The 3,000-mile salad

Southern Ontario contains some of Canada’s most fertile farmland. Why, then, is so much of our food imported?

By Linda Pim

It used to be that when I ate a salad in winter, it was a long-distance affair. I munched on the “3,000-mile salad” consisting of organic loose-leaf California lettuce that, according to American writer James Kunstler, will soon disappear from our plates thanks to the depleting supply and increasing price of fossil fuels. But last year Orangeville’s whole foods store began offering the 10-mile salad: mixed organic greens grown under glass just down the highway. I buy the beautiful local greens.

For me, local produce gets top priority. If faced with a choice between an organic import and local, conventionally grown produce, I choose the latter. If locally grown organic produce is available, I buy that.

Ontarians are beginning to embrace the regional meal. In doing so, we do our health a favour by eating fresher and tastier food. By not buying broccoli that has been transported across the continent, we save fuel and improve air quality. We foster domestic food security in an increasingly dangerous world, and we help Ontario shed its role as a net importer of food and become a local supplier. We contribute to global justice by reducing our demand for tropical cash crops grown on land that should feed needy local people instead.

Consumers consider more than just the price when choosing what food to buy. A 2004 Ipsos Reid poll found that only 15 percent of Canadian consumers consider the price of food as the most important factor. In a revealing contrast, 55 percent ranked quality and nutrition as more important than price. Consumer interest in eating local/ regional foods is booming globally. Martin Gooch of the George Morris Centre, an agri-food think-tank in Guelph, reports that the market for regional foods in most Western countries is expanding by 60 percent per year.

If so many people want to eat regionally, why is Ontario awash in imports? Supermarket chains prefer to buy from producers in warmer climates who can supply a given fresh vegetable every month of the year.  The chains buy in massive quantities and favour fewer and larger contracts for imports over numerous smaller, seasonal contracts with local growers.

Not only retailers need to change, however. Gooch says food producers and suppliers need to adjust what they grow or process to meet consumer needs, for example, by tapping into multicultural consumer tastes and preferences.

Innovative local food programs abound in Ontario and abroad. A U.K. supermarket chain has a “Local First for Fresh” campaign promoting local produce supported by in-store tastings. Here in Ontario, Foodlink Waterloo Region publishes a map for finding fresh regional produce at farm gates in the Waterloo area, helping farmers market their products and improving consumer access to local food.

Local Flavour Plus (LFP) encourages institutions to purchase food produced in a sustainable manner. The University of Toronto is its first major client. Farmers working with LFP agree to several sustainability conditions including the reduction or elimination of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, safe and fair working conditions, and soil and water conservation.

Elbert van Donkersgoed, executive director of the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Plan, says that in addition to farmers’ markets as a local food experience, supermarkets need to create “local as a destination.” Supermarkets should create local food sections so we do not have to hunt for Ontario products.

The Ontario government’s Foodland Ontario labelling program needs to expand beyond fresh products to include Ontario-produced processed foods. It needs a more in-your-face advertising approach if it is to build consumer awareness and attract more people to local food. One British initiative promotes “Deliciously Dirty “unwashed potatoes, featuring the tag line “Rub me, don’t scrub me.”

Southern Ontario contains more than half of Canada’s Class 1 farmland. We will save it only through sprawl-busting planning policies and a sustained market for local food. If, as a society, we do not act to protect Ontario farmers and farmland by eating locally grown products, buying them will no longer be one of our options.

But what about the occasional avocado or mandarin orange? Yes, they can find a place on our salad plates. The journey to the regional meal begins with a giant first step. Ontario society has not yet taken that step, and it’s high time we did. We can sweat the small stuff later.

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Linda Pim is the former conservation policy analyst for Ontario Nature.

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