Just because a food Is 'local' doesn’t mean It’s the better choice
Buying local foods has proven so trendy that the New Oxford American Dictionary named “locavore” the word of the year for 2007 “Localvore” is the spelling preferred by some. The discrepancy is a sign of how early in its evolution this concept is in spite of gangbuster popularity, especially among eco-foodies. But what precisely does “local” mean? The ideology is commonly equated with good: fewer food miles are spent on transport; local economies, including family-run farms, are supported; the environment comes out cleaner in the wash as do consumers’ consciences. Imaginations run free and even the livestock are said to lead idyllic lives. Naturally, the taste is superior. It’s a tall order.
Step into a big-box supermarket and you’ll find produce, meats and other goods that fit the bill. But the fact is, the majority of “local” stems from the industrial model: foods grown with environment-destroying fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides that prove residual, farm to fork; animals raised in inhumane conditions using cheap labour for maximum profit and yield; genetically modified crops and more. Even the question of spared food miles is murky upon closer inspection: locally grown foods can leave a large carbon footprint depending on the mode of transport and other conditions including storage systems.
“Do we understand what we’re buying when we buy local?” asks Tomas L. Nimmo, organizer of the Guelph, Ont., organics food conference where this year’s public forum, a gauge of the provocative topic du jour, was “Organic, Local, Fair Trade—All of the Above Or None of the Above?” Nimmo is interested in seeing the local myth destroyed, but says it won’t be easy. “Setting standards for identifying local products is tricky, beyond the distance travelled.”
Supermarkets are where most Canadians get their groceries, so I roamed the aisles of my local supermarket in search of local foods. It was surprisingly easy, even in mid-winter
Ontario, to fill the shopping cart with goods that meet the national standard: the federal government’s Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates the use of “local” as generally meaning food that has travelled no more than 50 km from where it was grown or processed. After a quick survey of local goods on offer—from battery-bird eggs to my “local” bacon producer, Maple Leaf Foods, I settled
on a dish of pork and apples to see exactly how the grub measured up to the ideology.
In Ontario, a number of new marketing organizations hopping aboard the local trainsuch as Homegrown Ontario, a year-old marketing campaign from the sheep, veal and pork farmers associations—apply the “local” label to province-wide goods. Keith Robbins is with Ontario Pork, the farmer-member alliance that represents roughly 3,000 pig farms in Ontario. He reports: the typical commercial pig farm in Ontario has roughly 6,000 sows each year, where each animal is fed on a ration of genetically modified soybean and corn that is enhanced with antibiotics and growth hormones, to a mature weight of about 250 lb. in a period of six months. They are raised entirely indoors—a common practice in commercial pig farms starting in the 1950s—with an allowance in group pens of eight sq. feet per animal. Robbins says these intensive rearing methods are needed to compete in the marketplace. “Pork is the most consumed meat in the world,” and being in the game means “lowering our costs to meet the food basket.” Robbins says the buyers are particularly demanding: Canadians currently spend 10 per cent or less of their incomes on food, which is the lowest ratio anywhere.
Now to that source of local apples, which at this time of year are nice and crisp thanks to being stored in energy-sucking refrigeration systems. Growing apples on a commercial scale in Ontario is challenging, in part because wet conditions make the crops more vulnerable to pests, especially a persistent fungus called scab. So fungicides are needed. The U.S. consumer advocacy organization Environmental Working Group recommends buying organic apples since conventional ones tend to be contaminated with pesticide residues. Is this a case where buying organic—and imported—is better than buying local?
Canadian Organic Growers head Laura Telford is tired of the “organic versus local” debate that has been raging lately, especially
a poster boy for the campaign against food miles, is questioning the current popularization of local. Xuereb’s acclaimed 2005 study of food miles considered goods that could be grown in his area but were imported at an average distance of4,497 km. Today, he says, “if we want to blindly say ‘buy local,’ then we miss the point. We realize now the issues are certainly more than just about how far food travels and that’s one of the restrictions of our report.” Multiple studies indicate that locally grown food can in fact leave a bigger carbon footprint than food imported from countries on the other side of the globe. When researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand investigated food miles, they concluded that dairy raised in New Zealand and shipped to Britain actually had a smaller carbon footprint than the U.K.’s own dairy and argued against “the fallacy of using a simplistic concept like ‘food miles’ as a basis for restrictive trade and marketing policies.” Xuereb says, “You have to be prepared to ask questions.”
Mark Cutrara buys local—with stipulations. The chef/owner of Cowbell Restau-
rant in downtown Toronto, a place known for its meaty menu, sources pasture-raised pigs, pharmaceutical-free, that grow to about 280 lb. in 24 months on a farm near Stratford, Ont. “I’m winning on both fronts: I get meat with great flavour and it’s a local product I can stand by,” he says. “I know the animal was treated ethically.”
Similarly, chef David Garcelon of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto is selective about what he buys locally, and gets his apples from Warner Orchards in Niagara. “People actually comment on the apples here, which is surprising given all the food we serve.” Farmer Jim Warner, a third-generation fruit
grower who works about 140 acres of land using conventional methods, uses a system called IPM—integrated pest management—to reduce the amount of spray on his orchards.
“My dad used to spray every 10 days because that’s what you did,” he says. “Now we don’t spray until we see a need for it.”
Lori Stahlbrand, head of the organization Local Food Plus, pairs the words “local and sustainable” as essential co-factors. “We believe that local alone does not recognize issues of sustainability, animal welfare, labour practices, biodiversity and energy use. We want always to see those two words linked together: local and sustainable, like peanut butter and jam or research and development.”
LFP certifies local, participating farms on a strict set of guidelines. The company launched 18 months ago with 15 suppliers and today has 65, plus a long and ever-increasing queue
of applicants. “There is definitely the demand and it outstrips the supply,” says Stahlbrand. “This is such a hot topic and we are being approached daily from organizations from all over this province and [the rest of the country] as well.”
The first supermarket to join LFP is an independent grocer in Toronto, Fiesta Farms. Butcher Patrick Vozzo carries it all: local, conventional meats as well as organic and LFP-certified. “We have to support our local economy,” he says. “And people want it. They want local.”
Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council considers buying local from an entirely different perspective: he’s worried about food security and building a reliable infrastructure of accessible foods. The city’s food supply is about five per cent locally sourced, Roberts reports, and has about three days’ worth of food access and stockpile in the case of a disaster. “What is really driving the issue [of buying local] is the food movement, not from a policy or emergency planning standpoint. I’m trying to work with that wave in a most opportunistic way and push forward my agenda.”
As for supporting the holy grail of conscientious shopping—the triumvirate of fair trade, family farms and good labour practices— there are no guarantees that come with the local label. Fair trade, which is regulated internationally to ensure farmers are properly compensated, has yet to come to Canada, where small, family-operated farms are characterized by a below-zero net-income crisis. As for workers in the field, they have few rights. In Ontario, where nearly all migrant farm labourers come to work—16,500 of 20,000 in 2005—there are no unions or access to collective bargaining. This applies to all agricultural employees, something the United Food and Commercial Workers—the same union that spearheaded the unionization of workers at Wal-Mart starting in Quebec—is lobbying to change.
“People just want simple answers,” sympathizes Telford. “But there are no simple answers in agriculture. You have to take an informed approach to the food system.” She sighs. “You don’t want to get supermarket paralysis. I get it sometimes.” M
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