Creating a Local Food Supply

Despite growing consumer awareness and increased support for local foods, there are many obstacles that must be overcome if we are to create a  vibrant and sustainable local agricultural economy.  Canadians import 53% of their vegetables and some 90% of their fruit.  Food production is steadily shrinking as prime agricultural land is developed and paved over.  In the past 15 years, the Canadian population has grown by some 15% while food imports have increased by 160%.  Ontario alone imports four billions dollars more in food than it exports.

Many of the problems lie with both government regulations and with the larger food suppliers.  What are the chances of finding a local strawberry in a major supermarket in June?  As often as not, they are still coming from the U.S.  In the U.K. this year, hundreds of tons of plums were left to rot on trees because farmers could not find a market for their fruit.  Despite a bumper crop of local plums, most supermarkets allocate only about 20% of their shelf space to British plums, the rest goes to foreign imports.  Only two of the larger British chains, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, responded to the problem by making space for British plums.  Others cited an unpredictable British supply as reasoning for their reliance on imported plums.

Poorly thought out government regulations are also a big barrier in the fight to increase local food production. In Quebec, small scale poultry and egg producers have been banned from selling any products that have been raised out of doors.  This is reportedly due to worries about avian flu, despite the fact that the disease occurs primarily in industrial farms.  In British Columbia, new regulations require that all meat sold directly to the public must be slaughtered in a provincially or federally inspected abbatoire.  This policy affects small farmers who have traditionally slaughtered on their own farms and though it may be appropriate for large scale operations it is questionable wether it is necessary for small producers.  In Ontario, government regulations have resulted in the closing of hundreds of small local abbatoires that traditionally served small farmers.  Instead we have only a handful of federally inspected abbatoires that create both problems of distance and scale of supply for the farmer that produces one or two dozen pigs a year for market.  Most Ontario supermarkets will only sell meat from federally inspected abbatoires, resulting in conditions where it is almost impossible to buy local meat.

So what kind of food systems and policies are needed in order to support small and mid-sized farms?  Must we completely rethink our ways of selling and buying food.  Not all of us can grow our own food or purchase directly from local farmers.  There are many innovative ideas that can increase the availability of local foods.  Farmers cooperatives, such as the Quinte Organic Farmers Cooperative are examples of farmers working together to pool their production and marketing efforts.  Mobile delivery services are another way in which producers can effectively reach consumers through a better system of distribution.  In the U.K., Riverford Organics delivers fruits and vegetables directly to over 100,000 customers, with 80% of their produce coming from small to mid sized farms.   Another very positive sign comes from the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International which recently  resisted pressure from large buyers such as Starbucks and decided that certified ‘fair trade’ coffee would only come from small scale operations.  All of these are very positive initiatives, however, one cannot ignore the need for supportive government policy if our food systems are going to change significantly.

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