The emerging local food movement — that is, the trend toward purchasing locally grown food at every opportunity — is exciting. It's making strides in our area, with the various roadside homegrown farm produce maps that have emerged. Overall, the movement is still in its infancy, and could take many different directions. But there's no question it has the potential to bring farmers and urbanites together in ways that have not been seen in decades.

This happy union is about more than taking a drive in the country, more than having people visit farms. It has economical and even spiritual elements, empowering consumers to do their part to preserve local farm communities. Farmers, too, feel like they're contributing in a highly visible way to the local food basket. In the end, such a movement can promote respect and understanding among the entire food chain, from the farm to households that normally don't look beyond the grocery store for food.

Lately, this movement has been positioned as environmental, too, in a couple of ways. First, it opens an avenue to highlight just how "green" Ontario farms have become. That was underlined last week when Guelph-based AGCARE released a study showing improved soil conservation measures are reducing greenhouse gas emissions each year by the equivalent of 125,000 cars being taken off the road. The report went on to say Ontario farmers have spent at least $600 million on environmental improvements and 300,000 days in environmental training over the past 20 years. And more than 70 per cent of them have voluntarily participated in the Environmental Farm Plan program, over that period.

This all points to safe food. More environmentally sound growing practices lead to healthier Ontario products and ingredients. And Ontario food is local food. For the local food movement, it can't get much better.

Then there's the environmental spin associated with less food transportation. True, the pursuit of local food leads people driving gas guzzlers down country roads. But proponents of local food say that's still better than having food trucked in from afar. They cite figures that soar into the 2,000- to 3,000-kilometre range, claiming that's how far on average fruits and vegetables travel from California or Mexico to our plates. They say that route results in copious greenhouse gas emissions from transport trucks, and so reducing that distance by buying locally likewise cuts emissions.

In fact, there are calls to ban or boycott anything that comes from too far away — "too far" being a distance that is still to be determined, and will prompt much debate.

Some people have gone as far as to start what's called 100-mile diets, in which they try, as much as possible, to eat only food from farmers or sources within 100 miles or less of their homes. They would have rejoiced when the Farmers Markets of Ontario announced recently it was giving special billing to two new markets in the Toronto area which featured nothing but locally grown products, rather than fruit and vegetables repackaged from elsewhere and sold under a misleading guise.

In Guelph, restaurateur Bob Desautels and his Arrow Neighbourhood Pub Group have been promoting Ontario-grown food and beverages since the 1990s, way before the local movement took hold. Last week he told a meeting of the Eastern Canada Farm Writers Association the last three years have been his best ever in terms of sales, as local food and beverages have caught on. He credits the likes of Al Gore bringing the environmental message to the fore, and rising gas prices that make imports more expensive, as reasons why the movement is poised to just keep growing. In fact, Desautels is looking at opening another establishment in Guelph's increasingly busy south end, based on homegrown food.

Given Canada's severe climate and mostly urban lifestyle, we still need to import food, at least at certain times of the year. And we need to export food, because we grow too much of some commodities — especially grains and cereals — to consume nationally. Our farm economy has been developed to feed the world, not just Canadians.

Globally, we need to trade, and to be open to those who need to trade with us, particularly those in underdeveloped countries who prosper from fairly traded food. They too need a local food movement, to feed people around them. But they also need the income generated by exports. It's a balance we must consider as the local food movement continues to gain steam.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.