Friday, 17 September 2010

The Garden

I saw 'The Garden', a documentary, last year in class- which was somewhat awkward because it made me cry quite a bit.

It is such a sad, but important story. A definite must see.

The film explores and exposes the fault lines in American society and raises crucial and challenging questions about liberty, equality, and justice for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

Click Here for more information.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Beyond Food Miles

The New York Times recently ran an Op-Ed piece that almost seems to disparage the local food movement. Contributor Stephen Budiansky states:

"...the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use".

Not long ago I wrote a blog post entitled 'Do Locavores Have it Wrong?' in which I reviewed James McWilliams' main points from his book 'Just Food: Where locavores get it wrong and how we can truly eat responsibly'. These points are pretty much the same as Budiansky's- mainly that we have to look beyond food miles to move towards a sustainable food system.

I agree.

I just don't agree with statements like that of the Center for Consumer Freedom: "Someone should tell the “locavores,” who encourage people to buy food from the closest sources possible - like farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs (that buying something grown halfway around the world can be more eco-friendly than buying something grown just a county or two away)".

Local Food Systems (LFS) have been found to be effective means to achieve food sovereignty- the right of people to local, healthy and ecological food production, realized in equitable conditions that respect the rights to decent working conditions and incomes- CSAs and Farmer's Markets are examples of such LFSs. That said, it is now understood that to achieve this vision, LFSs must go beyond food miles (See Figure 1.0).

A Few Facts:

A globalized food system

-Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, 37 industrialized countries, including Canada, agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels. As of 2007, Canada's emissions were 26% above 1990 levels, and continue to rise, making this country one of the top 10 global polluters.

-Transportation accounts for 25% of Canada’s GHG emissions, more than any other sector of the economy. About 30-40% of road cargo moves food (a UK stat- data lacking for Canada)

-Between 1968 and 1998, world food trade increased by 184%, with the majority of food trade occurring between countries of similar environments, resulting in the same food items merely being swapped. For example, in 2005, Ontario exported $69 Million, and imported $17 Million, in fresh tomatoes.

-Rather than selling to local retailers, farmers sell into a complex system wherein food is usually shipped hundreds of kilometres to centralized processing plants, only to potentially be sold in a supermarket close to the product’s point of origin.

-In the US and Canada, food typically travels between 2,500 and 4,000 km from farm to plate, up 25% since 1980.

- Using imported versus local ingredients generates four times the GHG emissions; one study found that replacing imports of 58 common food items with local counterparts would be the equivalent to taking 16,191 cars off the road.

Local Food Systems (LFS)

In response to this globalized food sourcing system, concerns about the environments, and a decreased confidence in the agri-food industry (due to outbreaks, GMOs, etc.), there has been a surge of LFS initiatives- Canada is home to over 2300, the top four of which are:

31.3%- Restaurant and chef initiatives serving local food
24.9%- Farmers’ markets generating $1.03 billion in sales
15.3%- Retail grocery stores sourcing local foods
12.8%- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

More Facts (some of these points are mentioned in Budiansky's article).

-It is true that foods traveling a shorter distance will not necessarily have less of an environmental impact; mode of transportation, size of vehicle and economies of scale (how much can be moved at once) must be considered.

For example, air transportation produces the most GHG emissions, followed by road (small-sized vehicle), road (truck), rail, and water.

That means that food transported by water could travel seven times farther than food transported by road (truck) and release less GHG
a unit of food delivered by tractor trailer from California to Ontario may require less fuel than if delivered within a 100-mile radius in a small pick-up truck.

Studies show that food systems that integrate bulk deliveries of sustainable produce are more environmentally friendly than options such as farmers’ markets, requiring a greater number of small-sized vehicles (See figure 1.0 above).

-It is also true that a focus on food miles ignores energy use at other stages in the food system.

Transportation accounts for 11% of energy use, but agricultural production and processing account for 83%- this includes things like water use, harvesting techniques, type of fuel used etc. That's why it was found that it's more energy efficient to ship grass-fed lamb raised in New Zealand’s by boat to Britain than transporting local grain-fed amb within Britain, or to import tomatoes from Spain to the UK than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK off-season.

What Does this all Mean?

-We need to continue to support our local farmers by buying from farmer's markets and CSAs.

Despite the growth of LFS initiatives, farm incomes have continued to fall, dropping 24% between 1988 and 2002. The average Ontario farmer earns just over $8,000 a year, while production costs continue to rise.

Farmers can realize a 40-80% increase in return by marketing through LFSs by capturing more of the value added normally captured by agri-business.

Money spent locally has also been shown to boost local economy- one study found that a 20% increase in local food purchasing would generate $500M worth of economic activity, enough to stimulate 10,000 new jobs.

-Driving more than 10km (6 miles) to a farmer's market is probably not the most environmentally-friendly activity. We need to ask our local grocers to source locally-grown products.

What's Happening?

Because of this kind of discussion, researchers from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have proposed the use of food “eco-labels” on foods that will give consumers more information than just point of production, but include information on both food miles and CO2 emissions.

These labels are appearing on supermarket and menu items in the UK (labels also include compliance to animal welfare standards), Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Sweden.

The Swedish National Food Administration is even developing dietary guidelines that give equal weight to climate and health! They expect a 20-50% reduction in the nation’s emissions from food production as a result.

While critics point out that eco-labelling alone will not fight climate change, it will encourage the food industry and farmers to adopt carbon-reducing strategies.

In Toronto, there's a Non-Governmental Organization called Local Food Plus (LFP) that is doing amazing work. They have developed certification criteria that go beyond local to include sustainable production methods, soil and water conservation, worker welfare, humane animal handling, protection of biodiversity, and on-farm energy use.

They work with farmers, encouraging sustainable farming practices, and organizations & grocery stores, encouraging them to source locally. Because of them, the University of Toronto- the largest Canadian University- became the first university on the continent to formally commit to purchasing local sustainable food for their cafeterias and residences.

Great things are happening...!