Haz Mat

In the mid-1990s, I became interested in what was then a relatively new phenomenon, genetically modified foods, an industry ripe with politics. Although it was never directly part of my work at City Farmer, I took the subject on as a side interest. I began to collect newspaper clippings, friends passed them on to me too. That study led me to other issues around food and more files were created. As my interest in food began to broaden and extend beyond urban agriculture, I discovered that local issues were inextricably tied to global ones and that I would probably need another filing cabinet.

Long before the Diary, I wrote an animated film episode, a satire on the politics of food. I called it Something’s Rotten in Compost City. Then I turned the animation into a book proposal. I baked some cookies decorated with threatening biotech lingo (super weeds, souped-up soybeans, Frankenfoods, contains rBGH, Bt batch, mutated genes) written in pink icing  and put them in a small compost bin. I dressed up in a haz mat suit, complete with gas mask and delivered my package to Raincoast Books, the publisher that would eventually get the North American rights to Harry Potter. I scared the living daylights out of the receptionist, and the editor she called kept his distance from me too. Despite my creative presentation, I didn’t get the book deal. The content was too thin, they said, bring it back when you’ve filled it out. But by the time that happened, Raincoast had disappeared from the publishing scene.

During my City Farmer years, I was invited to speak at various gardening and food-related events and conferences around North America, so I got to meet a lot of people, see some of their projects first hand, and expand my little composting world. I began to think more about hunger: why amid such plenty in the world were people still going to bed hungry – or worse, dying of starvation? I read Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine, 1971), a 1970s classic by Francis Moore Lappé and found out that this imbalance was created by something called the production myth: the manufactured belief that there just wasn’t enough in the world, so we had to keep producing more. And more. And more. I was very struck by her argument that there is enough, more than enough: the real problem is one of distribution.

After I left City Farmer, I began to test out new material during a regular segment I was doing for North by Northwest, a literary show on CBC Radio, our national public broadcaster. Some of the work was based on my travels, like the coffee farm tour of Guatemala. The radio features got me my first speaking gig on something besides composting at the University of British Columbia for the Faculty of Education summer program. I had been invited, along with a diverse list of other speakers, to present to thirty-five educators from across Canada on the theme of Renewing Food. I called my talk Something’s Rotten in Compost City. I read from three of my CBC essays: Seeds, Coffee and Chocolate, all of which would eventually wind up in the book.

One of the other presenters was Anna Lappé, daughter of one of my heroines, Francis Moore Lappé. I had read Diet, to prepare the ground for Something’s Rotten, but the book that would have an even deeper impact on me and would become the blueprint for my trip to India was the one the mother/daughter team had written together: Hope’s Edge (Tarcher Putnam, 2002). I had Anna sign my post-it flagged copy. We ended up getting together after the talk and I took her over to meet my former boss and mentor, Mike Levenston, at the City Farmer garden. It was the bridging moment between my old life and the new life I was creating.

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