Faculty Feature: Caroline Begg

Dr. Caroline Begg is a Faculty Lecturer in the Department Plant Science and the Director of Internships in the Farm Management and Technology Program at McGill University. Ecological agriculture has always been of uttermost importance to Dr. Begg, who completed the fieldwork for her graduate research amongst farming communities in Tanzania and the Philippines. Her recent research interests include food security on the Island of Montreal and ecological agriculture practices focusing on soil and crop management. She is the mentor to three Macdonald Campus clubs: the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Garden, the Farm-to-School Program, and the Out of the Garden Project. All three of these student groups have received Catalyst Awards from the Office of Sustainability. Outside of McGill, Dr. Begg is president of the Marché Sainte Anne, a farmers market located in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue.

What stimulated your interest in sustainable agriculture?

Part of my family comes from a farming background and agriculture has always been tremendously important to me—we need to eat to live, more than anything else. I’ve always been interested in food production and ‘sustainable’ agriculture because I see it as the way to go if we are going to preserve the natural environment. In some cases, pesticides and herbicides are important but I prefer to minimize them and look for alternatives.

You previously worked in sustainable agriculture in Tanzania and the Philippines. What inspired you to work in these contexts?

I wanted to do something somewhere else and I always felt that traveling just to view was not a very good way to understand what was happening in a country. I received a grant to do my doctorate research in the Philippines, which I felt was an important opportunity to know about the culture—to be there and to live there and see how things are actually operating. That has always been my interest: not just to see a country, but to live in it.

What were the primary challenges you observed farmers encountering in these countries?

In the Philippines, there are a lot of absentee landlords who own huge tracts of lands and a very wealthy. Many small shareholder farmers do not have access to land and must rent the land. The Philippines is also very interesting in that they are on the Ring of Fire so they have earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons so there is often a sense of recovering from all these challenges. Parts of the country are also very mountainous, so there are not many large tracts of land. The challenges there were the environment but also poverty and the land tenure system.

Your current research is on food security on the Island of Montreal. Can you tell me more about this project? What are the major findings to date?

The project is in the West Island, which is noteworthy because many people don’t realize that when we are talking about food security in suburbs, it’s very different from food security in Montreal. In Montreal, you may live 500 meters away from the closest grocery store but in the West Island, the distances are far greater and most of the time, you need a car or bus to get there. Most of the time, accessibility is the largest problem. The majority of grocery stores are on the main roads so there are big food deserts where there are just houses and no access to food, yet many people are aging in place. In the West Island, there are severe pockets of poverty that exist that often get overlooked because the West Island is predominantly well off. We looked at whether community gardens would help food security but there were a lot of issues there in that if you are working full time, you don’t have time to invest in the garden. It tends to be the more well-off people who have the time to invest in gardening, so community gardens may not be the way to go to assist people who are poor. So, what we are finding is that what’s happening in suburban areas is closer to what’s happening in rural areas than urban.

You are the mentor to three Macdonald Campus clubs: the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Garden (MSEG), Out of the Garden Project and Farm-to-School, all of which have won Catalyst Awards from the McGill Office of Sustainability. Why do you think these groups have been so successful in generating change at Macdonald Campus?

MSEG is a great example because of their transition policy of having students commit to a year as an intern and a second year as a manager. They have been able to succeed because they have planned for long-term transition of students, which I think is something that might be lacking in other projects. Looking at how to transition these groups in to long-term experimental learning situations for students for students so that they can develop a lot of other skills such as marketing, coordinating, and entrepreneurial skills that will carry them forward afterwards. They are free to fail, which is also very important. I also think that the assumption that many projects funded by the Sustainability Projects Fund will be institutionalized is not possible. For example, If MSEG was taken over by Macdonald Campus Farm, it would loose its identity as a student-run farm. Likewise, if Farm-to-School was taken over by the Department of Education, it would also loose a vital part of what it is.  I think student groups should be associated with, but not controlled by the institution.

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