I love the taste of farm fresh local food. There’s nothing like Ontario asparagus to usher in spring, succulent strawberries to begin summer, and juicy sweet corn to close out the dog days of summer. Critics call it romanticizing food; I call it delicious.
I have no dilemma using my money to support Ontario’s economy by buying local food. And scientific research confirms that fresh picked produce contains more nutrients. Local food packs a lot of value into each bite.
I must confess, however, that I drink too much coffee, enjoy sliced avocados on my local greens, and can’t do without chocolate for dessert. Eating local isn’t about purity. It simply makes sense for our economy, our environment and my health to make more, not all, of my food purchases local.
It’s no coincidence that as the amount of global food exports has grown, farm incomes have declined. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand that farmers become price takers, with reduced profit margins, when local supply chains disappear and a few global corporations dominant the market. Many farmers now have to earn off-farm income to support their farming habit.
The local food movement has started to reverse this trend. In Ontario, the food and farming sector has now passed the auto sector as the number one employer. In the Greater Golden Horseshoe alone, food and farming’s economic value is $12.3 billion. This direct economic activity is estimated to contribute $35 billion annually to our economy through the multiplier effect of keeping our dollars local. For example, purchasing locally grown and processed wine contributes $8.48 per litre to Ontario’s economy versus $0.67 per litre for imported wine.
Profitable Ontario farms are essential to maintaining food security. Studies estimate that Ontario cities have only three days of food supplies if the border closes. While I can live without my coffee, avocados or chocolate, I can’t live without any food at all. In times of crisis, a nation that can’t feed itself is less secure than a nation that can’t defend itself.
Locavore critics rightly point out that local food can be more expensive. But I am happy to have the choice of buying food farmed in ways that meet Ontario’s strong standards for health, safety, and the environment. And I want farm workers to get a fair income.
Local food critics also question its environmental claims, especially greenhouse gas reductions. It is true that transportation represents a relatively small percentage of food’s environmental footprint. Adopting sustainable growing practices from no-till farming to using less chemicals does more to improve farming’s environmental impact. Still, GHG emissions from air transport of food is more than four times higher than by truck and 50 times more than by rail, and a growing amount of food is being shipped by air.
The big change, however, comes from consumers. Eating processed foods, especially frozen dinners, and meat, especially beef, is responsible for most of the food system’s environmental footprint. A good eco-reason to buy local is that you are more likely to eat fresh and minimally processed foods and meat products that are not from factory farms.
The road to a healthier food system leads directly to farmers using innovative and sustainable production practices to supply us with fresh, safe and healthy local food.
Mike Schreiner grew up on a farm, started his first local food business at age 26 and was co-founder of Local Food Plus. He is currently leader of the Green Party of Ontario.firstname.lastname@example.org