Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Future of Local Food in a Warming World

Locally produced food can be healthier and tastier than mass-produced food products that sometimes travel across oceans and continents before reaching our plates.  The production and distribution of local food keeps more money circulating in our local economies.  With Northern Ontario experiencing a mini-renaissance in agriculture, it makes sense for all of us to start paying more attention to how we benefit from locally produced and distributed food.

The food sector is Canada’s third largest employment sector, with cash receipts totalling $57.4 billion in 2014 (see: "Agriculture, not Energy, will Fuel Canada's Economy in Coming Decades," James Wilt, DeSmogCanada, July 29, 2015).  In Ontario, 720,000 people are employed in the agri-food sector (see: "Farming - an economic driver in the Greater Golden Horseshoe," Environmental Defence, July 20, 2015).  With the global population expected to rise to over 9 billion by mid-century, it’s clear that we’re going to have to find innovative ways of feeding a hungry world.

Right now, purchasing locally produced food in Northern Ontario can be a chore.  Most of the food products available at grocery store chains are produced outside of the province.  However, things have started to change with the development of local food hubs, like Eat Local Sudbury.  Farmer’s markets seem to be popping up in communities throughout the north, including a new market in Val Caron which will open its doors this August.  And of course many of us are getting in touch with our own inner-farmer by participating in community and backyard gardening projects.

Some smaller scale farmers are distributing their locally-grown produce directly to the public through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives.  Individuals or families can purchase a CSA share in a crop to help finance the farm operation. In return, throughout the growing year, fresh fruit and in-season vegetables straight from farm fields are provided to the share holder.

While discussions around food security have become mainstream, Canada, which lacks a national food strategy, continues to lag behind other developed nations.  Our food systems are increasingly being threatened by climate change-related impacts in the form of more frequent and disastrous severe weather events, and disease and pest migration.   Longer growing seasons in a warmer world may create some opportunities for Canadian agriculture, but costs may outweigh the benefits for industrial-scale agriculture that relies on fossil fueled thousand mile supply chains. 

The need to curtail carbon pollution as part of a global effort to combat climate change will have an impact on the price of food as a result of higher transportation costs.  The further food travels before reaching your plate, the more climate changing greenhouse gases are emitted.  By building the costs of pollution into the price of goods, locally produced and distributed food should experience a growing advantage over foreign competition.

Despite the benefits that producing more food locally have on the environment and local economies, the health of our local food systems is threatened by governmental policies which favour large industrial-scale farm operations. Marketplace interventions like chicken quotas shut out small scale local egg producers.  The absence of pollution pricing creates a transportation subsidy that artificially lowers the price of imported food. These subsidies may be enshrined in international trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which doesn’t even acknowledge the reality of “climate change”, and which may bind the hands of future governments wishing to take more significant action to address climate change.

As we move ahead into the 21st Century, it seems clear that the necessary actions we take reduce our fossil fuel emissions will have impacts on the way food reaches our plates.  The longer that we delay implementing a national food strategy which includes carbon pollution pricing, the more we delay creating the truly robust and resilient local food systems that we will need to help fuel our economy – and ourselves.

 (opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada) 

Originally published in the Sudbury Star as "Column: Future of local food as world warms," in print and online - Saturday, August 1, 2015.

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