By Magpie Group
While the roots of the local food movement can be traced back to earlier decades, it started to gain ground in the late 20th century with the rising global demand for food, as well as cultural pressures for sustainable food production and distribution. The decision to ‘eat local’ is influenced by many factors: environmental concerns, the need for safe and healthy food, food security, food availability and much more.
But there are many misconceptions about locally grown food.
What local means – and why it’s a good thing
“Local” means different things to different people.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), “local food” refers to food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or food sold across provincial borders within 50 kilometres of the originating province or territory.
However, there are other beliefs about local food. For example, there are consumers who think all local food is organic, which isn’t always the case. The organic label can only be applied to food produced following the standards for organic production and is not based on location.
Organic products sold in Canada are regulated by Health Canada. To be certified organic, there is a specific checklist of management principles that organic growers must follow, including not using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, genetically modified organisms or, in the case of animals, antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic producers can use organic pesticides and fertilizers. Only products that meet the Canadian Organic Standards (COS) and have 95% or more organic content can use the Canada Organic Logo on their packaging.1 Although some people may believe otherwise, Health Canada states that there is no evidence to show that it is safer or healthier to eat organic foods.
Regardless of the definition, there are certainly many benefits to eating local:
- Eating local supports local communities. Choosing to buy food produced in your area helps farmers and the regional economy because money is reinvested in the community.
- Local farmers can tell you about the food. It helps consumers be connected to their food by learning firsthand where their food comes from, who produced it and how.
- You have access to fresher foods. Food sourced locally often gets to the consumer faster than food transported long distances, so it is fresher when it hits your table.
Technology provides access to food year-round
As Canadians, we are fortunate to have a wide range of foods available throughout the year. However, because of our nation’s climate and short growing season, we can only get some locally grown foods (such as peaches and asparagus, for example) for a few months each summer. The truth is that a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables we eat have to be imported from other countries to help fill the gap when locally grown produce is not an option.
We used to rely on home food preservation methods like canning, freezing and drying to get enough fruits and vegetables during the colder months. However, today’s busy households with two working parents don’t have the time for the intense task of food preservation each year. Luckily, we are now better able to source what we need without home food preservation, largely a result of technology, and better farm management and agronomic practices.
Here’s some examples:
- Greenhouses are an ever-expanding addition to the Canadian agriculture landscape. We’ve capitalized on new technology that makes it possible to run them efficiently throughout the year. This also means we have some locally grown (or at least Canadian-grown) produce – like cucumbers and tomatoes – available year-round too.
- Plant research scientists have been able to develop new varieties of fruits and vegetables that are hardier to withstand the extreme Canadian climate.
- Through extensive research and development, we’ve improved our knowledge of horticulture and agricultural practices so farmers can grow more food on less land.
Expanding the notion of “local”: The journey of food processing
There’s a lot more to local than you might realize.
Did you know there’s a lot of food that may be produced close to where you live that you can’t actually buy directly from farmers? That’s because it has to be transported elsewhere to be processed into the kinds of foods you find in the grocery store.
Take cereal grains (like wheat, barley, oats), pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans) and oilseeds ( canola, flax) for instance. All these grains are grown on the Canadian prairies but must be trucked to another location (either in or out of the country) to be processed and packaged for the grocery store. So although the labelling may indicate that it’s a ‘Product of’ USA, Turkey, China or Japan, some, most or all of the ingredients may have come from a farm just down the road!
It’s a similar story for many animal food products. Although the farms themselves may be spread out across the country, many of the processing facilities are located in other regions. This means that, for example, the turkey raised right close to the city where you live is actually processed somewhere else and then brought back to the local supermarket to be sold.
In truth, you’ll probably pay less at the grocery store than at the farmer’s market. Grocery stores can offer lower prices when they purchase food in large amounts because it costs less per unit to buy and sell in volume. Local food is often produced in smaller quantities, making it difficult for stores to source enough to meet demand and keep their prices competitive.
The sustainability debate
Sustainability is a term loosely associated with locally grown food.
But “sustainability” is a complicated topic. It involves several variables: economical, ecological, social, ethical, health – and more. Researchers suggest that the most important factors in determining a food’s environmental footprint (how much a specific unit of food production impacts the environment) include the method of transportation, efficiency of production (how much food is grown), efficiency of processing and the farming practices used to produce it.
Is eating local more sustainable? The short answer is: it depends.
Is eating local more sustainable? The short answer is: it depends. The concept of eating local generally emphasizes reducing the number of food miles, or the distance food travels from the farm to your plate. The assumption is that reducing transportation distance minimizes your carbon footprint (the amount greenhouse gases released through food producing activities).
Using food miles as an assessment tool can oversimplify whether a food is sustainable. That’s because research suggests that food miles actually make up only a small part of the total carbon footprint calculation. The bigger factors are how efficiently food can be grown and the amount of inputs required to grow it. One study, for example, found that tomatoes transported hundreds of kilometres from Spain had a carbon footprint less than 1/3 of those grown locally in heated greenhouses in the United Kingdom.2
The power of choice
The food you eat is a deeply personal decision. And there’s no one right choice! What is certain is that eating local has many benefits for farmers, communities and consumers. But you also shouldn’t feel guilty if eating local doesn’t fit your lifestyle or budget. What we can be assured is that the food produced by Canadian farmers and ranchers offers us many safe, affordable and healthy options.
Find out how Canadian farmers are becoming more sustainable. Check out the following articles:
- Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef: Making Canadian Beef Good for the Planet
- Protecting Biodiversity: Environmental Farm Plans
- Encouraging Responsible Use of Pesticides: Pesticide Applicator Licence
- Healthy Soil for Today and the Future: 4R Nutrient Stewardship