Paul Spence Wants To Change Food Forever

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Aug 2, 2014 Comments Off Trevor Thompson

Food is at the centre of Paul Spence’s world.

That’s why the Chatham-Kent resident believes that today’s food system is fundamentally broken. Not just for the consumer and the farmer, but also for the cities, towns and rural communities they live in.

For Spence, sustainability means taking care of the land, the health of the people, and the economy.

The 36-year-old says he wants to create a world where quality of life are at the forefront of community development. “I see food affecting every aspect of life. Financial duress, retention of youth, sickness,” says Spence. “The rural economy was based on food, so we need to reintroduce it, to revitalize it. Local food is an urban push. We need to make it rural.”

Spence believes southwestern Ontario could become the “Las Vegas” of food. A place people come to get the most unique and highest quality food available and to get an experience like no other. That’s one of the reasons he chairs the Municipal Tourism Advisory Operators’ Council. For Spence, creating that food experience is the best way forward for small rural communities with close ties to agriculture.

To become that Mecca of food, the way food is produced has to change. Spence says every region used to have its own unique flavour that was unmatched anywhere else. A famous example would be the Champagne province in France. It’s a location world-renowned for the unique flavour of the product made there. Spence says there’s no reason Chatham-Kent, or any other region, couldn’t do the same. Maritime lobster and seafood is another example. People travel great distances simply for the culinary experience.

To do something similar though, Spence believes the mindset needs to change. With today’s focus on high quantity and high yields, Spence believes the proper way forward is to focus on quality, not bulk.

“People eat copious amounts of food today and are not getting full,” says Spence. “There’s no nutrition in it. But if it’s more nutritionally dense people will eat more to the level they need. We’ve fortified our food and synthetically produced it. Even the healthy foods aren’t as healthy because they don’t have the nutrients we think they have.”

Spence sees quality of the flavour going hand and hand with nutritional quality and the preservation of the environment. To get both he says farmers need to limit the off farm resources they use and also need to end the use of synthetic fertilizer and seeds.

That’s the environmental side of sustainability.

Spence admits that means lower yields, but he says the crops that are produced are of a higher nutritional quality, which more than makes up for the drop in quantity.

Spence is working on some small scale test plots with heirloom vegetables at a local farm and doing it all organic. It’s how the industry needs to go: no GMO products or, at the very least, GMO labeling. He says nearly every country outside of North America requires it.

Paul Spence in front of heirloom crops he's growing.

Paul Spence in front of heirloom crops he’s growing.

I asked Paul if he was always a hippie. He laughs and says it wasn’t always the case. “I went to Guelph. I was a business student. I worked for Monsanto for two summers. My two roommates, one was in environmental science and the other was in international development, they were the hippies,” reveals Spence. “But at that point it was me fighting back because I was working at Monsanto. So I was working for ‘the man’ and now those two, one’s a corporate tax lawyer and the other is working for a working water treatment plant. I was never a hippie, but somehow I became a tree hugging hippie. It’s the activist mentality at Guelph. Somehow, living there for ten years, it got into my blood.”

Spence says consumers aren’t blameless, adding people will go with the cheapest product, no matter the quality. That’s where another one of his projects comes into play, CKTable. The popular event is into its third year. The goal is to bring together consumers and producers, to showcase the best that the municipality has to offer. “In Toronto you see the food scene,” says Spence. “These chefs, they are astounded at what food can be. That hasn’t translated here yet.” That’s one of the goals of CKTable.

Farming needs to economically viable too.

“It needs to be sustainable for farmers. There needs to be money in it,” notes Spence. “Are you willing to pay the farmer to stay in farming? Or do you want hobby farming?”

For a day job Spence works for FarmStart. The organization “aims to encourage and support a new generation of entrepreneurial, ecological farmers.”

As part of his work there, Spence wants to start an incubator farm in Chatham-Kent. He’d like to have it up and running in the spring of 2015. “An incubator is a place to bring an idea to get the supports, build it, facilitate and give it a go to see if there are rewards or if it is a pipe dream. It’s a space to dream and a place to try something that people think is outside the parameters of what is possible.”

He’s already working the feasibility side of things: “Without it I don’t think food and agriculture can get to where it needs to be.” He’s dreaming big. “This will be a pilot project for the rest of Ontario and that’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Until that happens, Spence will have to content himself with trying to change the world, one palate at a time.

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