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Thomas Pawlick and the End of Food

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By Malcolm Jolley

Thomas Pawlick's new book is full of very scary facts on how modern industrial farming techniques have reduced the available nutrients. For instance, since 1950 supermarket potatoes in Canada no longer contain Vitamin A, their iron quotient has been reduced by 57% along with their Vitamin C. Meanwhile, tomatoes have lost 61.5% of their calcium, 35.5% of their iron and 50% of their Vitamin A while gaining 200% more sodium! The End of Food shows how it's not enough simply to eat a salad, consumers need to think carefully about who grew the ingredients in it and how and where. And that's not even getting into what's put into our livestock. Gremolata's Malcolm Jolley caught up with the author recently in Toronto.

Gremolata: You open your book with a story about how you came back to NOrth America, after being away. Bought a beautiful looking red and ripe tomato but couldn't cut it with a knife it was so hard! Then you threw it at the wall and it bounced back! Did that really happen? Is that why you wrote the book?

Thomas Pawlick: Yeah. I was living in Windsor at the time…

Gremolata: Not far from Leamington, Tomato capital of Canada…

Thomas Pawlick: Yes, that’s right. Anyway, it wasn’t from there. It was from the US, California or something like that. But it really did bounce off the fence. And I threw it hard – I was really mad at that damn tomato. I really whacked it. But it just bounced off, like a rubber ball.

Gremolata: But you’re not just a tomato throwing author, you’ve also been a farmer.

Thomas Pawlick: Yes, I had a farm on the South Shore [of the St. Lawrence River] in Quebec, around Valley Field. Then in the 70s I was involved with Harrowsmith magazine and was one of the back to the land people around there in Ontario, for about five years.

Gremolata: so you know what a real tomato tastes like.

Thomas Pawlick: Absolutely. We always grew our own. But on top of that I went to work for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Italy, where the tomato is a god. There are tow gods in Italy: the grape and the tomato. They worship them. So, after eating Italian tomatoes for six bloody years, when I ate the rubber ball in Windsor, I thought, ‘what are they giving me?’ It really annoyed me. Mind you, previous to this I was aware of the problem with agriculture from my work at Harrowsmith and at the UN.

Gremolata: You make this point: the problem with our food is the whole large scale production system.

Thomas Pawlick: Yeah. It’s also an environmental disaster. It touches on everything. It’s an environmental story, a regional story, an agriculture story, and a social one, since it’s about the fate of small towns and family farms, which are now an endangered species.

Much of it goes back to meetings, symposia and papers I would come across at the [UN] FAO. They were very alarming, but they were never in the newspapers.

Gremolata: This is another of your points: that the decline of food quality isn’t new information, but it just isn’t reported in newspapers and the media.

Thomas Pawlick: I wrote a book before this one called Invisible Farm and it was aimed exclusively at journalists. The story just wasn’t being told, and I was so glad to get the book published, then the publisher went bankrupt! Very frustrating. So this time I’m trying to go straight to the people.

Gremolata: What are the farmers complaining about exactly? To a city slicker like me it might appear that they’re being heavily subsidised and protected by tariffs, so why should I care?

Thomas Pawlick: Everyone thinks that the family farmer is protected, but he – or she - isn’t. In reality, what they call the price-cost squeeze is gradually pushing the family farm out of the picture. This is a little bit less so in Canada, compared to the States, because we still have some marketing boards.

Gremolata: This where the cost of running a farm (equipment, supplies) goes up, but the price for the produce is actually going down.

Thomas Pawlick: Yeah, because the same corporations control both ends. The person the farmer sells to, and depends on to distribute his crop to supermarkets and so on, is the person the person who sells him the his fertiliser and seeds.

Gremolata: It’s the old company store.

Thomas Pawlick: The company store, exactly. It’s making the farmers sharecroppers on their own land. And in many instances, farmers are given complete direction from the big conglomerates. The conglomerate will say, “You’re going to grow peas. Here are the seeds. They’re our seeds…

Gremolata: You see those signs on the side of the road: “This field is planted with…”

Thomas Pawlick: Right. Exactly. So the farmer is under contract to produce a certain amount of the product for the corporation. The corporation sells him the seed for a very high price, sell him his fertiliser and tell him how much fertiliser to use. Then they tell him when to plant it, and what to do with it and when to harvest it. It all comes from a basic instruction book. It’s like paint by numbers.

So the farmer is no longer a farmer, he’s just a wage slave; more or less like a peon.

Gremolata: A factory worker.

Thomas Pawlick: Yeah, and these are few family farms that are left!

Gremolata: So then what happened to the tomato?

Thomas Pawlick: Well, a whole bunch of things. It’s the choice of tomato variety. It’s the method by which they raise it. The time that they harvest it at. And its treatment after harvest. All of these tings leech nutrients and taste out of the tomato.

The selection of the variety is no longer chosen on the basis of nutrition or flavour.

Gremolata: Which you would think would be the two big factors.

Thomas Pawlick: Well, yeah. They should be. I talked to a whole bunch of growers and agronomists at the University of California and asked them what are the top qualities you’re looking for in a variety. They would list them for me and not on any of those lists did nutrition or flavour pop-up. And I would ask them, over and over again, “are you sure you’re not leaving anything out?” Nope.

What they did tell me is that the most important thing is the thickness of the skin. It’s got to be thick enough so that when it’s bouncing around in the back of a truck for a thousand miles, it doesn’t smush. That’s why my little tomato bounced off the side of my fence. We pick varieties that have good strong, rubbery carapace walls.

And then it’s also supposed to be uniform in size and uniform in colour. And all ripen at exactly the same time.

So, they’re not looking for a tomato that going to make you feel good, or that’s going to make you healthy.

Gremolata: This is so depressing, this business of low nutrient produce. Especially in light of the movement to kids away from junk food and to eat fresh vegetables.

Thomas Pawlick: Right now, if you go to the produce section of any supermarket - any one at all – and buy fruit or vegetables, or cottage cheese, or meat, you would have to eat something like five times as much of that food to get the same amount of vitamins and minerals as your parents or grandparents got in the 1950s.

Gremolata: So what is it? Water bulking this stuff up?

Thomas Pawlick: It’s fibre, making my tomato bounce. And it’s water. And it’s fat. And it’s salt – sodium. The only two “nutrients” that are really increasing are fat and sodium. In some fruits and vegetables the amount of sodium has gone up by 200%.

Gremolata: As a lay person, I don’t understand. How is there salt in fruit?

Thomas Pawlick: There’s a lot of ways. One is irrigation. When you irrigate and you put a whole lot of water in a field, and in California they need to irrigate a lot, plus pouring it on means a bigger yield – really big tomatoes – it makes the water table rise. The soil solution, made up of this extra water, has all sorts of salts in it, which rise to the surface. The plants suck up the water and leave the salts, so the ground gets gradually more and more salty which eventually winds up in the plant causing increased sodium.

Anybody with high blood pressure or a heart condition; the last thing they want is to have more salt in their diet. But, thanks to agri-business, they’re getting 200% more sodium in their vegetables.

The other thing that goes on, that screws things up in terms of nutrients, is fertilisers. In agri-business, on the big industrial farms, typically they’ll use mixture referred to as “the trio”. NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium in various percentages, depending on what you need to fertilise your crops with. So they put NPK in huge quantities – just dump it on – because the nitrogen makes plants get bigger. It increases the volume.

Gremolata: I guess they get paid by weight.

Thomas Pawlick: Right, but what people don’t seem to realise is that at minimum the healthy growth of plants requires 17 different nutrients. At minimum. These are divided between macro-nutrients, which plants need a lot of, and micro-nutrients, which they need trace amounts of. So the other 14 nutrients aren’t in the NPK. So where’s the plant suppose to get them? It doesn’t. And if these nutrients aren’t in the plants, then they’re not going to be in us. It’s kind of obvious: if you don’t put all the nutrients the plant needs in the soil, whatever grows there is going to be missing in us. But it’s so easy just to dump nitrogen on the fields and watch the tomatoes get bigger.

Gremolata: So what do we do?

Thomas Pawlick: The first thing I tell people to do is plant a garden. In your backyard, or windowsill or wherever you can. But if you can’t do that, there’s other things you can do, like don’t buy your food at the grocery store. Go to the St. Lawrence Market here in Toronto, or a farmers’’ market if you live somewhere else. Usually the people selling are growing within 50 miles of the city with the market, so the varieties don’t need to be grown t be transported across the continent. They have good nutrient in them, and a lot of them are even organic. And if you can’t even make it to the farmers’ market theres a thing called CSA.

Gremolata: Community Supported Agriculture.

Thomas Pawlick: That’s right. This is where groups of people get together and buy a share of a farmer’s crop and it’s delivered right to your door. If you can’t find one, start your own find a few friends or neighbours, then go down to the farmers’ markets and talk to the guys down there. They’ll set you up.

In California I visited a CSA operation where for $27, they could feed a family of four for week!

Gremolata: This is a big myth: that organic or small production food is cheaper. But not paying the middle man when you buy directly from the farmer, are you?

Thomas Pawlick: That’s right. It’s more expensive in the supermarkets, partly because it costs them more, but at the same time they exaggerate. If there costs go up by 1%, it’s like they’ll charge you 40% more. Whatever the market will bear. But if you go to a farmers’ market, you’ve eliminated the middle man and organic food is cheaper than what you get in the grocery store.

Gremolata: What do you think of “big organic”? Of Wal-Mart getting into organic food?

Thomas Pawlick: They’ll still charge you an arm and a leg for it. And it won’t be as well done as the small proprietors. There’s no way to get around it. If you have a small proprietor that has no more than, say, 200 acres that person knows that property. They know the quality of the soil and everything else like the back of their hand. What parts get more water in the spring, where some varieties will do better than others. And they’ll rotate their crops to put nutrients back. But the big industrial farmer, to them time is just money. Those farmers are just making a wage, and they don’t give a shit about the land.

So buy from the small proprietors, buy from the farmers’ markets and grow as much food as you can.

Thomas Pawlick is restoring a small scale organic farm north of Kingston, Ontario with his son.


Would you please list your accreditations and/or credentials to support your comment that Mr. Pawlick is not qualified to have an opinion?

As well, I would be curious to see your statistical data beginning in the '50s as to the number of "family farms in Canada producing healthy, safe food" compared to today.

Regardless... I just heard a radio interview on CBC with Mr. Pawlick and quite frankly it hit home on many levels. My first step will be to investigate CSA options here in Montreal and spread the word to my friends and family. By the way I have no formal education in agriculture or economics (although I did spend 2 summers on my Uncle's farm in grade school) so Jim please... You know ;)

PS - Noticed a few typos (unless it's accepted alternates) and...
"There are tow gods in Italy'
Post Reply By Brad in LASALLE on 11/4/2009 9:42:55 PM

Mr. Pawlick is not qualified to comment on modern farming. His opinions and observations are simplistic and sadly misinformed.
There are still tens of thousands of family farms in Canada producing healthy, safe food.

Mr. Pawlick's description of the average farmer- agricultural company relationship is laughably inaccurate.
Post Reply By Jim in PICTON on 11/4/2009 4:21:57 PM

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