Woman in red track jacket leans on rake, smiling into distance. Old horse barn looms in background.

Dr. Mary Beckie - Organic conversion

Mary Beckie is an associate professor and acting director of Community Engagement Studies in the Faculty of Extension. For her doctoral thesis, she took the first in depth look at organic agriculture in western Canada. She followed this up by joining a large European Union research project examining the impact of organic agriculture on rural development. Now at the University of Alberta, her work focuses on organic agriculture, local food systems and sustainable community development with projects in Cuba, Sri Lanka and western Canada.

How did you get interested in sustainable agriculture?

I grew up on a farm and helped out with the farm work, but my Dad didn’t want his daughter going into farming. So instead, I studied genetics and ended up with a job in biotechnology with the National Research Council. One day, a friend of mine invited me out to a meeting with the National Farmers Union, Oxfam and other NGOs. It was about international issues in agriculture and they wanted me to talk about the impact of genetic engineering. So I did my little talk. Then I sat back and listened to these talks on globalization and its impact on farming communities. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about what they were talking about. I had been so focused on doing my research projects in the lab that I was really missing out on the big picture of what was happening.

Two days later I quit my job.

Jack Mezirow has this theory about transformative learning. There can be a triggering event, a "disorienting dilemma" he calls it, where something in your lived experience shows you the contradictions of what you've been doing. And that meeting really showed that to me—the smallness of my world and how I was missing the big picture. I decided I would change direction. I paid a price for it, but I couldn't do it any other way. I've always followed my passions. For a while that involved genetic engineering! But that process is also how I got here.

Your research now focuses on urban agriculture. How did you go down that road?

Friends of mine in Saskatoon were market gardeners who moved into the city. They had all of these problems out in the country due to irrigation, deer eating their crops all the time, land prices. So they started renting backyards in Saskatoon. They developed this whole network, primarily from older people who couldn't garden anymore. They basically developed SPIN farming: small plot intensive farming.

At the same time, the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE) was finding they were working with more and more immigrant seniors—many living in abject poverty, very isolated, unable to speak English. Many came from rural areas, so they had some farming background. So they asked if we could do a SPIN farming project with these immigrant seniors. We did it a pilot in 2007 called Planting Roots. We had representatives from 13 different ethnic communities, and it's still running today.

How can agriculture play a more vital role in urban development?

Cities tend to want to grow, not save land for food production. But cities are generally placed in areas that were very fertile and that have good transportation routes (waterways). So it’s land that's very suitable for agriculture. Just look at Edmonton, Calgary, and the whole corridor between. It’s the most fertile land in the whole province and it's being paved over and urbanized.

So if we're talking about building more resilient cities, access to food is something we need to pay more attention to. We keep assuming the global food system will keep functioning and we'll be fine. But look at any crisis like Hurricane Katrina or this winter’s crop crisis in California. Food prices just skyrocket. Increasing the availability of locally produced food only makes sense. People say “but in our climate we can't grow anything.” It's ridiculous. We can grow plenty of food here, and we can extend the growing season, so it's absolutely something cities must pay more attention to.

Green garden under blue sky with palm trees and concrete apartment buildings on horizon.

What kind of teaching and research are you currently doing on urban agriculture?

Every year, I run a course in Cuba, the world leader in urban agriculture. I take students from across Canada down there for seven weeks in May and June. It's an immersion into the urban agriculture and permaculture movement of Cuba. We do a combination of online learning, lectures, and when they get to Sancti Spíritus—right in the middle of Cuba—they work side-by-side with Cuban urban farmers and NGOs doing sustainable community development.

What's the benefit of taking students out of the classroom to (literally) learn in the field?

Seeing is believing. The skills that you can develop in just two months of working with farmers who have been doing this for years—well, you just cannot replicate that in the classroom. It's impossible. There's a solidarity that develops too, a camaraderie. These students learn about Cuban history, pick up the language, develop long-lasting friendships. I call it a transformative learning experience for sure.

Aside from taking your Cuba course, how can others at UAlberta get involved in the world of sustainable food?

You know, right now universities are under the spotlight to say how a university education will lead to jobs. I really think that the opportunities in the food system are immense and we haven’t even started to envision new ways for people to get involved in it. So many jobs could be developed. A couple of students in ALES who just finished up their Masters degrees, they've rented backyards in Edmonton and they’re starting up their own SPIN farming project. I would love to see a food co-op get going in Edmonton. It would be a store where you have a relationship with farmers who sell their food at the coop.

We're twenty years behind what's going on in Europe, but it's great to see sustainable agriculture is on the radar now. It only stands to reason that with 80 per cent of our population living in urban centers that you have to start capitalizing on that and make urban agriculture an important part of the food system.

Know any UAlberta students, staff or faculty that should be featured in Faces of Sustainability? Send your suggestions to sustainability@ualberta.ca