Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Korea, Canada and CANDU

Like most baby boomers, I have vivid memories of what it was like to live with the constant threat of nuclear war. Growing up in Edmonton, I suspect that my experience was a little more immediate that most Canadians. Edmonton was the gateway to the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line, a series of northern tracking posts designed to alert us in the event that the Soviet Union decided to lob a few nuclear bombs over the North Pole. We routinely had air raid drills at my elementary school and watched films on what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Thankfully, my own children didn't share the experience. The fall of the Soviet Union, coupled with some political common sense had put the threat of a nuclear war on the back burner until North Korea conducted its first nuclear test on October 9th.

All of a sudden, it's 1962 again. The United Nations is debating furiously over exactly what to do to stop North Korea. With an estimated two to three million North Koreans living at starvation levels, there has been concern that trade sanctions against North Korea would only hurt the country's most vulnerable citizens and likely further enrage its leader. As a result, on October 14th, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions that would prevent luxury items such as French wines and jet skis from reaching North Korea's elite.

Canada's leaders have been appropriately and righteously indignant about North Korea's action. Prime Minister Harper publicly condemned the test, calling it "an irresponsible and dangerous act."

So far, so good. Unfortunately, what most Canadians don't realize is that there is a direct connection between Canada's CANDU nuclear reactors and Korea's nuclear weapons test. Simply put, you can't build a nuclear bomb without nuclear fuel, i.e. plutonium. In North Korea's case, the plutonium (and the nuclear technology needed to build the bomb) came from Pakistan. Pakistan in turn got its plutonium and nuclear know-how from Canada.

It is our national shame. It was bad enough that we gave Pakistan, India and other developing nations the technology they needed to build atomic bombs decades ago. After India conducted its initial nuclear test in 1974 (with plutonium manufactured in a reactor supplied by Canada), we had an opportunity to stop nuclear proliferation, but we didn't.

Canada did suspend nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in 1975 when that country's leaders refused to promise not to use plutonium from a Canadian-built reactor to develop weapons. However, we continued to provide nuclear know-how through the CANDU Owner's Group (COG). So while Canada stopped providing Pakistan with nuclear hardware, it continued to provide information on how to build a better civilian reactor. The result was that Pakistan detonated its first nuclear warhead in 1998.

Which brings us to the current crisis. Canada continues to promote CANDU reactors on the global stage as a safe alternative to major greenhouse gas producers such as coal and oil fired generation. However, as a nation we have consistently refused to acknowledge the link between nuclear power and nuclear bombs. This is critical because there is little distinction made between civilian and military nuclear programs in most developing countries, many of which now possess Canadian nuclear technology. The result is that our self-centered promotion of nuclear technology has consistently fueled the nuclear arms race.

As bizarre as it sounds, this is at the core of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It promises to provide civilian nuclear power plants to countries that agree not to build nuclear bombs. In other words, if you promise not to build bombs we'll give you the tools to build one. We've seen how much these promises mean. They mean nothing.

It was George Santayana, the great philosopher, who said, "Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it." In Canada's case, I think the problem runs even deeper. As a nation we have flatly refused to acknowledge that we've even played a role in the nuclear arms race, let alone learned from that experience.


The International Institute of Concern for Public Health is a Canadian-based nonprofit organization dedicated to informing the public of the health hazards of nuclear, chemical and other commercial, military, and industrial products.

Green Halloween

Halloween is still a couple of weeks away, but the pressure to spend our way through another holiday has been mounting since before Labour Day. Thanks to the magic of marketing, Halloween has become very big business. Gone are the simple homemade costumes and hand carved pumpkins. In their place we now have a complete industry dedicated to increasing consumer spending. Stores are well stocked with decorations, lights, costumes and even greeting cards. In terms of consumer spending, Halloween is now the second biggest decorating holiday after Christmas.

Halloween marketers have been so successful, that there's even a magazine "Selling Halloween", dedicated to Halloween retailers. Its publisher, Dorene Van Houten, estimates that consumer spending on Halloween is $6.9 billion annually, and growing.

Halloween has become so heavily packaged and over processed that we wouldn't recognize the real thing if a ghoul dragged us away in the night!

Enough! It's time to put the fun back in Halloween and money back in your pocket. The easiest place to start is recycling old clothes into one-of-a-kind costumes. Have your kids look through magazines and books for ideas. Rummage through your closets to see what you can find that can be adapted into a costume. While you're at it, keep a carton handy for items you might want to donate to charity.

One of the easiest and most effective costumes that I ever made was a Mickey Mouse costume for our son Matthew. We started with a pair of Mickey Mouse ears we'd brought back from Disney World the year before. We added an oversized pair of red sweat pants, a white dress shirt, red suspenders, and a black silk hair ribbon for a bow tie. With a little face make-up and a piece of black string for a tail for the finishing touch, the costume was perfect.

Rather than buy a ready-made mask, invest in a set of children's face paints. Most masks are make from some form of plastic, (derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource), and are disposable (more garbage to worry about). In addition, masks can be extremely dangerous, especially for small children, since they can seriously impair vision.

Make-up kits, on the other hand, can be reused. There are a variety of kits available on the market at this time of year, so check and make sure that they are made from non-toxic materials that won't harm your child's skin or the environment.

"It's the Great Pumpkin!'

Pumpkins aren't just for carving. Pumpkin seeds are considered a super food and are rich in amino acids, zinc, protein, iron and phosphorous. They also make a perfect snack for school lunches.

When carving your pumpkin, remove the seeds and place them in a large bowl. Cover with boiling water to loosen the fibrous material. When the water has cooled, drain the seeds. Use a vegetable brush to remove any stubborn fibers, and then toss the seeds with vegetable oil. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and bake them in a warm oven (around 275 degrees Fahrenheit) until crispy. Once they're cooked, briskly rub the seeds with a clean tea towel to remove any remaining membranes, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Make sure to allow the insides to cool before attempting to eat them. What you can't eat, the birds will love.

After Halloween, peel your pumpkin, cut it up into chunks and then cook in them water until they're tender. Pumpkin can be cooked on the stovetop, similar to turnip, or in the microwave to save energy. Mash the cooked pumpkin, and place it in two-cup portions in the freezer for making holiday pies. Remember to throw what's left of your pumpkin in your green bin or on the compost heap.

Providing treats for trick or treaters can also be done with the environment in mind. Although some packaging is necessary for health and safety reasons, don't buy heavily packaged candies or chocolate bars. Try natural treats like raisins or fruit snacks. You can also purchase small bags of pretzels, sunflower seeds, or air-popped popcorn.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!


This year, UNICEF has done away with the traditional Halloween coin boxes and is encouraging kids to fundraise anytime in October.

Seeing is believing. Check out

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Giving Thanks: Ensuring Food Security for All

For most Canadians, Thanksgiving is a time to eat large quantities of turkey and enjoy the company of family and friends. It's the least commercialized (and therefore less stressful) of all of our statutory holidays, and provides an opportunity to actually enjoy a long weekend while the weather's still decent. As an added bonus, the mass marketing machine has yet to identify Thanksgiving as a "giving" holiday, so there's no pressure to buy Thanksgiving presents or cards, perhaps making it the least expensive holiday, too.

Thanksgiving, as the name so clearly suggests, is also about giving thanks for the bounty of the season. It's important to not only give thanks for the food on our table, but also to express our gratitude to the people who grow it. The best way to do that is to support local agriculture by buying fresh fruits and vegetables from farmer's markets. The food is fresher, tastier, and you'll be surprised at the varieties that are grown locally.

Buying directly from the producers also puts money directly into farmers' pockets. At a time when there is so much pressure on farmers to sell their land to developers, it's important that we support local agriculture financially. Take some time this weekend to visit a local market or orchard and pick your own apples and pumpkins for pie making.

If you really must buy your produce in the grocery store, buy Ontario grown produce. Supporting our local agricultural system isn't just about keeping farmers in business. Agriculture has become a global industry. And like every other industry, business generally goes to the cheapest producer, usually in a developing country.

To illustrate the point, I recently purchased some fall mums at my local Loblaws store, something I usually do this time of year to perk up my otherwise fading flower garden. I bought the flowers at Loblaws because they were on sale for $ 3.99, versus $ 5.00 or more at other stores and garden centers. When I got the flowers home, I noticed a fairly large "Made in China" sticker on the plastic pots that contained them. I thought it was interesting that the manufacturer would want to put a prominent sticker on a plastic pot, until I realized that the flowers themselves originated in China. The flowers were started as seedlings before being placed on ships, referred to as "agri-boats", and then grown during the long journey to Canada. I checked the other more expensive mums available, and they had stickers indicating that they were Canadian grown.

This is just one example of how local agriculture is being replaced by cheaper, global suppliers. The result, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, is that local agriculture has become a minor player in many industrialized economies.

Conversely, agriculture is becoming increasingly important in developing countries. Unfortunately, like my Chinese mums, much of the food production in these countries is destined for export. Producers are at the bottom of the agribusiness supply chain, which according to the FAO, "Includes transportation, processing, wholesaling and retailing, selling commodities such as rice and wheat, high-value crops like vegetables and niche products such as cut flowers." Or potted ones.

In others words, little money, or food, remains in the communities where it is produced. The result is that an estimated 854 million people in the world are undernourished. To make matters worse, the FAO reports that foreign aid for agriculture and rural development has declined from over $ 9 billion (US) in the early 1980s to less that $ 5 billion (US) in the late 1990s.

If we are to ensure food security for all, then we must invest in agriculture both locally and globally. This Thanksgiving, give financial support to global efforts to reduce starvation through organizations such as The Hunger Project, make a donation to your local food bank, and don't forget to buy local produce. And if you see a farmer, remember to say thank you.


World Food Day is held annually on October 16th, to mark the anniversary of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. This year's theme is "Investing in agriculture for food security."

The Hunger Project is a not-for-profit, global strategic organization, committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.

The find the nearest farmer's market or U-Pick nearest, you, visit The Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Board.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Garbage Wars!

Toronto's bid to purchase the Green Lane landfill near London has pushed the great garbage debate to a new level of hysteria. London Councillor Susan Eagle is calling for tollbooths to be installed on area roads to stop the trash trucks from invading her neighborhood. London Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best has asked the province for a provincial strategy on waste management and protection for potential hosts sites.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Councillor Jane Pitfield, who is chasing David Miller for the mayor's chair, is promoting incineration as a solution to the city's garbage woes. Miller, who so far is against incineration, is defending the Green Lane purchase as a solution to Toronto's 20-year quest to find a place to dump its garbage.

With all due respect to the mayor and his predecessors, if they haven't found a solution in twenty years, maybe it's time to re-think the process. I may be stating the obvious here, but after two decades of terrorizing its neighbours, perhaps it's time somebody pointed out that Toronto might just be looking in the wrong direction.

Let's put some perspective on this. In the same time that it took to fight World War I and II - twice - Toronto is still fighting with its neighbours over garbage. As any community that has found itself on Toronto's potential dump list will testify, fighting Canada's largest urban bully is a lot like fighting a war. Battle plans are drawn, activists are exhausted, and local coffers are drained rallying a defense. In the end, Toronto is still looking to dump its trash anywhere but home.

There are alternatives, and I'm not talking incineration, either. Contrary to public perception, burning garbage isn't a cheap way to generate electricity; it's a very expensive way to minimize the amount of garbage that still has to be disposed of. Incinerators still require landfills, and toxic ones at that, to house the remaining ash (typically 20 percent by weight and 10 percent by volume). They also compete with beneficial recycling programs for paper and plastics, which are a necessary part of the fuel mix. Both are critical for maximizing burning temperatures and minimizing stack emissions.

The NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor should also beware. Any community that opts for an incinerator will likely find itself importing garbage from other communities to help keep the home fires burning, so to speak.

So burning isn't the answer. Neither is dumping on your neighbors. Ultimately, the solution is to not make the stuff in the first place. But until we have a major ideological shift in our values and recognize that we are literally wasting our resource base, we need an interim solution.

That solution is to embrace our waste as a resource and treat it accordingly. It can be done, very successfully. Edmonton started looking for a new landfill site just about the same time that Toronto did back in the 1980s. Much like Toronto, Edmonton is surrounded by numerous communities that were unwilling to play host to the city's garbage. But instead of trying to push it on them anyway, Edmonton saw its failure to find an acceptable landfill as an opportunity to re-examine how they were doing things.

In 1994 its integrated waste management system was approved with a goal of "developing a system that was equitable for all residents, regardless of income or social status, instill public awareness of the long-term benefits of reducing waste generation and of reusing and recycling waste, and build up the Province of Alberta's environmental industry and knowledge base by creating an unparalleled environment for applied research and learning." Oh, and achieve a 70 percent waste diversion rate.

"We're not quite there yet," said Connie Boyce, Director of Strategic Planning and Community Relations. "We are currently diverting 15 percent through recycling and 35 to 45 percent is diverting through our central composting facility." That's still an impressive 50 to 60 percent diversion rate, which coincidentally has been Ontario's long-term and thus far unattainable goal for years. For Edmonton, this is just a starting point.

"Our long term goal is 95 percent diversion," said Boyce. City engineers are currently looking at gasification to convert a residual waste into a synthetic gas that can be burned for energy. It's important to note that gasification is not incineration.

Edmonton isn't alone. Halifax and Prince Edward Island also have remarkably progressive, successful waste management strategies. (But more about that in future columns.) The question is, if they can do it, why can't Toronto? If I were a Toronto resident, that's the question I'd be asking political hopefuls if they came knocking at my door.


Seeing is believing. Check out Edmonton's Waste Management System.