Project proposes alternative vision of future life on the Prairies

An entry in an international competition imagines a future where large-scale farming is effectively abandoned

Following a global collapse, the Prairies faced the devastation of its social and economic system, the story goes.

But as climate change ravaged the planet and its people, and as millions fled the worst-affected zones, prairie people rebuilt their social and farming systems.

In doing so they created a society in which Indigenous and settlers old and new lived in balance with the natural environment.

Instead of a few farmers producing bulk food for export, and most prairie people living in a few cities, land would be broken down into smaller and environmentally shaped pieces, and people would live in a plethora of villages and smaller communities as well as remaining cities.

From the devastation, the Prairies would grow and become mostly socially and environmentally self-sufficient.

That might sound like the plot of a science fiction novel, but the vision is the product of a diverse range of agri-environmental and Indigenous thinkers imagining an alternative to today’s environment, farming system and human society.

“Canada has become a haven for environmental migrants and the population has more than doubled, creating new opportunities,” says A 2050 Food System Vision for Treaty Four Territory, as authors imagine the transformation they are hoping to achieve.

“Rather than exporting food, we imported people.”

The 68-page Vision is a proposal entered into an international competition for the Food System Vision Prize, which promotes fresh thinking and the reimagining of the nature of food systems to produce a better and healthier world.

This proposal, written by Saskatoon environmentalist Paul Hanley and co-ordinated by the University of Manitoba’s Natural Systems Agriculture Laboratory, is one of the finalists recently announced for the $2 million award, which will be distributed to more than one finalist in chunks of up to $200,000.

While it is specifically tailored to Treaty Four territory in southern Saskatchewan and parts of southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Alberta, the author makes clear that its vision applies to the prairie region.

At the heart of the proposal is a belief that the region must be reconfigured to rid itself of what it sees as negative effects of the large-scale farming model that has prevailed since settlement. Input-heavy practices the paper describes as unsustainable being employed to produce food for export will be, in the vision, replaced by more management-intensive, less uniform production that will focus on feeding the prairie community.

This will not just be more environmentally stable, but also a means of reaching “reconciliation” with Indigenous people.

“Creating a vision for Treaty Four territory aligns our food system vision with the process of decolonization and reconciliation between Indigenous and settler populations. We believe that creating a just and sustainable agrifood system is dependent on the unity of the people who contribute to and depend on that system.”

Fields now existing as parts of the traditional grid of quarter-sections would be returned to natural shapes and farmed accordingly. Grasslands would be greatly expanded to cover half the arable land of the Prairies and the buffalo would roam again.

People would subsist mostly on locally grown foods and do without “exotic” fruits and vegetables in the winter.

People would be re-educated so they value this new world and a much greater emphasis would be placed upon a form of spirituality that would add richness to this more localized existence.

New forms of land ownership and sharing would be developed to allow the burgeoning Indigenous population, envisioned to be half the prairie population, to play its role in food production and society.

Regenerative agriculture plays a major role in the practical areas of the proposal and is the main area in which the $200,000 prize would be spent, according to the proponents.

“The majority of the funds will be offered as small grants to support practical agrifood and conservation projects in the prairie region, with a priority given to Indigenous food sovereignty projects.”

Some of the money would also be put toward spreading the Vision to a wider audience in the Treaty Four area.

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