In Search Of “Local”
By Rob Sproule
You don’t get buzzier than the buzzword “local”, these days. From small town Farmers’ Markets to nation wide grocery chains, everyone is waving the banner and trying to get your dollar. But what does “local” even mean? Does a locally grown tomato have to be grown in my town, my province, or my country?
Note that when I refer to local, I’m not necessarily referring to “organic.” A tomato can be organically grown from China (whose definition of organic may be different than ours, by the way, don’t get me started) or non-organically grown from down the road. If you’re shopping on behalf of Mother Earth, there’s no clear winner. Organics leave less chemical footprint but often produce more emissions from transporting them, and local is vice versa. Sometimes you can find both, but not always.
As popular as the term is, “local” has only gained popularity in the past decade or so. It’s rise in consumer consciousness has been meteoric, and while everyone is using it to coach open your wallet, many businesses are using different definitions. Lets search for this elusive “local.”
The local food movement is a grassroots cause that has gone mainstream. It unofficially began in the 1970s as a reaction to Nixon-era farming policies that cut subsidies to small growers in favour of large growers of corn and soy. As small family farms died out in huge numbers, a ground-swell of support formed that has endured and grown for decades.
Buying local has moved from hippie culture to blue collar families and beyond. The benefits, including supporting smaller local producers, decreasing carbon emissions, and enjoying better tasting food, stack up to a win-win for everyone except massive monoculture farms that rely on distance to accumulate volumes.
The term “locavore”, which was the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year, refers to someone who prefers to source his or her food close to home. The typical definition is 100 km. Closely tied to the notion of the “100 mile diet”, dedicated locavores have an easier time in some parts of Canada than others based on climate.
Local Food and the Economy
The local food movement has allowed Farmers’ Markets to flourish across Canada. Many people are willing to pay a little more for food that comes from a known and trusted destination over cheap, imported and unknown. Markets also nurture the social aspect of the local movement, which bring small producers in direct contact with consumers. When was the last time Walmart could tell you what the field where your carrots were grown looked like.
Selling local food is an apparent confluence of ethics meets profit for grocery chains. It makes their customers feel good and reduces their own fuel and transport costs as well as the spoilage long journeys typically bring.
Internally, many grocery chains have their own definition of local, which may range up to a day’s drive (about 800 km).
As of 2014, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency defined locally imported food as being within the same province or, if you were near a provincial border, up to 50 km away. While this definition has its flaws (PEI to Nova Scotia wouldn’t be defined as local but Niagara to Thunder Bay would be), it’s an attempt to establish an objective framework as part of a broader food labelling initiative.