So last night's dinner came from 50,000 kilometres away. It?s enough to make you burp up diesel. But while Canadians are starting to wonder why the hell we?re buying apples from New Zealand, a growing number of Brit thinkers are already calling the concept passé.
Yes, supermarkets across the pond might be waving the UK flag around the veg section and pushing pictures of local farmers to sell their shallots, but the latest green food craze is about counting the carbon used to make a bag of crisps not how many miles those potatoes travelled. And surprise the local produce doesn't always come out on top.
But even this latest measure of sustainability is drawing frowns from eco foodies. Are greenhouse gases really the only gage of harm? If neither food miles nor carbon footprints win the food fight, who should? It's time to push our plates back and ask which sustainable label we should fill our carts with.
Leave it to the Brits to remind us that our politicians are still dragging their knuckles on the ground when it comes to enviro reform. In May, officials there unveiled plans to stamp carbon footprint labels on every product on every shelf nationwide, from oranges to iPods. And this is no feeble gesture destined to gather dust. Already, two of the country's biggest retailers, Marks and Spencer and Tesco, and nine major corporations including Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola and Kimberly-Clark have committed to using the voluntary carbon stamp. Sure, there's a little greenwash potential here, but putting your carbon footprint out there for everyone to see is generally pushing companies to shrink emissions throughout their suppy chain.
It's a trend Toronto-based CarbonCounted is hoping to replicate here. Co-founder and chemical engineer Steve Cox says his organization has 50 Canadian companies signed up, though so far no major grocers or food processors have come forward.
In the meantime, carbon experts on both side of the Atlantic are struggling to decide just what gets tossed in the pot. Carbon counters will probably include the fuel used by tractors on farms, but what about the cars farmhands might drive to get to work in the morning? And what about when that food comes home with us? Do you tabulate how it's kept frozen for weeks, then oven-baked for an hour? What about disposal?
They're slippery questions and the subjects of much debate. But after some number-crunching, Cox admits local isn't always in first place. He did some research for Care Canada and found that Kenyan farmers use much less energy, water and fossil-fuel-heavy fertilizer than Canadian farmers. "Transportation [as in flying the food to other countries] was only about 10 to 15 per cent of the [carbon] equation. We don't have the hard numbers yet, but I think everybody's going to be surprised."
In fact, a recent British report found that transporting grub accounts for only 2 per cent of food emissions. Fossil-fuel-based fertilizers as well as power-thirsty processing and refrigeration account for most of those GHGs. Grow a tomato in an energy-hungry greenhouse and it can actually be carbon-heavier than one grown thousands of kilometres away in a sunny field, then flown in.
It's those kinds of stats that have made UK initiatives to deny organic certification to flown-in organic foods look a little short-sighted.
Still, try bringing up carbon labels with eco food purveyors of all stripes and you'll hear some grumbling. Critics say the system puts all its eggs in the greenhouse-gas basket.
As Laura Telford, president of Canadian Organic Growers, explains, "Food miles and carbon footprint don't take into account [farming's] ecological impact on biodiversity, water or soil. Herbicides and pesticides tend to be very low in terms of their energy footprint, but obviously they have huge environmental consequences."
Does that mean the carbon-counting and locavore movements are out to lunch? Telford says both have their value, and supporting local farmers in particular is still incredibly important, but not for the reasons people focus on. "If the U.S. border closes for a week, are we all going to starve to death?"
Of course, preserving invaluable green space, supporting local communities and ensuring that local farmers don't go belly up and sell their land to developers are other vital reasons to look for "Made in Ontario" tags.
"My biggest problem with the local food movement is that just because it's local doesn't mean it's better for you or for the environment," says Telford. "Local pesticides still cause local cancer."
Telford warns that if you don't feed soil vitality, as organic systems do, "you're not going to have agriculture in 20 years, and the whole local movement misses that key element."
Still, not to be overly self-centred about it, but if that soil you're reviving (and the wildlife and waterways you're preserving) through organic farming methods is thousands of kilometres away, how much does that benefit Ontario's ecosystem? Nearly 80 per cent of the organic produce we buy here is imported (largely from California), and that number shoots up to 90 per cent if you're talking packaged organics. Yes, it's nice to support the earth-loving farmers of the world (one love and all that), but what about ours?
Turns out the problem isn't demand; consumers are asking for local organics in droves. It's meeting that demand that's a problem or more like a crisis, says Telford.
"We've got 3,600 organic farmers in Canada, but we have a lot more people than that to feed. There's just no food to be had. There's no local organic food for buyers to buy."
It doesn't help that many of those farmers are relatively small and can't meet enormous orders from retailers like Loblaw and A&P.
Enter Lori Stahlbrand of Local Food Plus. Stalhbrand is marshalling a new kind of certification system for local, sustainable food that not only opens up the market to a larger herd of green-friendly farmers, but also has the potential to get everyone in all food camps grinning.
"What we're trying to do is say, "Let's find a way to recognize farmers who may or may not have organic certification but who are moving very significantly toward a more sustainable production system.' They may be in transition to organic, they may have decided not to go with certification, but we can evaluate that they are using very sustainable methods. They may be conventional farmers who are doing some form of integrated pest management."
The goal is eventually to make it easier to meet the demand for eco-friendly fare grown close to home. At the same time, Local Food Plus is probably the most comprehensive, crowd-pleasing food label on the market, merging advanced ecological farming methods with animal rights and worker protections, not to mention cutting-edge stipulations for shrinking greenhouse gas emissions from field to table.
It's like an "organics plus" system for certified growers like Harmony Organic Dairy, which captures the warmth from fresh cow's milk to heat its barns. As well, it opens the door to leading-edge conventional farmers keen on holistic methods. Really, it's the most exciting thing to come out of the food movement since sliced spelt bread.
So where can you get your hands on the stuff? As with local organics, supply is still an issue. Local Food Plus is expanding as rapidly as it can, but so far you'll only spot the LFP label at one independent grocer (Fiesta Farms), one restaurant chain (Il Fornello) and one school (U of T). But keep your eyes peeled.
There's an ever louder rumble for truly sustainable food options building in our bellies. We just have to keep asking for more and pull out our wallets when we spot them.
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