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How to build a local food system

This story first appeared on Jul 15, 2010 in The Coast:

The global food system has worked so well that Nova Scotia farms are disappearing, but with oil getting scarce, the days of food travelling over 8,000 km before finding a mouth are numbered.

By Chris Benjamin

Food. It’s one of the first things we think of when we wake up. It’s a basic need that trumps love, career, even sex. Two, three times a day, the belly must be filled.

Yet, too often, we shove any old hunk of calories down our throats. We eat cheap. “Only nine percent of our income is spent on food,” Richard Melvin tells me after a full day’s work in the fields, “a historical low.” We spent twice that 40 years ago.

Melvin is president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture and a fifth-generation Annapolis Valley farmer. He’s also one of the more optimistic people I’ve met.

Optimism is practically a job requirement for Nova Scotia farmers, who make (after expenses) about $5,000 a year working 80 hours a week, according to Statistics Canada data analyzed by GPI Atlantic. It’s more some years, less others, but never much.

The average Nova Scotia farmer is 57 years old, and just seven percent of them are under 35. Within a decade we’re going to lose two-thirds of them to retirement. And farmland is disappearing at a startling rate too—we’ve lost more than half of it in 35 years.

We’re losing one of the few industries that makes a positive contribution to our health, environment and rural economy, and city folks have reason to be concerned. We’re part of the problem.

Garbage in, ecology out
We eat ourselves sick with imported sugars and fatty foods that can take months to go from field to belly—foods that are artificially fertilized, pumped with preservatives, frozen, exposed to more pathogens than we’ve ever known, and microwaved.

Jen Scott, a farmer and researcher working on a new “Food Miles” report for the Ecology Action Centre and the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (due out later this month and co-authored by EAC’s Marla MacLeod), cites an American study estimating that food, on average, travels an astounding 8,000km before reaching the grocery store. That figure includes distances of inputs to farms, from farms to processing facilities and from processing facilities to stores.

Nova Scotia imports about 93 percent of the food we eat, by weight, and it’s not just coffee, cocoa and sugar that can’t be grown here. We import apples in the fall while exporting our own world-renowned varieties. As many as half of the apples we eat come from the US, South America and New Zealand.

“Much of our trade is redundant,” says Scott, “and it’s rarely discussed.”

Nova Scotia’s agricultural capacity is under-used. We produce less than half our own cheese and about a 10th of the beef we eat. Less than half our broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, green peppers and cucumbers, and almost none of our pears, tomatoes or fresh celery, are produced in province.

These are foods that could and should be supplied from home, where labour, health and environmental standards improve quality. By importing them, we export our environmental impacts to places like the Amazon, where much of the world’s rainforests are being replaced with palm oil, soy and beef operations.

Eating locally reduces transportation energy and emissions, but that’s not the only way it’s environmentally friendly. Nova Scotia’s farms tend to be relatively small and family owned. In this system beef cows live on pasturelands that some wildlife share as habitat. The cows eat grass and clover—their natural diet—all summer and hay in the winter. Their manure is usually composted and used as natural fertilizer.

But most of our beef comes from Alberta, where cows live in massive feedlots that take habitat from wildlife. They’re fed grains that require intensive use of soil, chemical and fossil fuels and which are often imported from former rainforests in the southern hemisphere. The cows are slaughtered in centralized facilities that could turn Danny Williams into a lifetime PETA member.

Farm Gate
Our dependence on imports is a major cause of the economic freefall Nova Scotia farmers face. Their net income has decreased 80 percent in three decades, falling below zero in several of the last 10 years.

Farm debt has rocketed from slightly unmanageable to off the charts. In 2007, a low-wage year in a low-wage industry, the average Nova Scotia farmer netted just $1,500 and held a whopping $190,000 in debt. No other entrepreneur would carry debt like that for such minimal payback.

“The lack of profitability is rooted in two related macro challenges,” Melvin says. “First is the globalization of the last 25 years. We’re competing now against food from countries with lower labour costs and weaker environmental standards.”

The second major challenge is that grocery retailers have consolidated into just two major players in the province, Superstore (owned by Loblaws) and Sobeys. Walmart is an emerging threat to their stranglehold. “The tremendous volumes they sell allow them to buy globally,” Melvin says. “Price is the dominant factor.”

Farmers are trapped in what farmer and author Thomas Pawlick calls the “farm-gate squeeze.” The costs of inputs like fertilizer, pesticides, equipment and seeds, as well as meeting increasingly stringent health and environmental regulations, are all rising. At the other end, although food prices are increasing, farmers are getting a smaller and smaller share for their troubles.

With miniscule margins, gargantuan start-up costs and an extreme degree of risk young farmers aren’t taking up the mantle. “When a young person is looking at the farming situation,” Melvin says, “considering the business, they see it’s not that profitable.”

If young people won’t farm, our farms are gone. And so are most of our rural communities.

Farmers are our only hope for survival. We’re facing rising oceans, increasingly chaotic weather patterns, a global population expected to hit nine billion by 2050, soil depletion and grain and water shortages. And we’re about to go cold turkey on the oil our global food system needs.

Geoscientists in academia and government say we’re approaching peak deliverability of oil, the point at which the demands of the energy market can no longer be met. Oil companies have scoured the globe seeking accessible oil, found little and, in the face of the recession, divested in exploration efforts. We’re as little as five years away.

With all these threats to the system, something’s gotta give.

“We’ve had access to a global food basket for 25 to 50 years, cheaply,” Melvin says. “But people don’t realize how fragile the food system is, how little inventory there is—just two to three days’ inventory in food warehouses, and just 60 days’ worth of grain. If a hiccup”— a drought, oil price spike, spot gas shortage—“hits a major production area then within 60 days millions or billions could be without food.”

The good news is we don’t have to depend on the global food system to feed ourselves. For every hectare of farmland in this province, another nine hectares is suitable for farming. Less than half of that is needed to produce what we consume.

A2005 Atlantic Canada Food Consumer study found that a “strong majority” of grocery shoppers prefer to support the local economy with their purchases. A 2009 study found that almost 86 per cent of Canadians prefer to eat locally, with 77 percent willing to pay more to do so. This consumer desire is so palpable that the province’s Select Nova Scotia program is hosting series of local eating celebrations—dubbed IncrEDIBLE Picnics—in August.

But the way we define “local” varies from food bought at farmers’ markets or grown in our own backyards, to within province or just Canadian grown. Some go by ingredients and some feel as long as food is processed in Canada it’s local.

The interest in the issue is there, and the challenge remains finding local food. More than two-thirds of Canadians say they read packaging to see where their food is produced, but the true journey of food items—say beef that was raised in Alberta, fed corn grown on deforested land in Brazil, slaughtered in Ontario and sold in Nova Scotia—is not found on labels.

Some provinces have voluntary certification programs that inspect farms to see how local food really is, as well as how healthy and sustainable, and how fairly farm workers were treated in its production. In Nova Scotia, the safest bet for farmers and consumers is the good old farmers’ market.

“The Halifax Farmers’ Market has been a godsend,” Paul Colville tells me. He and his wife Ruth own Coldspring Farm in Middleton—one of the few legal producers of free-range eggs in the province. “Our farm probably wouldn’t exist without it.”

He supports federal, provincial and municipal investments in the new Halifax market, which opens in August and will run seven days a week. “I wish it could be replicated throughout the province,” he says. “If you’re in Truro where the hell do you go on a weekday?”

There are around 15 farmers’ markets across the province, but few operate throughout the week. “You have to make it work for the consumer,” Colville says, adding that Nova Scotia policymakers need to put more work into understanding what consumers really want, and how to provide it. “If a consumer asks for a half a goat, farmers will find a goddamn goat, but if some policymaker says we should invest in goats, forget it.”

Farmers’ markets aren’t the only way farmers connect to consumers. There are community-supported agriculture groups (where members pay set rates to farms and receive regular food deliveries—see “And local seafood…” sidebar at right), roadside stands and direct sales to restaurants.

These and farmers’ markets bring in about $90 million a year (and growing) to farmers. They get 80 cents to the dollar selling direct to consumer, versus nine cents selling through retailers. And selling directly to consumers builds that crucial relationship between farmers and food shoppers.

“We farmers are two percent of the population,” says Melvin. “We need to educate the other 98 percent. And we need to understand what’s important to them.”

The growth of marketing food directly to consumers is encouraging, but farmers also recognize the need for a more systemic approach. “We need a food policy,” Melvin says, “an overarching vision and strategy of where we want our food to be, how to make it sustainable.”

He says it’s time to pull together farmers, consumer groups, policymakers, retaillers, restaurants and institutional cafeterias to rethink the food system and identify localization opportunities. “We can’t be held hostage to the lowest price on the globe for every unit of food.”

Nova Scotia land offers ample space and opportunity to feed our population—if farming can be made financially viable for young people. Quebec has addressed food security with small grants for new organic farmers—the only real agricultural growth sector—creating CSA programs or selling at farmers’ markets. A similar program in this province, costing just over $30 million, could jump-start enough farms to feed Nova Scotia.

Scott feels the first step is setting an ambitious but realistic goal for local production, as the state of Maine did (80 percent by 2020). “Increasing farmers’ share of food revenues would also be a good start,” she says.

But to reach 80 percent local production, or even 50 percent, a highly localized foodshed infrastructure must be created. A foodshed is everything involved in producing food—the land, equipment, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, the roads food travels, processing and storage facilities, markets and kitchens. Building that infrastructure will take time, according to Paul Colville. “If Sobeys said today, ‘we want to increase local selection in every store by 20 percent,’ it would take years for us to get there.”

If the geoscientists are right about impending oil shocks, we have just a few years of food imports left. Better start localizing now.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Your article helped me a lot, is there any more related content? Thanks!

    March 11, 2024

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