As we move into fall, the bounty of Canada's farms, fields, and fisheries is filling local markets across the country: artisan cheese in Montreal, fresh sockeye salmon in Vancouver, plump blueberries in Thunder Bay, and scones, biscuits, and countless other treats made from heritage Red Fife wheat grown on the prairies.
No question about it, Canadians are embracing the idea of eating food produced closer to home, a sustainability movement that has been dubbed "locavorism". Proponents of eating local argue that we need to increase food security and reduce our dependence on other regions or nations for supplies of milk, meat, vegetables, fruit, cooking oil, grains, and other staples, as well as luxury items like fine wine and fancy cheese.
According to the experts, the planet faces looming scarcities of almost everything necessary to sustain high crop yields — water, land, fertilizer, oil, and a stable climate. A disruption in global trade brought on by crop failure or skyrocketing oil prices could have serious consequences in many regions of Canada, especially in communities in the Arctic and coastal Canada that have to import food largely from elsewhere.
For example, in Powell River, B.C., most food on the supermarket shelves has to be trucked and then shipped by boat from distribution centres in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island every day. The Powell River Food Security Project is an initiative by the community to reduce its over-reliance on imported food, along with the associated costs and insecurity of supply, by promoting backyard gardens and, on a larger scale, farming of local acreage.
The social and environmental benefits of eating local are also compelling. The globalization of food supply means that, on average, most of our food has to travel some 2,400 kilometres from field to table, resulting in enormous emissions of greenhouse gases and other atmospheric pollutants from the millions of trucks, container ships, trains, and other vehicles required to transport food around the planet.
For many people, the desire to eat local is motivated by the need for more information about how the food they eat is produced and prepared. Today, we are so disconnected from our food: processed and packaged foods, vacuum-sealed chicken breasts, garlic imported from China, apples from New Zealand, and the plethora of other cheap imported foods have become little more than delivery systems for nutrients, calories, sugar, salt, and fat. If you buy your meat and fruit and vegetables at a local farmer's market, you can talk to the farmer or producer and find out what the chicken ate or how the potatoes were grown before you choose to put them on your dinner table.
Many people would also argue that local food, because it is usually fresher, tastes better.
Although it is encouraging to see more people take greater responsibility for the food they eat by choosing to buy local, we can't let governments off the hook. Politicians need to support local agriculture by implementing policies and laws that protect farmland, ensure that Canadian farmers receive a fair price for the food they grow, and remove regulatory barriers that hinder farm-gate sales.
The protection of Canada's rich agricultural soil from urban sprawl, roads, industrial development, and other land use must be central to any government local food strategy. Study after study has shown that Canada's best agricultural land is being chewed up and paved over because of poor urban-planning decisions that value parking lots, new highways, and larger strip malls over keeping our precious bank of fertile soil for current and future generations of farmers to steward — for our benefit.
A report by the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario's Wealth, Canada's Future, found that an alarming 16 per cent of farmland in the Greater Toronto Area was lost to urban encroachment between 1996 and 2001. This represents the loss of thousands of acres of some of the most fertile soils in all of North America. The same is happening in other growing communities across the country — like Ottawa, Calgary, and even smaller towns like Fort St. John in northern B.C.
We should all be concerned about these issues if we want to maintain local food security and minimize the environmental costs of the food we eat.