Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Local Food Fever
- Emily Van Halem -

Spring has sprung and with that comes a buzz of excitement in the foodie circles over the arrival of local asparagus, fiddleheads and early spring greens. It’s an exciting time for locavores and any minute now the “Buy Ontario Freshness” ads will be popping up like the tulips. And it’s good timing ‘cause I have to admit I am tired of roasted root vegetable ___name a dish___ and snacking on carrots, no matter how colourful they are. Change is indeed in the air: layers come off, pounds are exposed, and I have officially banned myself from baking. Mostly, though, I’m excited to be spending a summer in Toronto, with full access to farmers’ markets, a garden of my own, and a supply of empty Bernardin jars at close reach.

Now although the farmers’ markets won’t be springing up until May, I thought I’d write about an issue that is very local to my heart, and that is the difference between “local” and “local sustainable.” And there is a difference.

The case for local:

I get how excited we all are about local food. Picking Ontario Freshness is undoubtedly awesome, especially when you have to stand over a sink to eat it! Buying local means supporting farmers and processors who are too often excluded from the well oiled machine that is the globalized food distribution system. Most small farmers don’t have access to 18 wheelers to bring their products to wherever they’re in demand, never mind the supply to do so in the quantity that grocery chains demand of them. It’s no wonder that after decades of dismantling local distribution networks, the connections between local farmers and consumers is, well, rusty, to say the least.

Farmers’ markets, CSAs, local food delivery boxes, and farm-gate sales are all ways to reduce our carbon footprint, strengthen the local food system, support local economic development, and foster community and a connection to our food.

Local’s holes:

There’s more to local agriculture than the fuzzy picture often painted. Here are some of the issues local food fails to address (and this is just off the top of my head):
- pesticide/chemical application (and the resulting ecosystem impact)
- tillage practices and the rapid rate of topsoil erosion
- animal welfare
- livestock waste management/runoff
- genetic modification
- monocropping
- migrant labourer rights
- biodiversity and habitat preservation for native species
- the carbon footprint of the farm itself (tractors, combines, processing, barn heating, livestock “emissions”, energy use of greenhouses)

…the list, no doubt, goes on…

Enter “Local Sustainable”

It’s really the best of both worlds: all the benefits of “local” with a broader spectrum of sustainability taken into consideration. But where do you find this elusive “local sustainable” food?…what’s a locasustainavore to do? (Probably not popularize that term, that’s for sure)

Get to know your farmer:
Ultimately, the more direct your relationship with your food, the more you know about the social, ethical, and environmental context from which it came. Certification systems exist to instill confidence in the food we’re buying when we aren’t in a position to know that the product is what it claims it is with any certainty. Buying directly from farmers through markets, CSAs, or at the farm itself are great ways to connect to our food and the people who grew it. Some farms aren’t “Certified Organic” but are just as good, but it’s just that they can’t afford the fees or don’t want the paperwork. The Cutting Veg is a great example. If the farm were Certified, Daniel wouldn’t be able to use the cow manure he sources from down the road which isn’t Certified, but is grass fed and hormone-free. Which for Daniel is just as good if not better. I’m moooved to agree. Especially since the Certified Organic alternative would have to be trucked in from further afield. Now that sure smells like Ontario freshness. (Ok, my attempts at humour are getting out of hand…) Anyway, my point is that having a direct relationship with your farmer will better enable you to know if they’re the real deal. If you know what you’re looking for, you can be your own judge.

Seek out local food that is also Certified Organic:
Certified Organic in general comes pretty close to “sustainable” I’d say, as it monitors environmental practices. (Although I’d have to question the sustainability of organic lettuce from California…) There are local farms, however, that are also Certified Organic. Their products aren’t super easy to find though - more often they’re seen at the farmers’ market than at the grocery store. You may be surprised, however, at what smaller grocery stores carry, especially if they are environmentally conscientious. Small means nimble which is why some smaller grocers are able to source directly from local producers. Another route may be to look up organic farms in your area and find out where they sell their products near you (see links below).

Certified Organic has its thorny issues too mind you: these farms aren’t regulated at all for their treatment of on-farm labour. Farm workers are often migrant labourers from Jamaica or Mexico who are paid below minimum wage and don’t get the access to health care they’re entitled to. And there’s no one stopping Organic farms from mono-cropping, or hogging all the land for agriculture and leaving none for native species and habitat. Not surprisingly, these aspects are particularly hard to monitor from a consumer perspective.

Seek Out Certified Local Sustainable:
There is such a thing! In Ontario at least. Local Food Plus (LFP) is a Toronto-based non-profit that certifies Ontario farmers (i.e. local) for practices of sustainability (i.e. agricultural environmental impact, animal welfare, farm labour, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and habitat preservation). It’s a pretty nifty little organization which, for transparency’s sake, also employs me. But I promise no one’s paying me to say nice things about it here. LFP-Certified food is generally sold in Toronto through various grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and public institutions. LFP’s website lists all the places to buy it.

That was all a bit of a mouthful eh? There’s a lot to swallow with the whole “local food” buzz. I wish it was the easy-peasy solution we’re all hungry for. Nevertheless, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Even moving towards a diet high in fresh fruits and veggies is a great first step. If you ask me, eating whole foods is totally revolutionary amidst grocery aisles chock full of low-nutrient, highly processed products. Ultimately, it’s all about starting from wherever you’re at. So don’t get stressed out about always needing to make the perfect decision. This is, after all, an imperfect food system.

So, if it came down to local conventional carrots and packaged, processed organic baby carrots from California, I’d Pick Ontario Freshness.

Click here to check out Emily’s blog, Feel Good Food: Ethical eating for the sensitive stomach.

Ontario Local Farm Resources

Organic Council of Ontario
Canadian Organic Growers directory
Ontario CSA Directory
Pick Your Own farms in Ontario

1 comment:

  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.