Buying Local is About Health, Environment, Economics and You

This is the Buy Local Presentation by Art Smith, CEO of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, at this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. I would like to thank you for the invitation to speak at this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair about an issue that is strongly being pushed by the organization I represent, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association – a provincial lobby organization composed of 28 individual fruit and vegetable grower groups and marketing boards, with a total farmer membership of more than 7,500, and an economic value estimated in the billions of dollars.

The question of sustainability crosses many jurisdictions: economic, environmental, health, food safety, food security, rural life, and alternative land use.

With the multitude of jurisdictions comes the inevitable governmental response – myriad of rules and regulations with costs that have been downloaded onto the backs of farmers at a time when margins are thin or have disappeared altogether while combating competition that doesn’t have to adhere to the same restrictive guidelines the Canadian government imposes upon its own farmers. Farmers have been environmentally friendly, with thousands filingEnvironmental Farm Plans – sometimes at great costs to create fencing, barriers, or in-filling to avoid waterways, maintaining traceability records for distributors and government inspectors, reducing pesticide usage and other high input costs, including fuel reduction; whatever it takes to save both the environment and an extra dollar here or there. As such, it should be noted that government policies have severely impeded the ability of farmers – one of the most trusted professions on this continent – to do their jobs. From taxation to greenbelt, from PMRA to CFIA, finding an understanding government continues to be one of the real barriers and challenges facing the fruit and vegetable industry.

While our global competitors are shipping in millions of pounds of food each month, our government, unable to provide funding and manpower to adequately do the proper job, have taken to doing scant searches of produce arriving daily. When a food scare takes place, it has not usually been found from the CFIA, because they are far too busy in Canadian farmer’s fields ensuring that all the rules and regulations are put in place in this country for our agriculture industry are not applicable to our competitors.

Harmonization of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides between the United States and Canada was to have taken place 15 years ago – yet today, Canadian farmers are at a huge disadvantage against our American brethren because they have access to safe, newer, more environmentally friendly products than we do. Government should understand that pests do not abide by an imaginary border when they are buzzing around our skies. Our competitors are unencumbered by labour reforms, including a hike of the minimum wage, because they can pay their employees less than a dollar a day, in many nations, and that is considered acceptable. Our competitors have captured our domestic marketplace share by flooding our country with cheap products – most travelling from parts unknown around the globe via plane, train, and transport truck before hitting the shelves of your local grocery store.

I could go on and on, but what it does show is that the majority of what we, in agriculture, do is for the benefit of society – a good which is little thought of nor financially recognized by either the consumer or governments.

Ladies and gentlemen, what I am going to focus on encompasses all of these areas and is critical to the survival of our industry and all of the benefits we provide.

How do we accomplish that? Two words: Buy Local.

Buy Local is not new. In fact, more than 40 years ago, buying local was all that we did. But with the advent of more commercialization and globalization, consumers are given far more choices today than at any other time in history. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Canadians, we are a vast array of multi-cultural people, gathered in this great nation because we all want a better life. But, that also means having access to some of the products that they left behind – and the retail grocery chains and even small markets have responded to that increasing demand to supply products from countries that, up until a few years ago, we would not have considered.

Knowing, however, where something comes from – and understanding fruit and vegetable production in those countries we import from – well, that’s two different stories and consumers want to understand both sides. Ontario is the most diverse growing area in Canada, with farmers producing more than 130 different commodities in the fruit and vegetable sector alone. In fact, there are now more than 220 different farm commodities grown and raised in Ontario – well above that of any of the other provinces. This diversity provides consumers with safe, nutritious, and reliable products in season, and in some cases, year round.

As long time advocates of a Buy Local, Buy Ontario program, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Associationis pleased that the Ontario government has so clearly come out in favour of a concept that combines rural economic growth and agricultural sustainability with an eye towards limiting the environmental impact caused by the on-going, daily importation of foreign produce.

There is even research, recently released by the American Medical Association, that attributes today’s obesity and weight problems in Canada and the United States with the fact that our two nations no longer eat seasonally.

The human body is geared, biologically, to perform under certain conditions – and one of those conditions is the access to seasonal products. Eating year-round products has actually been a disservice to our own bodies – if you are to believe the scientific data being accumulated. But, it does speak volumes about a societal change that has occurred over the past four decades. North American society has slipped in its approach to health – with the dubious honour of leading the world in medical diagnosed diseases such diabetes and cancer.

So why buy local? There are several reasons – but the most is the taste. Food grown in your own community was probably picked within the past day or two. It’s crisp, sweet, and loaded with flavor. Several studies have shown that the average distance food travels from farm to plate is 1,500 miles. In a week-long (or more) delay from harvest to dinner table, sugars turn to starches, plant cells shrink, and produce loses its vitality. Taste is always something that consumers demand; think about that first Ontario strawberry you have once the season begins. There is a taste that can’t be copied by California berries found year-round.

Along with taste is the health benefits derived from eating fresh produce. Nutrients are more abundant in fresh fruits and vegetables immediately after harvesting than those sitting for a week or more in storage before getting out onto the shelves of grocery stores. It has been demonstrated that even frozen or canned products have more nutritional value –because they are often prepared shortly after the food was picked.

Fruit and vegetable consumption equals good health – and Ontario farmers provide the diversity that ensures a life-long journey to proper living. The colours of the rainbow reflect the healthy nature of fruits and vegetables – and Canada’s recently released Food Guide is telling consumers that increased consumption equals increased healthy benefits for all. In fact, fruit and vegetable consumption for its healthy benefits alone has prompted the government to put this vital sector of the agricultural industry at the peak of the food pyramid.

A healthy diet, composed of locally-grown, locally-harvested fresh fruits and vegetables is the perfect way to provide balance, nutrition, and energy throughout your busy schedule. Snacking on locally-grown produce also provides economic value to the province, its farmers, and ensures that access to local, fresh, healthy, and wholesome products is available to you today, tomorrow – and well into the future.

And that future must ensure that environmental issues are addressed as well. Buying local supports a clean environment and benefits wildlife – a well-managed family farm is a place where the resources of fertile soil and clean water are valued. Farmers are environmental stewards of the land – living and working, with their families, on land that provides the very essence of life: food and oxygen. Ontario’s farmers are the province’s locally growing health care providers – helping to ensure its citizens an outstanding lifestyle through improved diet. Buying local means getting the safest, healthiest, most nutritious fruits and vegetables available – while reducing our society’s environmental footprint.

Farmers throughout Ontario are doing their part to ensure they are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, when it comes to environmental issues. This isn’t about organic versus conventional. That argument is fading with the buy local movement. Rather, today’s farmers are contributing to maintaining the environment by participating in everything from environmental farm plans, designed to reduce the carbon footprint of today’s farmer, to water management, food safety programs, and cutting-edge, waste-eliminating best farming practices, today’s farmers continue to do more, with less, than any other generation before them. They are proud to be providing a healthy future for all.

Buying local means supporting farmers at a time when their voice is being diminished as the industry ages and more and more farmers are selling their properties because their children are no longer interested in working in an industry that, for too long, has seen little reason for celebration. Farmers are a vanishing breed – mostly due to historic record lows on various commodity prices and little opportunity to expand domestic market share at a retail sector being able to import at far less than even our farmer’s own cost of production. Today’s farmer often gets less than 10 cents of the retail food dollar. Local farmers who sell direct to consumers cut out the middleman and get full retail price for their food – which means farm families can afford to stay on the farm, doing the work they love.

In addition, buying local food builds community. There was a time, not too long ago, when almost all the foods going into grocery stores were delivered to the back door of that establishment. Those shopping there likely knew the farmer – and even dropped by the farm to pick up their own products directly. It was a time-honoured connection between the rural and urban residents and gave consumers the chance to talk to farmers about the weather, what was growing, how it was being grown, even establishing long-held relationships so that urban families could visit with their children and grandchildren, maintaining, however briefly, that vital connection to the land.

Today, however, most people are at least three generations removed from agriculture. They may have a great-grandparent who came from a farm, but as each subsequent generation left the farm, it has become more difficult to get in tune with where our food comes from.

Buying local, as I said earlier, is about knowing where your food comes from, how it was grown, and limiting the environmental impact of eating. Eating organic asparagus in November, grown in Thailand and flown air freight to British Columbia, to be off-loaded and put into stores after being trucked to 5,000 kilometers, defeats the entire purpose of firstly buying organic product – and secondly, saving the environment. In addition, with so many questions coming forward regarding the contamination of our food from other sources, like last week’s announcement to pull romaine lettuce salads due to the discovery of e.coli, Canadians want the assurance that their food is not going to kill them.

In Canada, farmers are held up to the highest standards of production, through intensely regulated, governmental bodies like the Canadian Federation Inspection Agency. They are held up to high standards within their own sectors. The greenhouse vegetable farmers, the Ontario asparagus farmers, the Ontario tender fruit sector – and many others, have all been actively involved with and supportive of food safety initiatives that are cutting –edge in our industry across Canada.

And, they are from our province – where buy local should impact upon you, as a consumer, the most.

Our food system has changed over the past few decades, but there is a subtle change taking place. Consumers are challenging the “norm” of our food system – and asking retailers, the media, and politicians about our food.

They want a healthy community food system, one that includes improved access to fresh, healthy foods; less dependence on long-distance food transportation; and support for a viable, local agricultural economy.

It’s a beginning – but it’s also common sense. After all, it’s what your grandparents did – and they were also the ones that told you such gems as an apple a day keeps the doctor away, Popeye eating spinach made him stronger for a reason, or eating fruits and vegetables would make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. Well, almost – but they knew that farmers are the future to ensuring access to nourishing, flavorful, and abundant food.

They also knew that a healthy diet, composed of locally-grown, locally-harvested fresh fruits and vegetables is the perfect way to provide balance, nutrition, and energy throughout your busy schedule.

Snacking on locally-grown produce provides economic value to the province, its farmers, and is the best way to ensure that all of the above, environmental, health, food safety, food security, rural life, and alternative land use are met, providing you with access to local, fresh, healthy, and wholesome products is available for you today, tomorrow, and well into the future.

Remember when you are talking about food, add the story of fruit and vegetable products which are tasty, nutritious, and environmentally friendly – and produced for you by your locally growing health care providers: today’s farmers.

This speech appeared in the January 2008 edition of The Grower. Reprinted with the permission of the authors.

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