” programs – they have so much power - in just a few short sound bites, they could bring non-GMO, organics, sustainable farming and fisheries, nutritional values, and energy inputs to the forefront of our psyche’s by telling us where they sourced it, why it matters, and how consumers can access it, but – as I again surmise – follow the money. Who profits from our ignorance? To be fair, there are think-outside-the-box programs. Too few.

Systems-think. Systems-contol. Systems-broken. Because of it, an awakening is taking place, a desire to know more about the food we eat – there is an increasing demand for locally-grown, organic food – of getting back to real food in its natural glory, and not as a marketing tactic on a food package. Fresh, nutritious food is more satisfying - we will eat less of it, and be healthier. We want a real relationship with the food we eat, and the people who grow it. We want good health. Ecosystem health. What I call "ecolibrium". The era of globalization and greed has not served us well. We can change that. We can support local food policy development and the change makers who are growing food – in backyards in our cities (Edible Garden Project, Metro Vancouver City Farmers, City Farm Boy), as well as City Farmer, SOLEfood Farm, and public farms (Loutet Farm in the City of North Vancouver), as well as EcoUrbia’s urban farming projects that will increase local capacity, provide education, and create local jobs. It takes courage to step outside the box, rethink our relationship to food and to let our voices be heard in the choices we make, and what we will or will not stand up for. Local food is a ray of hope.

FOOTNOTE: This article was republished in Organic Connections online magazine.


a beckoning green economy

posted by Mel Phadtare
March 17, 2011

After living and breathing ‘sustainability’ for almost five years in Vancouver as a consultant, writer, researcher, instructor, networker, volunteer and peer, I thought I’d share a few observations of the evolution of Vancouver towards a beckoning green economy. Vancouver holds many of the values and settings for a deeper sustainable shift, there’s a spirited community who appreciate their natural assets, freedom and justice. As in many cities there’s also a hunger for consumption beyond survival and into brand based status. Despite this, based on the changes I saw afoot, Vancouver has something special to draw on which could take it into the leadership role that City Hall so keenly seeks: that of the greenest city – by 2020 – well that’s entirely dependent on how deep Vancouver digs into its sense of community.

In five years, Vancouver has come a long way in almost every area of sustainability (bar a couple around GHG frameworks and water management) but these have more to do with federal and provincial leadership, or lack of, rather than the capabilities of a city. I fielded calls from businesses asking me what climate change was about and did they need to do anything? Since 2006, we have seen a carbon tax come into place, and many businesses have committed to carbon footprint measurements and reductions – while many new businesses have sprung up to provide these very services. I witnessed investment in community development and sustainability programs with success based on “how much money did we throw at it?” By 2011 the questions about investing have rightfully shifted to “what’s the impact and how does this relate to wellbeing?” With a different lens now being applied –a different skills set is required, along with a change of in-house processes. Naturally the knock-on effect has to be, and is, a growth of green collar jobs in an ever greening city. This is beckoning news.

NOTE:  Read Mel’s related article, Sustainability Reflections: How far has Vancouver come in five years?  on the growth of Vancouver’s green economy, the triggers underlying this boom, and many examples of business, community, and government organizations spearheading this much needed shift.


invisible transparency

posted by Karen Morton
February 28, 2011

We know more about where our food is grown - most produce identifies the country it’s grown in and whether it’s organic or not, yet we know very little about how its grown or the people who grow it. Who are these farmers and workers cultivating the food we eat? Are they paid a fair living wage so that their fundamental needs such as food, clothing, shelter and clean drinking water can be met? Can they raise their families with the wages they earn, or are they confined to a cycle of poverty? We see fairtrade labelling on the coffee and chocolate we buy, but what about everything else? I always want to know more about the impact my choices have on other people and our environment. I care about where the food I buy comes from, what I eat and feed my children, the stewardship of the land and the care taken in preserving our precious water and energy resources. I especially want to know how our food is cultivated – the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used, if it was grown with GMO seeds or not – how the animals were treated and what they were fed, and to get beyond the additive-speak labelling to what it really is and means. (Did you know that guar gum is a plant product, or like me did you have the misconception that it’s a chemical additive?) We don’t always know what we’re eating or if it’s safe, and there is no one to ask when we’re standing in the midst of the grocery store. Country of origin labelling on our produce isn’t enough anymore. There is no transparency in how things are grown or made or what practices have been employed – we’re asked to offer up blind trust to the retailers and processors and for government to do the right thing by us. They simply can’t. Cases in point: Mattel’s massive recall of their Barbie dolls (due to the toxicity of the lead paint used in its manufacturing) or Maple Leaf’s listeria recall resulting in the deaths of 22 Canadians. These were serious wake-up calls.

I got involved in sustainability because of the lack of transparency and unethical practices within electronics recycling and our food systems because I am passionate about it and frustrated by it, and have an awareness of the knowledge that is available to us when we are willing to look a little deeper. There is only so much information you can find on a website, and we have to ask pointed questions. I have, and I learned a great deal about greenwashing through that exercise. BC Hot House tomatoes anyone? There are 377 ecolabelling certifications & logos - its not possible to know at-a-glance what is legitimate and what's not.

James Hoggan (author of Climate Cover-Up, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, and president of Hoggan & Associates) said in a recent interview that he got involved in climate change because of a lack of transparency - that we are bombarded every single day by professionally-paid sceptics and lobbyist who don’t want policies [the status quo or profit margins] to change. I am inspired by individuals such as Hoggan who are willing to apply their depth of knowledge and critical thinking to confront these issues head on - including individuals such as Jim Puckett (Basel Action Network), Michael Abelman (Foxglove Farm) and Will Allen (Growing Power), Vanessa Timmer and Bill Rees (One Earth) and Monica Marcovici (Board of Change) - change agents working to bring everyone to the table, individuals-organizations-businesses alike, and create collaborative opportunities. I encourage you to ask questions, dig deeper, think about invisible transparency (what they're not telling us) and the impact our choices can have on others. Children in other countries are exposed to our hazardous waste, and to the damning chemicals in the growing and harvesting of the food we eat and our ecosystems, and that it not be an accepted practice to impose harm upon someone else’s children here or in another country. Ask. Learn. Choose. We forget how much power we have as consumers.


sustainability – why quibble over the term

posted by Karen Morton
November 4, 2010

I have no doubt that we are actively living in this new era called sustainability. Some of us have embraced it - millions of people are engaged in sustainability in one way or another every single day, some for the past twenty years or more; some of us are wondering what it all means, and even more who don’t necessarily want the status quo to change – and disengage at the mere mention of the term. That’s perfectly understandable. Change can be unnerving. Sustainability is a BIG topic, and it touches everything...from shoelaces to airplanes, and we’re afraid that we’ll have to give something up for it – such as our free choice, or affluent-driven addiction to stuff.

I was once advised not to use the term sustainability - that it turns people, and businesses, off. This came from a politician while in pursuit of our community farming initiatives, and in developing our sustainability portal. Well, what should we call it then? And why are we even quibbling over the term – it’s not going to change the change no matter what you call it, and we’re totally screwed if we don’t act, while wasting time, and energy in pondering a more politically-correct, and business-friendly term.

What I’m here to share with you, is that we don’t have to wait for permission or change from the “top down”...for the policymakers, lawmakers, and multinational corporations to bring us change or legislate it...we can affect change from the “bottom up” by the choices that we make. For some of us, it means small steps; for others, its big ones. Go with what you feel comfortable in doing…and trust that in each step, whether big or small, that we can reach a critical mass. There are inevitable tradeoffs to be made along the way, but if we don’t start now, than when, and if not this, than what? And what’s the worst that can happen if we fail to act? For every one of us, the answer is different. What I see is the hope, and promise this new sustainability era brings….and I believe in the unfathomable human ingenuity that is available to us…if we can imagine it, we can do it...and we can all be participants in sustainability, no matter what you call it.


the perfect standard...we don't have to be saints*

by Karen Morton
posted October 26, 2010

Often times we find ourselves challenged to live up to a perfect standard. We see, and experience this daily - from the unbruised peach we search the bin for, to our fear of publicly taking a position, and speaking out in support of our convictions. The perfect standard is a set up. That bruised peach is probably ten times sweeter, more delicious, and ready to eat than the unbruised (and unripened!) one; and the individual who stands up for what they believe in, risks criticism when they should be applauded for their courage – not knocked down because they don’t have an alphabet soup behind their name that gives them the so-called authority to speak, as happened to Alexandra Morton (one of my personal heroes).

This is particularly true within sustainability, and it’s simply not possible to live up to an ideal, all or nothing, standard. What matters is making an effort, taking a step, and not beating ourselves or others up for what we haven’t done yet, or don’t have all the answers to. It’s one of the reasons I created EcoUrbia: to participate in the transformation, and to support each other - not point fingers at what we haven’t done, or what we did do because it isn’t “green” enough. The point is to do something, and be pragmatic enough to realize that sustainability is not black and white, it’s often gray. We’re called upon daily to make trade-offs, and compromises. The dialogue in our heads goes something like this, “Yikes, I forgot to set that print job to double-sided!”... “My favourite organic juice is in a recycled plastic bottle – if I buy it am I perpetuating harm?”…“My strata won’t let me put a composter on my deck. What can I do instead?”

Reinventing ourselves, and reinventing the world in support of our ecosystems may or may not happen fast enough. We can’t see the future, and scientists can only predict climate change outcomes. But starting now, there are hundreds of simple things we can do, and ways we can live a more sustainable, and ultimately more rewarding life – the beauty of it is, doing one thing does make a difference, and it does matter. Here you’ll find information, and tools that can help you. We’re always looking for more, and if you have found something that works for you, your family, your community – tell us!

* Read more about “The Perfect Standard” in Paul Rogat Loeb’s “The Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time". It helped me find the courage to act, and its okay to risk being vulnerable to criticism. It’s a human condition, and our ability to take the first step gives others permission to do the same.


eating organic

by Karen Morton
posted October 10, 2010

We seem to have an almost insatiable demand for cheap food as though it is our right. It’s understandable then that we have a system in place to do just that: produce it. What we don’t see, or fail to see, is the hidden cost – the collateral damage – of our industrialized food system. We instinctively know that food treated with chemical pesticides and grown in chemically-fertilized soil is not good for us – but how many of us know why? Like most of us, I have an inherent understanding that eating organic is better for us and the environment, and that we need to stop eating chemicalized food, or as Michael Pollan calls it “food-like substances” – but it goes beyond that to the produce we buy and eat fresh because we think it’s healthy – not necessarily. I recently began reading Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto. Maria is a brilliant researcher, and writes compelling arguments in support of her propositions on why our food is poisoning us, what chemical farming is, what industry and governments are doing to perpetuate it, and what it means to farm organically today (it takes courage). There are creative, and innovative solutions that are finding their way to us and this is where hope resides. As Rodale states, “To make the bold changes that we all know deep in our hearts need to be made will require independent thinking and focused action. We are up against strong forces.” I say, never doubt for a minute our ability to make a difference – start small. Choose organic. Grow it too if you can. And the next time you pay $3.50 for that organic red pepper I’m certain you’ll eat the whole thing and not let half of it rot in the fridge or a landfill. Read Organic Manifesto if you can.


building sustainable communities - the big picture

by Karen Morton
posted August 30, 2010

It’s often said that small is beautiful, and the launch of EcoUrbia’s sustainability portal is one small step in the bigger picture. Our portal is the first of it’s kind in the region, and by creating a space that allows members of the community to share ideas with a broader audience we can facilitate engagement in local and regional initiatives, provide a forum for engagement and participation in civic processes, and for community champions to emerge in as we promote the actions of individuals and organizations who have achieved succcess. It’s through our work with community organizations and local government on food security, and our urban agriculture initiatives that we recognized a need, and saw an opportunity to create a portal where we could come together to share information amongst ourselves (empower), connect with each other (engage), and be aware of the work taking place in our communities, and the broader region (informed). So...when I raised my hand at the Table Matters Forum last fall to present my idea for a portal, it’s gone from a yellow sticky on that idea board to design, to securing a funding grant from Vancouver Coastal Health, to implementation.

Our big picture vision includes portal communities within all urban areas, and neighbourhoods of the lower mainland, with Phase One specific to local north shore initiatives...Phase Two will include other high-density areas (such as Yaletown, False Creek, Mount Pleasant, West End, Tri-Cities, etc.,)...Phase Three will include the addition of other issues, and activities, such as: sustainable purchasing strategies; green washing, ecolabelling, clothing, cleaning products, etc.; as well as socially responsible investing, leadership, and mentoring. I invite you to get engaged, be informed, empower yourself, share your story with us, and join our network in building and supporting resilient communities. It starts with us.



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"Your paradigm is so intrinsic to your mental process that you are hardly aware of its existence, until you try to communicate with someone with a different paradigm".  (Donella Meadows, The Global Citizen)

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