Self- and community - provisioning


The state of self-provisioning in Canada




Financing the transition


For much of human history, most of us were  hunters and gatherers and a bit more recently, farmers and gardeners. Survival was linked to the ability to feed self, family, and community.  Sharing and later barter were important parts of the exchange process.

Specialization of tasks is a very recent phenomenon, as is the use of currency as a mediator of exchange and storehouse of value.  As the food system has been transformed, it has allowed people to stop self-provisioning and use their earnings to purchase from those who are food producers, processors, distributors, retailers and restauranteurs. The urbanization of the Canadian population has also been a significant force reducing self-provisioning. According to Watson (2020), an original barometer for successful city design was the effective coordination of modes of production that supported capitalist activity (Dear and Scott, 2018). Food was pushed from the list of urban priorities with changes in food production practices in the late 19th century that made them appear, if not actually be, incompatible with urban density and key urban planning objectives. This transformation was part of the second industrial revolution, where food production and processing became inherently loud, pungent, messy, and even toxic (Patel, 2012), and mostly a rural activity, although many cities retain historical elements of an earlier time when food production and processing was common in cities. Some have viewed all this is as liberation from the drudgery of survival, others as a disaster leading to individual and community vulnerability.  The heightened interest in gardening during Covid-19 speaks to this latter position.

But rural and wild spaces have also been compromised by industrial development, habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, enclosures, irrigation and climate change, all of which have generally reduced the possibilities for hunting, fishing, trapping and foraging.

Clearly most Canadians are now dependent on the market and the food system to acquire a nourishing diet.  The situation is particularly acute for northern indigenous communities whose access to country foods has been seriously restricted and dependence on imported southern and culturally inappropriate foods seriously accelerated.  Many impoverished families in rural Canada are dependent on  hunting seasons for adequate nourishment. Foods acquired through self-provisioning are less expensive and frequently more nourishing than supermarket foods.

By definition, self-provisioning takes place outside the market and that is the primary reason it has declined in significance and is not supported by firms or the state. When self-provisioners are able to capture, harvest, preserve, slaughter and butcher food themselves, traditional food system actors don't make money.  Also significant is the lack of data collection on self-provisioning, since most food system data collection focuses on economic dimensions.  In Canada, we don't have very good data on the volume of vegetables consumed out of home gardens, or how much of the diet is provided from hunting and gathering.  In particular, we don't have a clear picture of who relies on self-provisioning to assure an adequate diet, a critical situation if we're to do a better job of support such individuals, families and communities.

There are major impediments to increasing self-provisioning: loss of commons and commons resource management, loss of skills, contaminants, lack of access to land, inputs,  equipment, community storage, slaughter and butchering facilities, food safety rules, and negative cultural perceptions.  Benefits that can arise from an increase include: community cohesion and safety, recreation, greater cultural expression, reduced social isolation, better nourishment, improved spirituality,  reduced costs, and ultimately better health and well being.

The state of self-provisioning in Canada

Data on self-provisioning are limited.  Equally significant, it's not clear how important self-provisioning could be with the right supports in place to overcome the obstacles to better management. However, one indication of the potential comes from emergencies, such as the British WWII experience, when about 10% of domestic production (primarily fruit, vegetables, chickens and hogs) came from home gardens and allotments inspired by the very extensive supports provided by the state, and some percentage of the population supplemented their diet with small game (Boyle, in press).

The current barriers likely impose limits that can not be surmounted in the short term (e.g, access to resources, contamination).  Given limits, there are also significant issues of equity, many of them deeply colonial (see Getting Started, Colonial history).  If hunting and gathering have to be carefully managed to ensure the resources aren't over-exploited, then those who hunt for recreation, as opposed to sustenance, may need to have  opportunities limited.

Private gardens

It appears that COVID caused more people to garden.  A survey reported that half the residents harvested at least one fruit or vegetable from their garden in 2020, and of these 17% had started because of the pandemic.  About 80% lived in single family dwellings, but some 18% reported growing food in containers (Agri-Food Analytics Lab, 2020).  This suggests that pre-pandemic, about 1/3 of Canadians had been food gardening.  Statistics Canada (2013) had reported that 57% of Canadians gardened in 2013 but that included flowers, so it is not clear how many were just gardening for food. Almost twice as many home owners reported gardening than renters.   A Montreal analysis reported that 40% of its household had gardens, amounting to from 68-208 ha devoted to food and non-edible plants, producing an estimated 2200-6600 tonnes of vegetables with a retail market value of $15-48 million  (Duchemin and McClintock, 2020). How important gardening is for self-provisioning, nutritional health and finances is unclear, though many studies from North America report that gardening saves hundreds of dollars per family in supermarket expenses and provides nourishing food and higher consumption of fruits and vegetables (cf. CoDyre et al., 2015; Alaimo et al., 2008; Litt et al., 2011; Duchemin, 2020).

Community gardens and greenhouses

In early periods of the 20th century, many Canadian cities had extensive areas devoted to gardens, including greenhouses, but much of that infrastructure was dismantled and is only slowly being rebuilt. In Toronto in 1915, some 2,000 garden plots coordinated by the Rotary Club generated almost $1 million in produce in current dollars (Johnson, 2009). In 1934, an 80 ha garden site in the western part of the city was created to help 5,000 unemployed families. Market gardens and greenhouse operations were very common in Toronto until the 1930s (Fram, 2009). During WWII, Canadian city Victory Gardens created 200,000 wartime gardens nationally and produced 52 million kg of vegetables (Johnson, 2009).  Up until the 1960s, much of the northern part of Toronto was still farmland, but it was gradually converted as population and commercial pressures resulted in redevelopment.

Statistics Canada (2013) reported that 4% of Canadian households grew fruit, vegetables, herbs or flowers in community gardens, with the total reaching 9% in Quebec.  This study did not include the territories and indigenous communities. A 2015 survey of 81 cities found that all had community gardens, and almost half had rooftop gardens.  However, in most cities the number of gardens / 100,000 residents was low (Soderholm, 2015). Montreal has the most robust community garden program in Canada, with an extensive network of 100 or so community gardens supported by the municipality and community organizations since the 1970s, and providing for about  12000 residents, with over half identifying as low income (Bhatt and Farah, 2016).  The city also boasts an array of commercial and self-provisioning rooftop farms and gardens, including several sites devoted to grapes (Vignes en ville).  One estimate has the City producing food across all types of production on 36 ha, amounting to 1000 tonnes of vegetables (Duchemin and McClintock, 2020). Toronto had 100 growing gardens on public properties (Miller, 2017), but not all are directly supported by the municipality.  Vancouver has a similar situation. Gardens in some cities were prevented from opening during the first COVID lockdown, but many opened later once municipal officials agreed they were essential.  And from 2021 announcements out of Toronto City Hall, it appears municipal officials have recognized their error and are opening gardens early this year.

A most interesting development is the construction of community gardens and greenhouses in northern Canada.  Chen and Natcher (2019) reported that 36 community gardens and 17 greenhouses now exist across the North, with 36 located in the Northwest Territories, 10 in the Yukon, three in Nunavut, two in Labrador, and two in Nunavik. Thirty-four (64 percent) were in communities with less than 1000 residents. Those with the largest growing areas were the Gameti Community Garden in the Northwest Territories (21,600 ft2), the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Teaching and Working Farm in Dawson City (35 ha.), and the Inuvik Community Greenhouse in the Northwest Territories (4,000 ft2). A few initiatives also include poultry and a few greenhouses operated hydroponic systems.  Some are funded with federal and territorial grants. Many focus on self-provisionning for members and the excess is sold in some cases or donated. Some are structured as individual allotments, others are communal.  Clearly this is not part of the traditional dietary pattern of many in the North,  so in some ways their existence is partial compensation for colonialism and climate change.  Although there is the Northern Farming Training Institute in Hay River to help with training needs, food production, whether gardens or farms, is a challenge in many communities that have little tradition of growing food.(Spring et al., 2018). It is also sometimes difficult to access land because of soil and climate conditions or government regulations (Schiff and Brunger, 2013).

Urban aquaculture and livestock

Because beekeeping and chicken rearing often happen in backyards, it is challenging to develop a clear picture of levels.  However, a 2015 survey of 81 Canadian mid-sized and large cities found that almost 90% permitted urban beekeeping, almost  1/4 permitted urban chicken rearing, and about 7% had urban aquaculture operations present, presumably commercial (Soderholm, 2015). Toronto has about 500 beehives in about 200 yards (Secord, 2019). Some Montreal boroughs, Victoria, Vancouver, Kingston, Kitchener, Niagara Falls, Toronto (pilots), Edmonton, Whitehorse are some of the cities that permit chickens.  Anecdotally, many keepers of urban livestock and bees do so for the pleasure and taste of the food, rather than economic need.  There are some reports of restaurants keeping bees for their own use and there may be sales at urban farmers markets.

Urban foraging

Cities produce significant amounts of food (backyards, municipal properties, rights of way, public trails) that often go unharvested, particularly fruit and nuts, and other kinds of edible landscapes.  This has spurred on urban foraging movements, sometimes individual, increasingly through non-governmental organizations and social purpose enterprises, such as LifeCycles in Victoria (which started in 1994); Not Far From the Tree, in Toronto (2008); Operation Fruit Rescue, in Edmonton (2009);  Les Fruits Défendus, in Montreal (2011/2); and Hidden Harvest, Ottawa (2012). Ottawa had 17,000 food-bearing trees in 2012/13, 4000 on city property,  Hidden Harvest organizes the collection and splits the harvest, 25% to the nearest food agency (shelter or food bank), with the rest split equally between the homeowner (if private property), the volunteer harvesters, and itself, selling its share to local restaurants and processors to help fund operations.  It is structured as a social purpose business (Ballamingie et al., 2019). "In Toronto, there is an estimated one and a half million pounds of fruit growing throughout the city and, yet, less than 17,000 lbs. of fruit was harvested in 2014" (Marshman and Scott, 2019).

Municipal land use planning and regulations are uneven regarding urban foraging and this creates barriers to harvest (McLain et al., 2014).  "Some critics view the model of urban harvesting as an inefficient and illegitimate means of producing food and assuring food security in cities that has little to no potential for scalability. In fact, scaling up and out—becoming bigger and more profitable—brings potential liability, exposure, regulation,competition, and criticism" (Ballamingie et al., 2019).

Although gleaning and urban foraging are sometimes  viewed similarly, here gleaning describes the more specific function of post-harvest collection of food on commercial farms.  An ancient practice that has been suppressed in the era of private property rights, modern gleaning is shifting from an individual to a community based approach, both rural and urban. How many farmers allow individual gleaners on their land post harvest is unclear. Perhaps more farms are now working with organizations that use extensive volunteer networks to glean to support food banks. Other motivations for gleaning organizations include: "reducing food waste, community building, improved access to local foods, knowledge sharing, and addressing climate change." (Marshman and Scott, 2019).  Because of how grading rules work, the amount of product left in a field can be considerable (see also Goal 5, Reducing Food Waste).  Although organizations often report how much they've gleaned, the aggregated amount of food consumed through gleaning is unknown, but typically focuses now on fruit and vegetables.  Grains and oilseeds are less likely to be gleaned because of limited individual and organizational skill and capacity for processing.

Hunting, fishing, trapping and wildcrafting by non-indigenous people

Many enjoy recreational hunting and fishing (see also Goal 5, Sustainable Fisheries Management) and some also hunt and fish for self-provisioning purposes.  Although challenging to determine because of very variable provincial / territorial rules, hunting and fishing (angling) organizations (Conference Board of Canada, 2019) estimate that there are:

  • 1.3 million hunters in Canada and 1/4 of them do so for sustenance.
  • 3 million recreational fishers (only a small percentage fish for sustenance)
  • 43,000 trappers, 1/5 of who do so for employment or income, and a small percentage for sustenance
  • The total economic footprint of these activities is significant, estimated at $13.2 billion in 2018.

The majority are in Ontario and Quebec. These estimates would not likely include a significant number of indigenous people as they are not always required to obtain provincial or territorial  licenses, nor are they necessarily members of associations, from which much of the analysis is derived.  Trapping for employment has become challenging in many regions because pelt prices for many animals are now so low (Macarthur, 2021).

How many non-indigenous people wildcraft is unclear.  It is usually permitted on public land, but not usually in official parks, and permission is required on private land.  Common foraged plants include dandelions, stalky rhubarb, fiddleheads, wild leeks, garlic mustard, numerous wild herbs and tea plants, edible "weeds",  wild strawberries and raspberries, and different kinds of mushrooms. Unfortunately, there are many anecdotal reports of overharvesting and resulting damage particularly to forest ecosystems.

Country  foods (also known as land foods, bush foods, traditional foods, harvested foods)

Indigenous people have a deep history of hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering and sharing, not buying, food. Country foods are critical for indigenous health, well-being and culture and are generally in decline which is reducing consumption  (Wendimu et al., 2018;  Kenny et al., 2018; Luppens and Power, 2018).  Caribou, whales, walruses and polar bears, amongst other mammals, are  often under restrictions and or quota (ITK, 2017). The increasing shift to the wage economy, grocery store food and Western diets is associated with a host of problems (see studies cited in Spring et al., 2018; Wilson et al., 2020). Data on country foods and their nutrients can be found at the CINE Indigenous foods database.

The ability to access traditional foods has been pushed aside by mainstream economic interests in many sectors, including: forest management planning; hydro development that prevents the migration of fish species; and roads, industrial and housing developments. All this has impeded the preservation and growth of traditional medicines as well as the natural migration of large animals, water fowl, and other animals that are traditional food and medicine sources and which represent deep cultural relationships for Indigenous peoples.  (PFPP 2011:10; see also Thompson et al., 2019;  suiki?st [Terbasket, P.], 2019;  Thompson and Pritty , 2020).

Extractive industries have disturbed habitat on millions of hectares in the North (cf. Wilson et al., 2020). Climate change has cascading negative effects and is  impacting patterns of wildlife movement, wild plant habitat and availability and also the outdoor preservation of foods. More diseases are reported in wild foods. Travel has become longer and more difficult with more safety concerns (Spring et al., 2018; Wesche et al., 2016; ITK, 2017; Settee, 2020). All this makes it more time-consuming and expensive to be  on the land, which requires work and income, which then reduces the time available to be on the land and more grocery purchases to compensate (Spring et al., 2018). Reliance on transport and storage infrastructure is brittle, often inadequate to assure food safety, with repair delays due to weather.  When freezers break down, it often takes a long time to get them fixed, and food is lost (ITK, 2017).

There are also significant concerns about contaminants (Kenny et al., 2018), which triggered the creation of the Northern Contaminants Program in 1991.  In addition to general atmospheric deposition, there is more specific and local contamination from industrial and military sites (Schiff and Brunger, 2013).

Financing the transition

For urban areas, many of the initiatives are about removing obstacles and optimizing existing resources. A prime budget area from which to support urban food production is waste management.  Curbside organic pickup and centralized anaerobic digestion systems are hugely expensive.  Toronto, for example, spends about $80 million annually on organic collection, distribution and anaerobic digestion and is under pressure to expand the system to meet waste diversion objectives and a looming Ontario ban on organics in landfill.  This figure also does not include organic food waste that ends up in the sewer system (garburators, dumping, etc) (Dirks, 2021). At a minimum, Toronto could potentially avoid expansion costs, if not reduce operating budgets for waste management and sewage treatment, with significant diversion of organic waste to backyard and community composting and soil fertility initiatives to support food self-provisioning.  There may also be public and private savings from restricting urban fertilizer use, applying compost instead.  This is already done to some degree in many municipalities but certainly has not been optimized.

For indigenous hunting, trapping, fishing and wildcrafting, food and land are central to reconciliation. Changes should be intimately integrated in reconciliation programming, negotiations and legal changes.  In this sense, food and land are embedded in other budget processes.