By: Suzanne Elston
Walking into the produce section of any supermarket, it's hard to believe that it's the end of winter. Thanks to the development of international trade, a global food distribution system and modern storage technologies, we are no longer restricted by local growing seasons and soil conditions. Supermarkets offer us a variety of over 30,000 products from around the world, many of which were unheard of a half a century ago. Such modern dietary mainstays as New Zealand kiwis, Jamaican plantains and Chinese pummelos were unknown to our grandparents.
This is mainly because until the second half of the 20th Century, most people were only a step or two away from the food that they ate. Today, an enormous food system stands between farmers and consumers. This system is controlled by a handful of giant multinational corporations for whom food is a commodity and the bottom line is profit. In Canada, fewer than a half dozen companies control our retail food industry.
On the surface, this commodification of our food has numerous benefits and provides us with a planetary garden of culinary delights at ever decreasing prices. Locally, our agricultural production has moved from being a community driven initiative to an industry that is controlled by marketing boards and government regulations. This has translated into lower consumer food prices, better control over food production and greater food safety. In 1952, Canadians paid 21.6 percent of their incomes for food. By 2000, that figure had dropped to less than 9 percent.
Unfortunately these benefits have come at an enormous cost. Environmental degradation, consumer manipulation, producer exploitation and declining food quality are all side effects of our contemporary food system. More importantly, consumers have lost control of the very system that supposedly fulfills our needs. The modern food system consists of an inter-locking web of food producers (once known as farmers), processors, distributors and retail stores. Instead of simply going out in the back garden and picking a tomato for dinner, today the tomato that ends up on your supper plate may have traveled thousands of miles by truck, then delivered to a distribution centre, shipped by yet another vehicle to your local supermarket, and then given a ride home in the back of the family van. Food analyst and author Brewster Kneen refers to this process as distancing.
Every act of distancing adds to the cost of food, while actually diminishing its nutritional value. For example, milk is made into cheese; cheese is then processed into a cheese product. Whole grains are stripped of their most important nutrients and processed into white flour and then made into pasta. Together the processed cheese and pasta are combined in a ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese dinner. The result is something that doesnŐt remotely resemble the original whole foods.
Distancing also places a heavy toll on the environment. Food that is transported across huge geographical distances burns a whole lot of fossil fuel in the process. A report done by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa compared the various "food miles" or the distances that food travels from where it is grown to where it is purchased and consumed. The differences were staggering. For example, locally grown apples travel an average of 61 miles (or slightly less than 100 km.) from tree to market. Imported apples travel a whopping 1,726 miles (or 2,778 km). When the list of the 16 most common foods was totaled, locally grown produce traveled 716 miles (1152 km), whereas the imported group traveled 25,301 miles (40,718 km), or more than the circumference of the Earth.
While it's hard to pass up fresh strawberries in the middle of winter, we need to become more aware of the hidden costs associated with having whatever we want, whenever we want it. Get into the habit of reading food labels. Talk to your grocery store manager about buying locally grown (and/or organic) produce whenever possible. During the winter months, frozen fruits and vegetables (grown in Canada) offer a reasonably priced and nutritious alternative to imported fresh foods. Once the warm weather returns, shop at local farmersŐ markets or pick-your-own farms. If you really want to get ambitious, pick up seed catalogue and plant your garden when spring arrives.
"Food Miles; A Simple Metaphor to Contrast Local and Global Food Systems", by Rich Pirog, can be found at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture