If small is beautiful why do we fear it?


Today there was another article about the safety of the food supply in the Globe. This was accompanied by a survey of food safety incidents world-wide that suggested that the record of the Canadian food industry was one of the worse. Countries with very few incidents appear to my uncritical eye as ones where there is pride in local production. But not here.

A local organization I am a part of runs a small market on Saturdays. A few days ago I received a request from the municipality that all vendors must register and sign off that they are in full compliance with all local, provincial and federal food safety regulations. This will probably scare off some of the smaller vendors — which I suspect is the real intent. The politicians claim it is because of rising insurance liability costs but one wonders.

All around me are the ruins of struggling and abandoned farms. At one point this locality boasted a number of cheese plants that consumed the output of the then abundant local dairy herds. One by one these have all closed — the complaint seems to be increasing government regulation and the difficulty of selling a unique product into a mass market. The interesting part is that the bulk cheese one finds in the chain stores seem to grow more insipid with each passing year. Similar stories are readily available for mushrooms and strawberries — I used to live down the road from a big mushroom farm. But the local stores only carried product trucked in from 100’s of miles away and nowhere near as good. My wife ran into this with strawberries — at the peak of the local strawberry season the chain stores only carried fruit from half a continent away. The produce manager told her that the contract negotiated by central purchasing banned any local products as long as the store brought in product from this large US vendor.

Despite the marketing messages about how unique we are and that the most desirable products are ones created especially for us — haute couture, for example. We are awash in goods that are created by the millions and hundreds of millions with little variation. Regardless of where one were to dine, places like McDonalds assure us that the meal will be predictable and uniform. The local colour and character that once made traveling so interesting is fading away like the flavor of mass market cheese.

And despite all the ills that cities have wrought, we persist in crowding people into them. And slowly dismantling the transportation network that made living a more dispersed existance possible. Bus service is being discontinued to rural areas, the train definately doesn’t stop there anymore — interestingly the railroad rerouted passenger services away from the urban centers along Lake Superior. And the roads are gradually degrading — as we no longer have the will to keep them up, even improve them. But if we cannot afford to maintain a major bridge, we can spend more to build a huge sports stadium.

In my darker thoughts I think that it is ultimately about control. Capital concentration and the myth of economies of scale are leading into a society every bit as stagnant and divided as the one that the Church used to rule back in the Middle ages. With the decline of the middle class in part due to the exporting of jobs and the increasing concentration of wealth we are slowly but surely rolling back centuries of social change and re-instituting a feudal society. A dispersed rural society would be both resilient and difficult to control — independent people have an attentuated respect for authority (other than their own). But starving and impoverished masses crowded into cities are a different problem. Especially when their food comes from away and their water and other services can be flipped off at will. And our leaders have already shown a willingness to impose a police state if it suits their purposes.

But there is a downside — how far can this process go before the masses revolt (again)? Will (sur)reality TV and cheap (but unsafe) food keep them content like the mythic bread and circuses? The Russian and French revolutions come to mind.

Personally, I like to think that we do not need to go through this cycle again. But here we are — rural communities are being killed off by intent and neglect. And overall quality of life is declining for everyone but a few. If it were my choice this is not an apple I would want to bite into.

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