Local is a big buzzword in food these days and despite the buzz created in the press and by retailers, Canadians still struggle to have access to local foods.
Even at farmers markets across the country, much of the product is not local and many of the vendors are not even farmers. Today’s rapidly expanding farmers markets are a far cry from buying raw milk at the farm gate from Old MacDonald.
Of course we are challenged by our short, northern growing season and only one harvest per year on most crops. Aside from building huge, energy-sucking greenhouses we are destined to buy foreign produce for at least part of the year.
One problem with the concept of “local” in Canada is determining what qualifies as local.
Is it only what fits in the “100 Mile Diet” (good luck in Prince Rupert or Thunder Bay)?
Is it Alberta grown goods sold at a supermarket in Calgary? Remember, Alberta is six times bigger than Ireland.
Or is it products grown in Canada (can a BC apple be local 7000 km away in St. John’s)?
Obviously a BC grown apple is more local than a Chinese apple, but the benefits are all relative.
Another challenge is our food supply chain. This is highlighted by Safeway’s “Grown In Canada” campaign that highlights on a map of Western Canada where certain items in their produce assortment is grown in Canada.
It’s a great initiative (especially for an American company) and if anything I think that they should be giving the program more visibility in-store.
The challenge is that most produce for Safeway transits through three centralized DCs in Western Canada meaning that broccoli grown in Marquette, MB still takes a very long trip to get to market in Edmonton or Victoria.
Local will only work in such a large country, with a low population density and short growing season if a truly local procurement and distribution system is set up for each major urban centre.
Vancouver has completed its own local food assessment and Calgary is working through its strategy. This is important work for sure and more cities need to get on-board.
Growers have an opportunity to focus on niche agriculture based on regional demand for products. Despite higher growing costs vs. “factory farms” in Mexico, these types of operations will become more cost efficient as volumes increase and the cost of oil (and long-distance truck transportation) rises.
Retailers have to move from being commodities traders in produce and instead build strong relationships with local farmers and support them by developing the necessary supply chain infrastructure.
This is not to say that the retailers should build this local supply chain all alone. Both the federal and provincial governments should play a role in developing this capacity as it would be as valuable of an asset to the communities they serve; equivalent to traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges or airports.
Other obvious candidates that would benefit from a strong “local” supply chain would be meat products and milk and dairy products although refrigeration would be a more important factor.
Canada is a breadbasket country and in many crops such as wheat and soybeans we feed the world. Through the diversification of crops and more distributor / retailer partnerships we can feed more of ourselves. Food security will become a bigger and bigger issue as climate change and population growth puts more stress on the global food system – making local food supply even more important.
Lastly, consumers have to play a role. We have to vote with our wallets and choose $3.99 packages of Quebec strawberries instead of $2.99 packages of tasteless, white monster strawberries from California. We need to demand Alberta beef and Ontario pork instead of cheap imports from Brazil and Finland.
Local is quite complex but it can be done. Let’s do it.