Those who got to see former Non-Partisan Association city councillor Peter Ladner during his two terms at city hall would hardly describe him as animated.
However, when talking about the subject of urban food systems and food security for cities, Ladner develops an urgency, an upbeat and optimistic tone to his voice that was rarely on display at 12th and Cambie during the six years Ladner sifted through all kinds of issues. His political career was bookended by the (ultimately successful) Olympic bid and the (politically lethal) secret $100-million bailout of the Olympic Village.
The Georgia Straight noted in a phone interview with Ladner that his new book, The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities (New Society) also has an urgency and a narrative that is suggestive rather than prescriptive. He makes his suggestions, mostly, through anecdotal references to how urban food systems can be strengthened and made more resilient and able to cope in these days of ever-worsening climate change and flatlining economic growth.
So why the swing from quiet city councillor to passionate urban agriculture advocate?
“There were a couple of reasons for that,” Ladner told the Straight hands-free from his car, while driving to get gas for a trip to Whistler. “As you say, there were a lot of other issues going on [at city hall]. And well, three reasons. The second one would be that I wasn’t as deeply into it then. I mean, I researched this thing for almost two years. So I got a lot deeper into it. The other one was that there was not much appetite among my NPA colleagues to make this much of an issue.”
Following his failed bid to become Vancouver’s mayor in 2008, Ladner said, he was offered an SFU fellowship.
“I said I wanted to do this project, which I was originally calling ‘Planning Cities as if Food Matters’,” Ladner added. “And it was Mark Winston there [at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue] who persuaded me to do a book. I was planning on just doing public events, which I did, and research, which I did. And he said, ‘You should write a book.’”
The 258 pages that make up the book are at times vintage Ladner, with stripped-down and practical observations of how urban food systems work. Initially, Ladner reminds the reader that our food system itself is, at its core, fundamentally fragile and unstable, requiring huge injections of fossil-fuels to power the trucks that bring the majority of the food in or keep the food fresh at odd times of year. Though much work needs to be done, Ladner said he felt right away that he was on to something that would become a real passion, leading to speaking engagements and interviews on radio across Canada.
“From a politician’s point-of-view, this is a remarkable policy initiative, because there are so many winners,” Ladner said. “And it’s one of these things where, if you get the local food system right, a whole lot of other problems get alleviated or even solved. You deal a little bit with economic development, you deal with community building, you deal with safety in communities, you deal with feeding hungry people, you deal with getting kids off of bad diets. You deal with higher health care costs. And it just goes on and on and on.”
And everybody loves it, Ladner noted with tangible excitement.
“Everybody’s having a good time,” he said. “People are getting more exercise, they’re more healthier, they’re meeting their neighbours, they’re getting work, they are doing something useful for the first time, and they are getting access to good food for the first time. What’s not to like?”
True to his business acumen, Ladner noted in the book that “reducing food miles isn’t everything”. However, he noted how empowering it is at localized events like Feast of Fields, where he noted in the book that “curious city dwellers” line up to meet local farmers and chefs and suppliers. On a more individualized level, Ladner said that, since his book has been out, more and more people are coming to him and talking about their new vegetable garden or their compost or the fact they’ve done something for the first time using skills they either never had or had long given up.
Asked about his old political rival, long-time organic farmer and juice king Mayor Gregor Robertson, Ladner added, “Gregor obviously gets this. He’s been in the business. He’s one of many people who really get this.”
The issue of urban food is getting much higher levels of interest and people are realizing this is a “very serious issue”, he added.
“Because we now have five or six national food policy initiatives,” Ladner said. “All the major political parties now have food policies. And the Conference Board of Canada, I’m going to a conference there in February, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture is working on one, and the military people in various countries are looking at this as a national security issue, like how are we going to get enough food and what happens if our food supplies get cut off? That’s the biggest security issue of all.”
So with all this new-found knowledge, is there going to be a return one day to the political arena?