Absurdities of global food travel

How we’re selling ourselves short

I am thankful for many products of free trade and high-speed ground- and air-travel: avocados, coconut milk and myriad other foods that could never be available in Newfoundland, or elsewhere in Canada for that matter, without the global connectedness we now enjoy. But it’s not all a bed of mid-winter roses; global trade has brought about a slew of problems: some tragic and some just, well, absurd.

Let’s take quinoa – celebrated for its fibre- and protein-rich seeds – as an example. Like many health-conscious individuals, I fully bought into the quinoa trend. It tasted pretty good, was easy to cook and, as far I could tell, its nutritional value spoke for itself. End of story, right? Wrong. Because there has been such a high demand for quinoa in Canada, Europe and the U.S.A., where markets allow a higher price for the grain, its cost has risen to such an extent that the poor in Bolivia and Peru can no longer afford it. Taking into consideration that people residing in the Andes have included quinoa as a staple of their diet for 5,000 years, it seems unfortunate, to say the least, that our desire (couched as a need) for the exotic grain has dissolved their ability to consume it. Even more absurd is the fact that it is now cheaper, in Bolivia and Peru, to eat junk food imported from the same countries that are laying claim to the ancient grain. Think about it from their perspective – wouldn’t it be terrible if global trade, which is largely out of your control, were to make it impossible for you to eat the foods grown and harvested in your home and that constituted the diet of your forbears? Except…that actually is the case.

…why is it that, in a city on the coast, the fish I see in the supermarket is either farmed or imported?

The presence of exotic and foreign foodstuffs gives us some much appreciated choices. And choices we have! We can have Thai food, Indian food, Mexican food, and the list goes on. But what I’d like to see is exactly what you’d think would be, and should be, the easiest food to find in a city like St. John’s. I want fresh, local seafood. The crab fishery has grown in scope exponentially since the collapse of the cod fishery twenty years ago, and the provincial government has called it the most important species in the fishery. It is one of our biggest exports. But good luck finding fresh, live, Newfoundland crab in the city – I have yet to see it, and most gets exported to the U.S.A. and China.

It’s not only crab – why is it that, in a city on the coast, the fish I see in the supermarket is either farmed or imported?

I am not trying to make a case for locavorism or the 100-mile diet – the simplicity of those theories belies the complicated economics of food production and distribution, and there is some evidence that eating globally is more sustainable than only consuming local products. I just cannot wrap my head around the idea that we are exporting fresh, local food – like crabs and mussels – and then importing the same product from elsewhere. Are we selling ourselves short, or is it just me?

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