Creative: Food System Blues
Faris Ahmed and Tommy Wall
Faris Ahmed has been working on food, farming, and environmental issues in Canada and internationally for more than 20 years. He is an Ottawa-based consultant and policy researcher, specializing in ecosystems, biodiversity, climate resilience, and human rights. He has played leadership roles in international civil society networks, policy processes, and advocacy campaigns on these issues. Faris has a Master’s degree in International Development from the University of Toronto and has worked as a writer and documentary photographer in Asia. He dabbles with music in his spare time.
Tommy Wall is an environmental communicator and researcher with professional interests in public education, engagement, research and writing on nature, ecology, environment, and climate change in everyday life. He currently works as a strategic communications advisor for domestic climate change policy at Environment and Climate Change Canada, consulting with federal policymakers on how to communicate to the public about subjects ranging from carbon pricing to climate change adaptation. He’s still figuring out the best ways to get his fellow humans to understand the “so what, who cares” of global environmental problems.
Fractured Food System Blues
In 2016, researchers from the Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE) partnership published Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways. The book documents many years of collaborative work focused on building towards more sustainable and more just food systems. In November 2017, Carleton University’s Faculty of Public Affairs hosted an event bringing together academics, activists, and others focused on the same issues. Several people provided commentaries on Nourishing Communities, including Faris Ahmed, who gave his response to the book in the form of a spoken word piece.
This performance, as well as a short interview with Faris about his work at USC Canada (now SeedChange), offer a lively, alternate way of thinking about sustainability when it comes to food systems. Tommy Wall interviewed Faris and produced and edited the audio.
Listen to Faris’s performance of “Fractured Food System Blues.”
They call me a small farmer, but I’ve got a big list of to-dos
They call me a small farmer, but I’ve got a big list of to-dos
Feed the world. Cool the planet. Try walking just one day in my shoes
Because I’ve got the fractured food system blues
I’m Jamaican, but I’m kneeling down on your land
Never Canadian. No, but what you’re eating was picked by these hands
No rights, no shelter, no heat in winter, and the worst kinds of abuse
I’ve got the fractured food system blues
I’m a community garden right in your neighborhood
I can connect friends and families, young and old
Leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes of all sizes, shapes, and hues
To wash away your fractured food system blues
We’re food policy councils. Now, how do you put that in a song?
People’s voices and ideas that make decision-making strong
But, hey, inclusive governance mechanisms will never make the news
We’ve got the fractured food system blues
Agroecology and food sovereignty
We’re more than just words, or theories, or novelty
We’re the roadmap and the journey. So, go ahead and take your cues
We’re transformative pathways for your fractured food system blues
Fractured Food System Blues: Tommy Wall in Conversation with Faris Ahmed
In late 2017, Tommy Wall, a student of Communications and Environmental Studies at Carleton University recorded an interview with Faris Ahmed about his spoken word poem, Fractured Food System Blues: A Blues in Five Voices.
Listen to Tommy’s interview with Faris.
[slow blues baseline plays]
Tommy Wall (TW): My name is Tommy Wall. I’m a fourth-year communications and environmental studies student at Carleton University, and I’m interested in climate change and global environmental sustainability. Agricultural sustainability and food security are important issues in Canada and around the world. In the fall of 2017, a public discussion took place about a new book that attempts to tackle some of the problems associated with food and agriculture. Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways, was published by Springer and focuses on community-based practices that can mend fractures in the food system. One of the participants in the public discussion that marked the release of the book, was Faris Ahmed from USC Canada. Faris leads USC’s policy work and closely collaborates with ecological agriculture, biodiversity, and food sovereignty networks in the global south and in Canada. Faris joins me today to discuss his response to the book release and to speak on his own work. Hello, Faris.
Faris Ahmed (FA): Hello, Tommy.
TW: Thank you for taking the time today to talk about your work and about the issues that you deal with. Can you tell me a bit more about your work, and the work of USC?
FA: Sure. USC is an organization based here in Ottawa and our work is basically about ensuring a healthy and diverse food for everyone. And, the way we grow our food should be strengthening biodiversity and ecosystems, and not diminishing them. And we also feel that the food that has grown is determined by the choices of the people who grow the food. We work with farmer organizations in 12 countries around the world, including in Canada, and a new program we started about five, six years ago. And, essentially, we support farmers and Indigenous people, women, youth, to grow healthy and resilient agricultural food systems. And their goal is to ensure that biodiversity—the diversity in plants, and seeds, and genetic resources in animals as well—is determined by their own research questions. So, they consider themselves researchers. And their goal is to enhance their biodiversity and seed systems because that has impact on a whole bunch of things. It has impact on their food, and their ability to eat around, around the year. It increases their resilience to climate shocks. If it’s too wet or too dry, they have the varieties to, to serve their needs. It engages young people in a way that other types of agriculture do not. They are very passionate about ecological agriculture, which is what we support. And it’s healthy, it’s nutritious, it creates livelihoods. And so, we find that this one intervention has quite a lot of impact on a whole bunch of things, and it’s driven by the farmer’s own needs. And now my own work at USC is about policy and ensuring that policies support the work of farmers and not constrain them. For example, trade and investment policy or seed policy that can inhibit what farmers do, that can impose restrictions on the kinds of seeds that they can produce and save and sell. Or trade that encourages the kind of market that will not support the prices of, the kinds of prices that farmers are expecting or wanting, or imposes restrictions on them that they can’t sell or exchange their own products. So, we try to create a conducive environment for farmers to really flourish in their food systems, to serve them as well as their communities.
TW: And so, you participated in the public book release for Nourishing Communities back in November. What’s your connection to the book and to its authors?
FA: Well, I’m lucky enough to have, to know and have worked with all five of them: Irena, Alison, Charles, Phil, and Erin. I’ve been involved in many things that they’ve initiated, or I’ve participated in research initiatives, workshops and so on. Also, with Peter Andrée and Patricia Ballamingie, both of whom are at Carleton. These people are leaders in their field, I’d say, I mean, they’re researchers in the truest sense. They’ve got the academic tools and the research methodologies, but they’re also grounded, and they’re connected to what they’re researching, whether it’s, you know, the food system and food justice organizations or practitioners, or farmer organizations, food providers. And I think that they have a sense of what the community needs because of that, and it makes them better researchers. So, when I saw the book, I was quite captivated by it. And, I did, I did read quite a lot of it, and it gave me all kinds of ideas. And it’s a culmination of researchers and practitioners working together. And these guys are some of the best.
TW: They come from a lot of very well-rounded backgrounds too, so, it’s good to have multiple perspectives on food security and agriculture coming from a lot of different people. And the book inspired you to do more than to just simply comment as well. How did you respond to the book and to its messages?
FA: Well, I first did a traditional book review as I was asked to do. And that was, I mean, rewarding enough. But that I was inspired by the diversity of the methodologies I guess, the tools and narratives in the book that came from different peoples and communities and different ways of even gathering the information. And, given that we were, you know, quote unquote on stage in Irene’s pub and my own love for music, and Irene’s is known for life performing, performances, and I’d never performed there. So, I just thought that a spoken word rendition of some of the voices and narratives in the book would be fun and hopefully complimentary. So, I just sat down at the computer and it came out pretty quickly and naturally. So, I constructed a spoken-word poem with five voices. And afterwards, decided to add a bassline to it.
TW: And so you have no shortage of musical resources at your disposal down here in your studio. So, we’re going to play for you, “Fractured Food System Blues in Five Voices,” and we’d like to thank Faris so much for his time today. Thank you, Faris.
FA: My pleasure, thanks.
- There are five distinct voices in the poem, “Fractured Food Systems Blues.” What are these voices and what are they saying about the food system?
- If you were to write a spoken word poem about your experience of the food system, which five voices would you highlight? What would those voices say?
- Each section of the poem identifies a major critique of our fractured food system or a potential “transformative pathway.” What are these critiques and pathways? Can you think of other critiques/challenges? Can you imagine other transformative pathways?
Ahmed, F. 2021. “Biting Back Climate Change: Let’s take a bite out of climate change.” TEDxOttawa.
Andrée, P., J.K. Clark, C.Z. Levkoe, and K. Lowitt (Eds). 2019. Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429503597
Global Alliance for the Future of Food. 2021. The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways. n.p.: Global Alliance for the Future of Food.
Knezevic, I., A. Blay-Palmer, C. Levkoe, P. Mount, and E. Nelson, eds. 2017. Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways. n.p. Boston: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-57000-6.