There’s a lot of buzz words in food systems nowadays, and “local” is no exception. But what defines something as local? What are the benefits, or lack thereof? What is the ongoing debate about the local food movement all about? Let’s dive in.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recognizes “local” as meaning one of two things:
food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory1
Is this what you thought local meant? Most of what we eat comes from a lot further than we realize. The Land Food People Foundation was created in 2005 and had an initiative called Local Food Plus (LFP), which aimed to promote sustainable agriculture and also educate the public on the importance of local food systems. Unfortunately, in May of 2014 LFP had to wrap up its operations.2
Dr. Jeffery K. O’Hara has a PhD in economics from University of California San Diego and is an agricultural economist in the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He talks about the economic impact consuming local foods can have on a community. By selling and consuming more local produce (primarily by having farmers markets), he found that more jobs were being created and that there was an overall increase in personal income as well as gross output - simply put, he concludes that the overall local economy improves when local food is purchased.3
Another huge reason why people support local food systems is because of the perceived environmental benefits. This publication from the Government of Alberta discusses many different benefits of local food, but it also talks about “food miles,” a common term to put a number on the distance the food has traveled from the farm to the plate. It also mentions that 5-17 times less CO2 could be emitted if a mere 10% of fruits and vegetables were purchased locally rather than globally. This publication neglects to discuss the environmental cost of growing food in places where they aren’t grown naturally, such as heated greenhouses in Ontario in the winter. It is impossible to say that growing food locally will always emit less CO2 because some places have very harsh conditions where food growing is much less natural, but when in season, buying locally has proven to be more environmentally friendly.
Direct-to-consumer sales accounted for a mere 0.4% of food purchased in America in 20074, but the number of farmers markets has been continuously increasing, having almost quintupled in America since 1994.5 The massive increase in the numbers of markets is a result of increased demand for local food. Farm Credit Canada performed a survey in Ontario in 2011 and the results showed that 95% of people say that buying locally-grown food is a priority/preference, but only 43% of people are willing to pay extra for locally-grown food.6 If people are willing to pay more for local products, why are so few being purchased?
Meghan Dear, a long-time EWBer, is the founder of Localize, which is an Edmonton based startup. The vision of Localize was built upon three beliefs - food should have a story, supporting local should be easy, and we can support local anywhere. Localize has created a scoring system and they have partnered with grocery stores to label certain foods to show just how local they are. This initiative is really to make informed local shopping as easy as possible.
Many people associate local farming with small scale farming, but that is not necessarily the case. Corporations control a very large percentage of the seed industry, as the Etc. farm report released in September, 2013 that showed that only four firms, globally, control 58.2% of all seeds, 61.9% of all agrochemicals, 24.3% of all fertilizers 53.4% of animal pharmaceuticals, and run 97% of all poultry research.7
While these corporate companies have a dominant control of the market, small farmers are still producing the majority of the world’s food on a diminishing amount of land. Specifically, small farms grow 70% of the world’s food on just under (and continuously decreasing) 25% of the world’s agricultural land. Small farms in this study are determined by the countries’ standards, excluding the USA. In the USA, a farm with less than $250,000 in revenue is considered small, but for this study they considered small farms the farms that have less than $50,000 in revenue.8
So, why is agriculture becoming increasingly large-scale, and corporate-controlled, particularly in the Canadian prairies? Alanna and Angela Howell, EWB members from the University of Saskatchewan chapter, have grown up their entire lives helping their family manage their 10,000 acre grain farm in Saskatchewan. They cite these factors as contributing to the industrialization of prairie agriculture:
Not specific crop subsidies per se (as may be observed in the United States), but rather Canadian agriculture income stabilization programs that guarantee a certain profit margin on all seeded acres, based on farm profit margins in previous years. This means that by taking on more land, a farmer is guaranteed to make the same profit margin on the additional acres as they have on their previous acreage, even if there is a weather or management disaster. This minimizes the risk associated with farm expansion.
Given that the prairies are land-locked, in order for crops to be marketed overseas they must be transported by rail to ocean ports. In order to operate in this logistically complex environment, a company must have the resources to transport large volumes of product. Large commodities companies have an advantage by having this ability to effectively move product around the world.
Despite the costs of inputs and transportation rising dramatically over the last decades, grain prices per bushel are largely the same as they were in the 1920’s. Rather than earning a high margin on a small amount of product, farms must earn a low margin on a large amount of product.
New legislation allowing out-of-province investors to purchase farmland has contributed to a spike in land prices in recent years, raising the incentive for small farms to sell their land and contributing to the race between large farms to acquire more land.
While there are many people advocating for the local food movement, there are some people (that are not involved with a food corporation) advocating against it, such as professor Pierre Desrochers, and his wife Hiroko Shimizu. Desrochers and Shimizu are the authors of The Locavores Dilemma, a book “in praise of the 10,000 mile diet.” This dispassionate look on the local food movement describes the potential economic impact that relying solely on a local food system could have. They share their view on how eating globally, not only locally, is the way to save the planet.
Local food is on the rise and is becoming easier to access because of the large amount of initiatives supporting local food, but debate on local food systems versus global food systems appears to be one that won’t soon be resolved.
Did you know?
On average, the food that makes up a North American meal travels 1,500 miles before reaching the plate.9
A quarter of British farmers are living in poverty.10
Food for Thought?
How do we balance the benefits of a global food system (economies of scale, standardization, volume, control) with the benefits of a local food system?
1 Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “Local” Claims. 2014-03-16
2 Mann, S. Local Food Plus wraps up its operations. May 17, 2014
3 O’Hara, J.K. Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems. August, 2011
4 Martinez, S. et al. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. May 2010
5 USDA-AMS-Marketing Services Division. National Count of Farmers Market Directory Listings. 08/03/2013
6 Mann, S. Consumers want local food but are reluctant to pay more: survey. July 12th, 2011
7 ETC Group. Putting the Cartel Before the Horse… and Farm, Seeds, Soil, Peasants, etc. Sept, 2013
8 GRAIN. Hungry For Land. May, 2014
9 Lanford, B. Local Food: Does It Matter What We Eat? July, 2011
10 Square Meal. Why We Need a New Recipe for the Future. July, 2014