Alphabet City Discussion Two: Eat Local

Eat local- a buzzword for wealthy urbanites, or a revolutionary new vision for food? Do we even need to eat local? Skyscraper farming, eating local in Winnipeg winters, artisan farmers: Discuss!


Alphabet City Discussion Two: Eat Local

Climate-wise, can it actually sustain itself around the entire country?
Eat local: a buzzword with increasing cache in major centres. In Canada, that means Toronto and Vancouver, where both climate and population can support local eating habits through much of the year. But what about the rest of the country, from Edmonton and Winnipeg to Yellowknife and northern Quebec, where the climate is harsh and farming nearly impossible under the new paradigm of eating locally? Can “eat local” have any lasting meaning or value in those places?
More on “eat local,” here.

Do we even have enough farmers?
We live and work in a society that not only doesn?t know about the production of food, it doesn’t want to. Where are the new farmers? The answer is, there isn?t any. Land is expensive, and the sons and daughters of our farmers are moving to the cities. If the younger generation is replaced at all, it’s often by small-scale producers, more environmental activist than farmer, who grow organic for a small customer-base. Their produce will never appear in the larger supermarkets where most people shop, and can afford to shop, and where eating local won’t be appearing on the shelves anytime soon.
More on losing farmers, here.

The FarmCity... the new urban future for eating local?
So, how can we expect food production to become part of our future urban areas? In FOOD, Chris Hardwicke examines the notion of a Farm City, where skyscrapers house both people and greenhouse agriculture. As humans increasingly become urban-dwelling creatures, could this be the new future of “eat local,” where stockbrokers tend to their millions by day and their tomatoes by night?
More on the FarmCity, here, here, and here.

Or should we just scrap the whole thing and stick to the path we’re on?
There’s nothing historically new about importing food, but where once only the most exotic goods were moved across trade routes, today, we bring our basic staples in from foreign lands. That may be a worrying trend (can a nation sustain itself without a strong agricultural base?), but the reality is that more people have access to a steady supply of food than ever before in history. For the vast majority of Canadians, worrying over where our next meal is coming from is a foreign concept.

Eating locally has spawned plenty of ideas and ideals, but does it really have a practical future? And do we even need it? There are many opinions and options that can and have been discussed, what are yours?


19 comment(s)

Chris EllisSeptember 26, 2007 20:22 EST

I eat global: I really think eating local is nothing but a new trends that is marred, like all good-at-first-ideas, by marketers itching to sell something new. Yes, eating local seems to be the realm of hipsters at the farmers market and all the power to them. Overall this is not a discussion of what is better for society or for urban living, but will be a movement decided upon by our good friend Adam Smith and his invisible hand. This food costs too much for what it is and will therefore disappear. The only time when eating local, creating local, and being local is accepted is during times of high economic stress. Just look at England or Canada during WWII; people invested in their own time in the local economies because there was nothing else. Anytime there is a cheaper option, the good idea, no matter how good, will fail.

Laura ReinsboroughSeptember 26, 2007 20:39 EST

Growing food locally is not difficult. It can occur in the spaces between buildings, under and between our toes, amidst the concrete of the city. As a community arts facilitator and environmental educator, I'm committed to creatively seeking out the fertile spaces where we live.

As a result, a new project has fallen into my lap where we harvest fruit and other produce from the gardens of a historic house in Toronto. It's called not far from the tree and it's documented at http://notfarfromthetree.wordpress.com.

This is nothing new and has been done artistically around the world (e.g., http://fallenfruit.org) but takes on new meaning given the cries against expensive and elitist local food trends (as noted in the previous comment). Urban scavenging is a real force against food globalization (which is different from inter-regional food trading), the ability to harvest food that otherwise decomposes under our noses.

Pat TSeptember 27, 2007 08:33 EST

I agree with Mr. Ellis to a point: cheaper will win. The invisible hand gets the job done. Also, my favourite breakfast beverage is orange juice, and I refuse to stop drinking citrus just because I'm a sub-Arctic Canadian.

Unfortunately, the invisible hand is also a bit blind, ie to negative externalities that cost a lot. There are health care costs (public ie you pay in taxes for health care for the hamburgers that give you heart attacks; private - you pay for over-the-counter laxatives for the 'crappy' food you choose to eat), traffic costs from those fruit trucks clogging the highway, CO-2 emissions from transport etc. We've heard it all before; but until the full (or at least, fuller) social cost of consumer products is internalized and not swept into the public domain, the checkout-line prices for food will deceive. Is this an easy distortion to correct ? No. The economist who comes up with a formula to figure out the true welfare cost of producing food (or any good with associated externalities) will probably win the Nobel Prize. In the meantime I'll be at the supermarket, drinking Tropicana and feeling citrusy pangs of free-market guilt.

Laura YoungSeptember 28, 2007 08:31 EST

By the way, Pat T, drink your oj without guilt. I think the thing to concentrate on right now, for starters, is not importing what we can grow right here in Ontario. And extending the growing season without paving over agricultural land with hydroponic greenhouses that rely on electricity. I've been speaking to a green energy company about a large project to put solar panels on Holland Marsh warehouses and greenhouses. In event of a disaster that leaves us without food in cool or cold weather, HM can feed the GTA with root veggies even in the dead of winter. But only if the warehouses and greenhouses are off the power grid. Now that's food security. Urban foraging will help too.

When proponents of the Greenbelt talk about 1.8 million acres of greenbelt, we should ask, how much is actually agricultural land not roads, quarries, hamlets, hiking trails, escarpments and sown with wine grapes? And what kind of soil? Cattle pasture? Corn fields growing biofuels? Chicken farms? How much for fruit and vegetable growing? The best dairy farms in Simcoe County are not "greenbelted" and under pressure of urban development as municipal governance hungry to increase their tax base are left to be the guardians of land planning. We can't eat local food until we're sure we have local land to produce it.

adamSeptember 29, 2007 07:02 EST

Hey Laura

I find it hilarious that we are talking about this. Except for the Calvinism of the whole movement it would mean that we would belike the settlers of the early eighteen century. Fresh fruit until September and then apples and carrots for the next nine months.

It would be back to the Babette Feast scene "I eat to live not to enjoy myself."

It is not surprising that the movement grew out of two place. England where eating tasteless food is the norm. ( THEY ARE STILL AFRAID OF GARLIC F'CHRI*T SAKE) and California where you can get fresh grown local produce all year long.

In a country with at least 7 non growning months this is a movement for the silver spoon enviromentalists.

Laura YoungSeptember 29, 2007 10:13 EST

Adam,
I agree with you that England's food history has been pretty bland. Boiled - everything. That was the early north american food too - I have a Virginia recipe book from the late 1800's that consists mainly of very similar variations on bland veggies and meat. No wonder "ethnic" Italian restaurants were such a hit in Toronto when they came on the scene in the fifties. But I digress.

I have so much to relay to you about what's at stake here - yes, the "local food" movement has been taken up by wealthy and "mother nature" purists who seem to enjoy feeling guiltless while sloshing local wine at lavish "local food" events and hobnobing with political friends in power. (Teeth are knashing now as some these people are reading this I'm sure) But is this like the rich throwing $100 at the homeless as they step over them to allay their guilt about the reality in front of them?

But what does "local food" mean to the rest of us? I've actually been meeting with people, organizations and political historians for over a year now to put a picture together. Let me try to start to relay what I've found by asking this question. If there's sudden and prolonged lack of access to food imports, what can people 24 floors up in the air in condos and apartments do to survive? How will their food needs be taken care of? What do you think?

John DewarOctober 01, 2007 15:08 EST

Food security is not something that most people ever consider, but the lessons of history are quite stark in this regard. Any society or civilization that over shoots it's resource base collapses with devastating results. One example was England allowing millions in Ireland to starve to death when the potatoe crop failed. Another more recent example was the transition to cotton crops in Egypt and Sommalia in the mid 1950's which was a direct contributor to widespread famine and economic collapse in that region. Somalia continues to suffer and they now have no agricultural base. In Canada, the vast majority of our produce is imported and large Canadian farmers are gradually being squeezed out of existance. The family farm ceased to be feasible long ago. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not import some foods or to reduce exports drastically. What I am saying is that Canadian farmers need a tax break and access to local markets within a rational system that is not skewed by external market forces and unresponsive marketing boards.
Another thing, since we import well over 80% of the produce we consume and much of that come by jet airplane, we are increasing our vulnerability twofold. Remember 9-11 when all the flights were cancelled? Think that could not happen again under any other senario, be it natural disaster or terrorist scare?
Speaking of man-made natural disasters, jet exhaust has a critical impact on the atmosphere because the emmissions are above the clouds and cannot be "washed" out by rain which effectively sequesters carbon into the ground, lakes and oceans. Above the clouds, carbon particulate travels around the globe following the jet streams, trapping heat causing atmospheric instability. Global warming is a misnomer by the way, global extremes are what you actually get along with massive crop failures (like western Ontario this year)and infrastucture damage from tornados, hurricanes and drought. Yet somehow, most Canadians think everything is just fine and we really don't need to be able to feed ourselves, we can just go to the grocery store. Virtually no one in Canada is starving at this point, but food security in this country is mostly an illusion This would become quickly apparent if we are confronted with any major interrruption of the supply chain. Think it can't happen here?

CameronOctober 02, 2007 20:25 EST

Does anyone really know what eating locally means.This is not a debate about trends. Nor is it about the right thing to do. Eating locally is about buying good produce, meats, cheese and wines from Canadian farmers who produce quality goods. Buy Canadian and let's start eating and stop talking

Mary KainerOctober 04, 2007 01:37 EST

My husband and I have been trying to eat local and set a goal of about 75% (since we still want coffee, chocolate and the occasional citrus). Overall it has been a good experience and has got us in touch with local markets. The biggest problem comes with the few canned goods marked "product of Canada". I now understand that the food may not be local. I think labelling laws need to be changed and, given the interest in local foods, labelling information needs to be regionalized.

vickiOctober 04, 2007 05:44 EST

The crux of the matter is that people want to buy food CHEAP. Until we pay the full cost of growing food in a healthy sustainable fashion we will all be eating pesticide and hormone filled flesh and fibre.

I choose to buy locally produced food because it just tastes better. I would rather go with less and enjoy the fullsome pleasure of a locally grown melon or potato that is purchased with local dirt on it. The other thing is that fruit and vegetables rarely look perfect when grown in a sustainable fashion. Somehow city folk have forgotten what food should look like - very few of us are perfectly shaped and unblemished so why should our tomato be? But I digress from the topic. I cringe when I see shoppers buying berries in the dead of winter - organic or not. Savour the taste of the fruit in season and look forward to it when it comes around again. By all means buy those items that cannot be grown locally but gorge on those delights that can be. It blows my mind that someone will buy an apple from the US or New Zealand in apple season!

Larry PowellOctober 04, 2007 20:18 EST

I'm a bit puzzled by the bitterness that is spilling over against the eat local movement. There seems to be some strange notion that it is a creation of the rich or, as one writer put it "silver-spooned environmentalists!"
Well, I'm an evironmentalist, but definitely not of the silver-spooned variety! Yet I always eat local, where possible. And surely the "where possible" is the key.
I realize there are those dedicated people who eat local, no matter what and are prepared to sacrifice their favourite exotic dish to prove their point.
I may not go that far. But at least I realize there is nothing noble about eating wooden strawberries from California or tasteless tomatoes from Mexico, either. Especially when I can buy delicious ones from my neighbour at comparable or slightly higher prices.(Or grow them myself for even less!)
Local food is fresher, tastier and, I suspect, more nutritious also.
When faced with levels of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes that have reached epidemic proportions,(aided and abetted by the fast-food craze) how can this be wrong?
The cynics might get some perverse satisfaction from patronizing environmentally brain-dead multi-national food corporations half a world away.
I do not.

Larry Powell
Roblin MB

Paul BeingessnerOctober 05, 2007 08:05 EST

I find this discussion interesting but not exactly profound. It's mosly urban people telling each other what to do or not to do.

The thing that will ultimately drive consumption patterns is energy costs and availability. When crude oil supply becomes less than demand and the price skyrockets, the cost of local food will be less than that of food imported half a world away, so that is what people will eat. Mind you, the cost of all food will go up, since food requires a lot of energy just to produce, let alone transport. Most of this discussion seems to be taking place with no acknowledgement that cheap oil is a finite resource and will end. At that point, people will find lots of ways to grow some of their own food, if they still remember how.

It would be sensible to start putting in place the systems that will be able to provide for our own food needs right now. We already subsidize agriculture, so why not begin to shift those subsidies toward supplying local demands?

We farm in Sask, and sell lamb and beef direct to customers, mostly in Regina. They buy it because it it good, and a good price, (cheaper than the supermarket because they are buying in bulk) and sometimes because they like the idea of supporting local producers. We also raise grains that largely are exported. We generally eat local, I guess, because we eat our own meat, our own potatoes, our own apples and plums (in season), our own garden veggies, and we preserve some fruits and veggies by freezing and canning. We still buy lots in the store, but we don't have to if we want to grow it. When my kids were small we ate very little that we didn't produce. And, no, it wasn't bland or tasteless. It was pretty darn good.

Most of us spend very little on food. Canadians spend a smaller percentage of their net income on food than any nation in the world (okay, we might be second) and a lot of that is spent in restaurants.

Buying locally produced food supports your neighbours and fellow citizens and has economic spin-offs that benefit your area, province and country. If it costs a small amount more, most people could just spend a little less at Macdonalds and come out even. So why would you not do it?

Interesting the comment that we couldn't feed large cities out of farmers' markets. Ever been to Turkey, or Cambodia or Vietnam or Peru or .....? Adam Smith would be the first to tell you it CAN be done, if you just have the demand and are willing to pay for it.

Paul Beingessner
Truax, Sask

The WalrusOctober 05, 2007 09:23 EST

Great comment. Everyone should stay tuned for the next discussion, which should provide a better platform for the discussion of food supply and cost\price.

Interestingly enough Alphabet City arranged a tour of the Ontario Food Terminal. Paul I think you may have enjoyed the discussion and the tour there. I am hoping to meld a bit of what was learned\talked about there with out next discussion.


I'd love to continue this discussion from room to room and see how if progresses. So please spread the word about this because I want everyone's two cents and keep on stirring the pot.

DavidOctober 05, 2007 14:25 EST

The only "invisible hand" that will supposedly win-out is the handful of money that's exploiting cheap labour in other countries in order to sell food cheaper here in Canada. Unfortunately for Mr. Ellis and Pat T, it won't win. First, the transportation costs are astronomical (oil is $100/barrel and rising) so they have to make up the difference through labour. How long the import business lasts in its current state depends on how far they can squeeze the workers (I hear the workers are already getting sick and dying). The second problem is that the product that they sell is not only watery tomatoes in December, but also watery tomatoes in September, when they are abundant here, and already available at a good price. And another mitigating factor is the product produced locally is almost always superior to the one trucked or shipped in from wherever. Even when local produce is preserved in jars and cans. If the locals knew and were educated on what they had available from the local market, they would see that there is already PLENTY. It is not a matter of being trendy or trying to preserve farms, or giving up your O.J., but simply taking advantage of what's already there and choosing local, fresher produce, over the bland produce imported from abroad.

Chris EllisOctober 05, 2007 15:50 EST

David, the invisible hand works on the demand side of things, not the supply side. Suppliers will supply whatever we will buy, which will typically be the cheapest item. And you are right, when it oil gets to expensive the market will move toward another natural resting point. Its not about winning or losing.... nor better product... its about the general demand of the population and price. I'll be glad when oil get more expensive and more expensive. Transportation costs are things we fail to see everyday.

Laura Young, Holland Marsh Greenbelt AssociationOctober 10, 2007 07:38 EST

Paul, speaking farmer to farmer, I understand that developing and pre-industrialized countries feed themselves from farmers markets, or farmers having local direct access to consumers. They don't have corporations holding the noose on their food supply on the retail venue level that have displaced them.

I'm not sure what the situation is in Saskatchewan. But here in Ontario there are 3 big grocers that supply, for example, 3,600 calories worth of food for every man woman and child in the Greater Toronto Area. They've long displaced independant grocery stores that were supplied by local farmers, such as my family. That in turn has put a lot of Ontario farmers out of business. My own family still owns farmland but rents it out to others, and I live in Toronto.

There has been a "greenbelt" movement in Ontario that involved $25 million being given to a private agency, the "Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation" that largely has given grants to specific environmental agencies unfamiliar with agriculture, of which the staff are mainly hired from, and Niagara winery interests, which is a significant financial engine of "agriculture" in Ontario, due mostly to Bay St. types buying up wineries and grape land, and then applying their "free-market" skills to creating a Napa Valley of the North. http://www.bizniagara.com/business_news/Greenbelt_Dec_04.php

Food agriculture was an afterthought in this greenbelt creation, and a voice for the viability of farmers legislated into the Official Greenbelt Plan, 2005 was twice voted down in provincial parliament. So farmers have benefited from greenbelt grants only on the limited wisdom of this foundation. Some initiatives have been ok, but the Farmers Markets Ontario initiative is not about independant farmers being given back their historical place as in Turkey, Vietnam, Cambodia or Peru - it is about one ngo holding the monopoly to all the farmers markets, charging a fee for entry, setting the rules for participation...And since a Director of Farmers Markets Ontario is on the External Advisory Committee for deciding upon funding grants, what chance is there that he will vote to allow another farmers markets benefit for grant money he is in competition for? So while the stated mandate is one that puts life concerns first – clean air, water and access to local food, the economic model that facilitates the goals are based upon the economic system of the day – the winner takes all, free market monopoly.

Another initiative of this greenbelt foundation is Local Food Plus, which I personally find a great idea, (but am not sure why it couldn't be done through Foodland Ontario). They arrange for institutional food buyers in Ontario to buy local, and "certify" certain ethical farmers. But they haven't been able to break the Big 3 grocer juggernaut. And the Big 3 have been fighting back. It eventually comes down to an advertising war. The Weston family can certainly outspend Ontario taxpayers (who are funding all of these greenbelt foundation initiatives)and make it seem that they are supporting local businesses while in fact local food is a very small part of their fresh produce sales, and at the same time cut the prices they pay to farmers so that small farmers don't have a chance to make money.

Llew HinkesOctober 11, 2007 08:55 EST

The invisible hand of the market is what has led to all of the sprawl and pollution, so any response with that is just terrible.

Slow food is not meant to completely replace all foreign food items, there's no way most communities would be able to survive without importing certain items, but just to help supplant it. Why import an apple from New Zealand that needs to be frozen and preserved in wax when you could buy a locally grown one?

Rick BlechtaOctober 18, 2007 11:29 EST

After years of not really thinking about the food we eat in our home, I finally began to realize that much of what we put into our mouths just didn't taste all that good.

Tomatoes are a good example. The majority of tomatoes sold in grocery supermarkets are just not very good. Why? Industrialization of the agricultural industry. A tomato was bred not for flavour and nutritional value, but for its tough skin, uniform size and ability to last for a long time. Bottom line? They're tasteless. Why bother eating them?

We used to be able to eat rare hamburgers once upon a time. Now we have e-coli to worry about. Most meat is full of antibiotics that are only given in case the animal gets sick, not because they are. We feed cattle on grain. Corn is really not part of a cow's diet. Left to their own devices, they'd eat grass. Result of corn in the diet? Thinned out intestinal membrane and the e-coli that's found normally only in a cow's gut can pass into the blood stream, and hence, into our guts. The results can be deadly.

I could go on and on.

I have chosen to eat locally as much as possible, simply because I want to know who's growing my food. No, Chris Ellis, it's not always cheaper (but you CAN get some great deals when harvesting is at its peak), but my feeling is you always get what you pay for. You're a young guy. Wait until you get older and your body starts to mess up. You might think differently.

Industrialized food is not better food. It's industrialized so that the companies can make more for less. The farther we get away from the land, the worse it is for us. The produce we're buying in our local supermarkets was often picked weeks before. How much nutrition is left in it by that time? When farms are sold, the land gets used for industry, new housing, big box stores. It's gone for good.

The more of our own local (i.e. Canadian) food production capability we lose, the more trouble we're in. Do I really need the option to eat asparagus at a low price year round? No. Will I have to go back to eating "a settler's diet" during the winter months? No. That, at least, is when it makes sense to buy imported food. Or you could preserve food.

The thing I find frightening is that most of the food in our stores is sourced from the same places year round. Why does my IGA sell asparagus from Peru in June, even when the local, great tasting and really fresh stuff is available all around us in Ontario? Because they have to support their sources of supply year round. That's silly and wasteful (of energy).

Bottom line is: if you're not getting the best nutrition from what you're eating (and the cheaper food almost always has poorer nutritional value), you're not spending your money wisely.

You can eat cheaply, Chris, I choose to eat well.

RickWOctober 20, 2007 10:59 EST

We live in an energy-intensive society. Indeed, many of us (if not most) would perish were we to be deprived of the energy we consume. The trick is to manufacture this energy in a sustainable manner.

Having said that, eating locally really needn't "deprive" us of variety. One comment mentioned citrus fruit and juices. With sustainable (and efficient) energy sources, oranges and lemons can be grown in the Arctic.

Or would this be considered some sort sort of "eco-blasphemy"......even while the use of energy to transport us at speeds faster than walking is not?

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