Signs are everywhere that consumers want more local food. Besides Ontario recently putting money into a plan to support homegrown and buy-local initiatives, two new surveys further show local food has captured consumers’ interest.
But is the local food movement consistent with policies and trends that have driven Canadian farming for decades? Maybe not.
First, the surveys. In the Midwest U.S., the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center at the University of Illinois reports that a study from Deloitte, New York, shows almost 90 per cent of respondents want grocery stories to carry more local fruit and vegetables. The study focussed on food safety, and in many others, people think local food is safer than the alternative.
There’s more: Three-quarters of those participating in the survey said they were more concerned about food today than they were five years ago.
Barring a food calamity, that could actually work in farmers’ favour, if it prompts people to understand and care more about farm issues. Indeed, if we’re going to eat local, it’s reasonable to expect us to want to know more about our food’s sources, including institutions that are committed to making sure food is as safe as possible, such as the provincial food testing and animal health laboratories that are part of the University of Guelph.
The other telling survey came from Guelph’s new Food Panel Project. For its maiden voyage, the project’s administrators took the pulse of 1,350 Canadians and found a measure of consumers who had started making changes in their diets because of global food issues ate more locally produced fruits and vegetables. There weren’t that many of them – 17 per cent of the respondents – but the fact they’d actually taken action was significant.
What action, though, is the farm community taking to respond to this local food appetite? Individual producers, including some excellent area farms, have certainly found a new or renewed meaning for farming as a result of filling buy-local niches. But despite our identity as a food-producing country, we haven’t made the exponential leap that might have been expected.
That doesn’t surprise Al Mussell, a senior research associate at the Guelph-based George Morris Centre. In a front-page story in the centre’s latest newsletter, Mussell says local food is destined to stay a niche. Mainstream markets are not in its grasp, he says, because of seasonality, the relative abundance of products we already produce, the sheer size of our country and remoteness of some production regions.
Yet, it seems like local food is all we talk about.
Mussell’s concerned that if we get too carried away supporting local food movements with public money, international courts will take note and start slapping tariffs against Canadian goods. Our major trading partners don’t like it when we direct money to sectors not experiencing losses, even though they do it all the time. Mussell warns that invites retaliation and trade cases…all over a little support for local food.
Mussell even goes as far as to say that as an exporting nation, it’s not in our best interest to advance “local” as an eating ethic. For example, what if everyone everywhere starts eating predominately local food? If they stopped importing Canadian food, we’ve got a big problem. “Unintended consequences result when policy is developed that is out of harmony with the inalienable facts that characterize the industry it is developed to regulate,” says Mussell.
Some people even use the buy-local movement as springboard to criticize on-farm biofuel development, which is wrongly being blamed for rising food prices and food shortage. It even has Premier McGuinty second-guessing his pro bio-fuel position, in a province that so desperately needs alternatives.
But it’s Big Oil, not biofuel, that’s the problem. It’s beyond me how anyone can look you in the eye and say biofuel development is the main culprit in rising food costs as they’re pumping $1.35 a litre gasoline into their tank.