The July 12 city council motion on buying local food for city institutions should be nominated for an international award honouring unenforceable gibberish.
That doesn't mean it wasn't greeted as a victory by local food activists, who tried to save a little face and find a ray of hope to carry on.
Council voted almost unanimously to advise all companies bidding on food contracts that "it is a policy objective of the City to increase the percentage of food grown locally when all factors, including costs, quality and availability are equal."
Let me count the loopholes and weasel words: "a policy objective" instead of the policy; "increase the percentage" (now probably about 5) instead of setting a specific target to reach over time; "food" instead of food and beverage; local when "all factors including costs, quality and availability are equal," as defined and decided by no one in particular. Very large trainloads of imported gravy can be driven through this.
This motion is the result of almost four years of efforts - some of them mine, as a city employee - to put Toronto at the forefront of world cities striving to reduce global warming emissions by, among many other things, purchasing local and sustainable food.
There is no shame in aiming high and making mistakes along the way. On the contrary, one point of going first is to offer lessons for other jurisdictions - especially given that climate and enviro protection are global responsibilities.
Food is taken for granted until it isn't there, just like electricity. And the reasons for particular food choices are normally all over the map unless there's a specific matter of an acute nature, such as a dietary requirement or allergy, or a general reason of deeply held values, such as environmental sustainability.
It is this latter big-picture rationale that Toronto was expressing in 2001 when council unanimously adopted a food charter committing the city to act as a model in matters related to job- and health-rich local and sustainable food purchasing. In the same vein, in 2007 City Hall identified food purchases as a way to reduce global warming emissions and as part of Toronto's reputation as a world-class city, a claim evidently forsaken now that the gravy train has been identified as the big picture du jour.
Without a wider concept, no one can identify the value of paying more for local or local-and-sustainable food. That's an insurmountable problem, because there is no such thing as local or local-and-sustainable food that is not more expensive than non-local, non-sustainable food. Only long-distance foods and long-distance food corporations get massive government subsidies and take the shortcuts in quality and working conditions that deliver lower price.
So a city, like an individual, needs to be guided by another value - preventing the world's climate from being destroyed, for example - that's worth the extra cost per pound. Unwillingness to pay more or wait for the right season are absolute deal-breakers with local and local-and- sustainable food, and there's no way to avoid that truth.
Big-picture values are one thing, ideologies another. There's no room for ideology in food purchasing. Local food sounds good until you consider bread, for example. Bread-quality grains can grow only in the hot and dry western prairie summer. Local sounds good in terms of energy use until you know the size and efficiency of the delivery truck or how many farm inputs and pesticides have been used, since they account for about 21 per cent of energy used in food, compared to less than 15 for transportation.
It's also important to know that claims to being local cannot be verified. Ontario milk and eggs, for example, may well be from Quebec. Livestock may have been slaughtered in Ontario but fed imported feed, almost inevitably from imported GE seeds, and born and raised in Alberta or the U.S.
Attention to detail rather than ideology means that deep competency is required in food matters. The Toronto Environmental Alliance, which took the lead in promoting the citizen side of the local food campaign, had no previous expertise in food matters and actually refused to identify food as a major issue during the recent municipal election.
Yet it pressed the city to adopt a 50 per cent local demand in 2008 - lala land at a time when U of T was edging toward local-sustainable by 5 per cent a year, paving the way for the negative report on city progress that precipitated this year's fiasco.
Competency turns out to be the sleeper issue in these affairs. As well, the cost-cutting mantra that has increasingly monopolized public discourse across North America since the 1980s - most recently flying the flag of "respect for taxpayers" - has devalued government competence, especially the kind Canadian historian Herschel Hardin identified decades ago. This public sector skill built broadcasters, community colleges, medical insurance and public health departments that were the envy of the world. The inept governments of today steer rather than row, and haven't the foggiest idea what's going on or how to get to where we want to go.
The entire back-to-basics and "core service" ideology is about minimal competence, not the resilient and redundant skill set that my pilot friend Walt Palmer tells me of: a superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid having to exercise his superior skill. Those pushing "respect for taxpayers" have no respect for resilient capacity or resilient food systems.