There'll be no lingering childhood for the local food movement. Early indications are that it's going to be forced to grow up fast, and it will need a caring parent to get it through the tough teens.
The movement — that is, the effort to eat as many commodities and ingredients as possible from your own neck of the woods — is accelerating at a rate that couldn't have been predicted even a month ago, when I last wrote about it in the Guelph Mercury.
Back then, there was excitement because AGCARE had just released a study pointing out how Ontario farmers had over the past 20 years become very environmentally conscious. Among other things, they were using fewer pesticides and more ecologically sensitive growing techniques, such as no-till cultivation.
Between then and now, the province announced a "support Ontario food first" program, Elora food guru Anita Stewart was selected to be an ambassador for the program, and grants were awarded to researchers trying to understand obstacles in the way of local food uptake.
The baby is starting to grow, fast.
Common sense tells you local food beats the alternative on several fronts. It tastes great, in part because it's fresh. It's not transported as far as imports, so it's said to be easier on the environment. It's grown under conditions we can keep an eye on (even though on the surface, most of us wouldn't know for sure if those conditions are good, or bad, for the environment. We're taking someone else's word for it).
And it supports the local economy, and farmers, and connects them with consumers in a way we haven't seen in ages.
But now that it's catching on as a movement, there's an important question that must be asked about local food: People say it's better, but what constitutes better?
Is it food that's fresher?
Sure. All of the above. But how about food that's more nutritious?
Right now, proof of the latter is lacking. Local food will have much more credibility as better food if such claims are supported by nutritional studies.
Its advocates will complete the circle by showing that as a result of superior production methods, fair labour, less transportation and clean air and water, local food has higher levels of desirable nutrients. Certainly, indications are that it's better for the environment, and that means in a roundabout way it's better for our overall health.
But whether it's more nutritious has yet to be determined.
Organic agriculture went through the same growing pains, and still is. My thanks to the reader who pointed out a new study from the University of California, noting that certain organic fruit and vegetables have higher levels of beneficial components, such as antioxidants. The study found organic tomatoes had almost double the level of flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) as conventional tomatoes. To me, that sounds like "better."
In that same vein, then, how about testing non-local and local food and measuring for these kinds of nutrients, and others? Test them the way consumers would receive them, after their 3,000-kilometre journey from Mexico or California. If they pan out nutritionally, and can be grown locally, we can say they're better, with confidence.
This is a reasonable part of local food's maturation. Hopefully, we've learned a lesson from the organic movement, which lost credibility because it lacked standards and proof that it was better than conventional food.
Now, it has some standards, and as the California study shows, it's generating proof. It needs even more proof; one study doesn't substantiate any claim. But it's a start — or a finish, depending on what subsequent studies show.
The local food movement needs to follow suit. There's no sense conducting studies about its potential uptake if the very basis for claiming it's better is flawed.
University of Guelph nutritional scientist Dr. Alison Duncan says local food could very well offer people better nutrition, because those who buy it are likely buying local produce — particularly vegetables and fruit. And almost anything we do to increase vegetable and fruit consumption is good, and leads to better nutrition.
Overall, though, Duncan characterizes the local food movement mainly as a way to celebrate food from area farms, rather than a nutritional panacea, because data is lacking.Local food needs local figures to support nutritional claims. Then, consumers can make informed choices.
Be it organic food, genetically modified food or local food, it needs to have a foundation in nutrition before it, or anyone, declares it's better than the rest.