Why local?

‘Eat local’ has become a bit of a buzzword over the past few years here in Newfoundland, yet we still import over 90 per cent of our fresh fruit and vegetables. Here’s why local food is so important.

As a budding homesteader, local food is important to me. While I dream of becoming as self-reliant as possible, and being on a ‘first name basis’ with all of my food, buying or bartering for food and other goods will always be a part of the equation.

I appreciate concepts like the ‘100-mile diet’ for their philosophy of trying to keep all things local. These sorts of ideas may be feasible to those living in warmer conditions and areas with denser populations, but the reality of living on a blustery rock facing the Atlantic Ocean is quite different. Fact is, unless you’re willing to live off of cold-hearty plants like kale all year long—and do a lot of preserving—we need to import some of our food. But we sure don’t need to import over 90 per cent of it like we do now.

Over time, some centralization of any production process makes sense. Larger operations can achieve efficiencies of scale, and concepts like economist David Ricardo’s ‘comparative advantage’, published in 1817, mean, for example, that it makes more sense to grow grapes for making port in sunny Portugal, rather than rainy old England. Unfortunately, this basic concept has become badly distorted in the modern age, as large agricultural businesses put profits first, inevitably leading to declines in food quality and other problems, like increased instances of food borne illness.

This centralized system has led to absurdities like the fact that one small African country, Kenya, grows and supplies the entire European Union with over 35 per cent of its fresh-cut flowers. Export of Kenyan flowers to the EU market is so strong that Nairobi International Airport has an entire terminal dedicated to export of flowers. This example highlights a problem that demonstrates some of the trouble with centralized, globalized agriculture: Kenyan agricultural workers earn 4,854 Kenya shillings ($61.53) per month, compared to a minimum wage of $194 per month for non-agricultural sectors in the country.

Countries like France, where many of these flowers end up, pay a minimum wage of 1,458 EUR ($2,100) per month. Even Europe’s cheap source of labour, Bulgaria, pays minimum wage of 184 EUR ($265) a month — four times higher than that of a Kenyan flower grower! So this giant flower import scheme is built on the backs of underpaid workers on both continents. These import models don’t necessarily lead to cheaper goods, but tend to result in higher profit margins for multinational corporations.

The Kenyan Flower Arrangement also highlights another problem with over-reliance on importing fresh goods, and demonstrates another risk we face here in Newfoundland and Labrador: uncontrollable events that interrupt shipping. When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, shutting down flights to and from Europe, Kenya’s entire agricultural export industry was paralyzed. Workers were laid off, millions of dollars worth of product was destroyed, and the price of fresh cut flowers in the EU, when they could be found, skyrocketed.

Many of us can easily remember empty produce shelves at Dominion and Sobeys stores across the province, something that has happened numerous times in recent years when harsh weather has prevented planes or ships from transporting to the province. An extended weather event can affect the availability and cost of fresh food, as we learned during Hurricane Igor. With only 10 per cent of our vegetables being produced in-province, the Food Security Network estimates that, in the event of a supply disruption, we will run out of fresh vegetables in two or three days.

Societies have always imported food. Ancient shipping manifests show commodities like honey, fish sauce, and olive oil being exported from one end of the Roman Empire to the other over 2,000 years ago. Before the onset of our current ‘globalized’ era, food imports were relegated to things you just could not find or grow locally: tea, coffee, and exotic fruits such as pineapples, avocados and mangoes, to name a few. These things were either imported, or we did without them.

Exporting things such as ‘luxury’ bottled water from one part of the world to another would have been inconceivable a few generations ago. Nowadays, we have entered such extreme instances of clueless consumption that here in Canada we import exotic bottled water from places like Switzerland and Italy, while people in Europe import bottled water from Canada, due to perceived taste differences. It boggles the mind.

Photo by Lisa McBride.
Photo by Lisa McBride.

I believe the solution for us here in Newfoundland and Labrador lies in finding a ‘happy middle’ between indulging in our food preferences (I’m not giving up my coffee!), and eating with consideration for the seasons and local food production. Don’t buy imported fruit if local fruit is available. Blueberries are easy to find at farmer’s markets, or at many roadside stands, and can also be picked just about anywhere you look throughout the province this time of year. However, the blueberries for sale right now at some local grocery stores are—yup, you guessed it—imported from out of province.

Access to local food might be a bit difficult for those of us living in or near St John’s, but it is downright disastrous for those in isolated rural locations. While we don’t experience the absurdity of paying $29 for a bottle Cheez Whiz, like what has happened in Nunavut, things can get pretty bad. Food prices in remote communities like Rigolet have seen residents paying over $7 for a loaf of white bread, for instance. The lack of available fresh, local food can be a pretty large factor in entrenching poverty.

The good news is that many wonderful organizations such as the Food Security Network are doing excellent work in developing food security. Among other things they are developing community gardens, composting programs and food workshops throughout the province, with the goal of fostering healthier communities whose people can then spend less of their incomes on expensive, imported food. If residents throughout the province take further steps to grow their own fruit and vegetables, we will add momentum to these movements, creating a supply of healthier local food and saving money on food costs.

The trouble with imports and centralization

Locally sourced food has many advantages over imported food, particularly when it comes to freshness. The turnaround time for centralized systems can be surprisingly long; I learned while working in a coffee shop many years ago that ‘today’s fresh baked goods’ are often three to four days old by the time they get placed out for sale. In many cases, tomatoes can be up to six weeks old by the time they appear on store shelves for sale.

Tomatoes are picked while unripe, and ripened with ethylene gas instead of sunshine. Ethylene gas isn’t harmful to the food, but compare a gas-ripened tomato with one ripened on the vine by the sun and eaten fresh, and the sun-ripened tomato will win every time, in my opinion. Apples are even worse — they are coated with a wax that stabilizes the fruit and hides imperfections. Apples can be up to six months old by the time they appear on store shelves.

Another reason to choose local food is because it can reduce your exposure to serious gastric diseases and other parasites such as listeria, cyclosporiasis and E. coli. Centralized processing at massive factories has turned what would have once been small, isolated outbreaks into national, or even international, outbreaks of food-borne illness. Importing food from places with questionable wage and workplace practices leads to problems, such as the recent outbreak of cyclosporiasis affecting cilantro sold in the U.S. Hundreds of people were sickened with the nasty gastrointestinal pathogen, caused by unsanitary working conditions. Farm workers were not provided with outhouses and were not allowed to leave the fields they tended to in order to take bathroom breaks, forcing them to ‘do their business’ directly on top of the crops being sold to international markets. It’s a sad state of affairs when we need to buy local to ensure there isn’t poop on our food.

E. Coli is another major food borne illness that can be mitigated by buying local. Store bought ground beef is usually imported here to N.L. McDonald’s has recently admitted that a burger made from their ground beef contains meat from over 100 different cows.

“A single fast food hamburger now contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle,” Eric Schlosser wrote in his life-changing book Fast Food Nation. Buying local ground beef from a farmer’s market or from a local farm, where only a few animals are processed at a time, ensures your ground beef only comes from one, or a few, animals instead of 100. This reduces the risk of cross contamination and reduces your chance of exposure to these pathogens.

With the drought in California now into its fourthyear, we are beginning to see double digit increases in the cost of some of our imported food. There is another potential problem coming with our Californian imports, however — the fact that, due to water shortages, crops in California are now often being irrigated with waste-water from hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ — even on crops certified as organic.

High levels of methylene chloride have been found during soil samples taken from fields irrigated with fracking water, leading to concerns about contamination of fields and crops. Many of the chemicals present in water used for hydraulic fracturing are so-called industry secrets; they are considered proprietary and, in accordance with U.S. federal law, the contents are not released to the public.

Being kept in the dark about what chemicals may or may not be contaminating our food is very concerning, and the quickest and surest way to counteract that uncertainty, short of sweeping changes to our globalized food system, is to grow it yourself or support a local business that offers transparency about their growing practices and sources.

While avoiding food borne illness and food contamination is important to me, the most important factor in choosing local when it comes to the animal products I consume is being able to ensure humane living conditions and a high quality of life for the animals. A growing disconnect between the animals that produce our food and the products we buy at the grocery store has allowed the deplorable conditions of factory farms to flourish nearly unchallenged. Pigs spend their entire lives in crates only meant for giving birth, cows are beaten with bats and whipped when they do not move quickly enough, and male baby chicks are put on a conveyor belt where they are thrown, alive, into meat grinders.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is often the watchword of large-scale producers, and the way to combat this is to opt out, either through being on a first-name basis with animals by keeping them yourself, or by being on a first-name basis with your local farmer.

Photo by Lisa McBride.
Photo by Lisa McBride.

Keeping our own backyard animals, which is allowed in the city of St John’s provided you follow the rules as set out in bylaw #1514, has been an extremely enriching experience. I get my daily milk from one of my best friends, a little Boer goat named Maple. She comes when I call her, plays silly little goat games with me when we’re out in the yard, and she’ll even ‘shake a hoof’ if I bring her a little treat. The experience of owning two pet milking goats is far more rewarding than the experience of going to the store and buying a carton of milk, and these two goats get happy, free-range lives instead of being kept in a large-scale dairy operation to stock their milk on store shelves.

Unfortunately, in some of our former farming communities, an ominous trend is ongoing. Many smaller municipalities that have a rich history of farming have town councils that have turned against local agriculture in recent years. Paradise, Conception Bay South, Glovertown, and a number of other municipalities on the Avalon Peninsula have recently passed bylaws outlawing food animals in backyards — even just a few chickens or a single goat. The same thing happened in my old hometown of Surrey, B.C, growing up. The process of gentrification meant that the ‘upwardly mobile’ didn’t want to see front yard gardens or hear backyard chickens – reminders of a rural past. These things were outlawed, and the culture for local food, very sadly, disappeared over the course of a generation.

It is making a comeback in urban British Columbia, but these skills all have to be re-learned from scratch. I believe it is of great importance to protect the right to grow and keep your own food, especially in our former farming communities. We are fortunate enough here in N.L. that many of our elders still have strong ties to the land and still possess these skills. It is critical to pass these skills on and entrench these traditions once more, while our elders are still around to teach us their knowledge. I hope that an active food movement can challenge these new laws and that people, while being respectful of their neighborhood and community, can produce food in their front yards and keep a few animals for eggs or milk.

Keeping our own backyard food animals has given me an appreciation for where my eggs come from, too. Our society tends to dismiss poultry as insignificant since we have so heavily commoditized them, but after keeping ducks I am keenly aware of how social, how curious, and how intelligent these birds can be. I can call out to an individual duck in our flock, and he or she will waddle on over to see what I want. They frolic, quack and play in the pond, having as much fun as a group of children at the splash pads at Bowring Park. Expectant mother ducks will ‘talk’ to their eggs, and in the final few days before hatching, the eggs talk back! Ducklings already recognize the sound of their mother’s voice upon hatching, and have ‘imprinted’ upon their new parent (be it duck or human), before they are even born!

Our little homestead has been a wonderful experience so far, and it has helped connect us to all aspects of our food in ways we never anticipated. However, not everyone is in a position to keep milking goats in their yard. Growing food of all sorts is definitely its own reward, but for those gaps in your own food supply, choose local. Your friendly neighborhood vegetable farmer, poultry keeper or CSA (community supported agriculture) will thank you for it.

To read about and discuss local food, or for conversation on any other homesteading or sustainability topic relevant to Newfoundland and Labrador, come join our growing social media community on Facebook: Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL.

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