Sugary processed foods full of cheap calories linked to increasing rates of obesity and diabetes. Fruits and vegetables whose durability for traveling long distances is more important than their flavour and nutrition. The environmental cost of using fossil fuels to ship food worldwide. The ability to provide food security to a population. These are a few of the issues Sarah Elton explores in her book Locavore as she argues for sustainable local food systems.
It was a plastic-wrapped pig cookie covered in pink icing with the words “Made in China” at the end of its list of ingredients that led Elton to question just what was happening to Canada’s food supply system. While thousands of Canadians accept that year round there will be all types of exotic fruits and vegetables in the stores, she found it disturbing that foods were being imported that could be easily made locally.
Elton began asking questions and got some surprising statistics in return. Newfoundland grows less than 10 percent of what it eats. Vancouver Island used to produce 85 percent of the food it needed, but that has dropped to 10 percent as well. Industrial agriculture has allowed a modern farm to, per hour of labour, produce 350 times more food than a subsistence farmer would have produced on the same soils. A large amount of the food that feeds Canadians is imported because it is cheaper to produce elsewhere.
Elton argues that every country should be able to feed itself through a sustainable local food system, arguing: “Drought in some parts of the world is devastating crops, while storms cause extreme flooding in other regions. If turbulent weather or a severe drought caused grain or rice crops to fail around the world, millions of us would starve.” She also questions what would happen if trade routes were to shut down due to war, environmental destruction, or petroleum shortages and rising transport costs.
One issue Canada would face in a local food system is climate. Elton visited what she calls “four-season farms” in Ontario where many farmers are innovating greenhouse agriculture. Greenhouses can be incredibly productive, producing 600 000 pounds of food per acre per year when a single outdoor acre will produce 90 percent less food since it can only produce one crop a season. While greenhouses use a lot of energy for grow lights, the majority of the energy demand is for heat – the energy coming primarily from electricity or coal. Some local greenhouse farmers have found that they can reduce the need for electricity or fertilizer inputs for their crops simply by changing planting times, developing hardy varieties, and using innovative methods such as aquaponics (combining fish farms and greenhouse gardens) which both conserves water and provides nutrient inputs for the crops.
Mike Shreiner, leader of Ontario’s Green Party and sustainable food system advocate, says, “We have the technology and the capacity to operate greenhouses in environmentally friendly ways. Now, whether the marketplace allows us to do it on a cost basis is to be seen.” The vagaries of the economy is always a major risk, and, as Elton points out, “no greenhouse is sustainable unless it is economically viable” so as long as imported produce stays so cheap, Canadian greenhouse growers have little chance of contributing to a local food system.
It is this same market system that put pressure on Canadian farms in the 1970s and 1980s as first the oil crisis and then a glut in the world food market meant that farms were no longer making enough money to pay the debts incurred as they rushed to expand the size of their farms during the boom years. Thousands of farmers went bankrupt, and farming in Canada never recovered. Farming is no longer the profitable industry it once was, and fewer are entering the profession today. There are fewer farmers than ever trying to feed the largest urban populations ever. Those who have stayed in farming are forced to become innovative business thinkers, and are finding ways to be successful enough to continue.
Donald and Viola Daigle are from New Brunswick and their family farm is part of the Really Local Harvest Co-op, which has been credited with saving many farms in the area. As farmers struggled to find stores and restaurants to stock their produced, often selling at a loss, a group decided to work together (instead of competing) to sell their crops directly to the consumer. The co-op developed a mandate whereby members assist each other to increase profits while selling an ecologically sustainable product at a fair price. As well, no member farmer is permitted to sell at a loss. Over time, the co-op’s success grew as the community realized they were getting a better product from the local farmers than the non-local produce at the stores: it was higher quality, better tasting, and that made it worth the extra cost.
Larry Yee of the Association of Family Farms in California describes organizations like the Really Local Harvest Co-op as attaching worth to qualities beyond money, “You are producing a different food product that has qualities people are looking for.” Elton argues that food is a personal issue and “by making consumer choices that support the creation of a sustainable local food economy, we are helping to create solutions” and perhaps to “create a new food order”.
It might seem simple enough to “vote with our forks” but the effect this has on the global system of industrial agriculture is small. There is nothing wrong with Elton’s advice to shop from farmers markets from local farmers, to buy organic and fair trade, or even to simply avoid purchasing processed foods. However, these cannot be the only thing people do, and are often only possible by those with higher incomes anyway. Buying flour made from locally grown grain will not stop the worldwide overproduction of grain, nor will buying locally grown corn stop the proliferation of processed foods made from the excess corn. As long as farmers must continue to struggle to make a profit it is unlikely that a truly sustainable food system can be developed. That said, Elton’s book is engaging and readable, and gives hope and ideas for the future of the world’s food systems.