Hardworking growers of great food need our support- Why we need and support local food.

By Mary Ellen Wales, M.Sc., International Agricultural & Rural Development Economics.

This weekend when I opened up my laptop and browser for my routine news check, a commentary entitled “Take the romance out of farming and ditch locavorism” immediately caught my eye. As the title suggests, the article’s author, Margaret Wente, a trained journalist, provides her view on why we do not need the local food movement. Even further, she attempts to explain how the local food movement is actually BAD for the environment, how mass-produced food is MORE nutritious than local food and how the ‘core beliefs of locavores’ are the reason why many parts of Africa are still plagued by poverty.

I was shocked, enthralled, outraged. How could an article like this end up in one of our leading national newspapers, I asked myself. So did the 937 others who have written comments and responded to her views.

Before explaining that she herself prefers to buy carrots from local farmers, Wente sarcastically describes the new generation of farmers as “eager young idealists who have fled back to the land” who show up at the “little farmers’ market with their colourful bouquets of organic carrots and their tender non-commodified artisanal greens”. Her main argument of why local farming is bad for the environment is because 150 years ago it was back breaking work, land was unproductive and the land had to be cleared before growing crops could begin.

But, hold on, what does the way agriculture was done 100-300 years back have to do with what we now consider local farming today? Why do we even have such a movement? Yes, Wente, it was back breaking work, and it still is, and land had to be cleared because the settlers from Europe were not hunter-gatherers. Land was unproductive for European cultivation, which isn’t surprising at all since converting previous forest covered land into fields which produce crops is something that does take time. Fast forward to now, though: we have cleared all the trees, should we continue to plant those fields with monoculture crops, ignoring soil fertility, biodiversity and the need to produce nutrient-rich foods close to where they are consumed in light of dwindling cheap fossil fuel energy?

Wente then critiques the locavore movement as an upper- class urban movement and questions why people place so much more importance on local, personalised food than they do for other items such as clothing and computers. In recent years, the locavore movement has spread amongst students and across income categories. In rural areas, people have traditionally bought local from neighbours, roadside stands and friends and family before the word local became a buzz word. Today, environmentally conscious people and those who want to support local farmers choose to buy local, not just the upper class.

And why place more emphasis on food than on other commodities? The reason: food is essential to our survival, and not just any food. Tony Winson, a Sociology professor from the University of Guelph has termed food the “intimate commodity” since we physically ingest food into our bodies and depend so much on it for our survival. And furthermore, the way we feed ourselves, or agriculture, is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases, more than anything we do or create which is another reason to place more emphasis on the way we eat and how we grow food.

Wente then goes on to state how the believing that chemicals and GMOs are detrimental to health and ecosystems is what is keeping large parts of Africa in poverty. I asked myself whether she has ever attended an international development –related conference. Our mass producing food system produces enough to feed everyone on the planet. It is a food distribution and handling problem: richer countries have become very wasteful and poorer countries lack infrastructure. And the technologies which Africa needs are available however it is more a problem of a lack of true commitments to end poverty. Helping the poor will not come through giving them the means to produce food with chemicals and GMOs when we don’t even know whether these products are 100% safe. Why isn’t anyone providing the poor with the means to grow organic food and have improved soil fertility?

As a Canadian farm girl and someone who has studied agriculture in Canada and abroad, I was truly shocked by Wente’s commentary. Not only does she criticize the efforts of those who are working to make our food system a better place, her arguments are very hard to back up. It is not just the environment that locavores care about, they also want to make sure that farmers have incomes. People should have a choice about whether or not they want to farm, and some choose that back-breaking work. In the past 50 years, a lot of farms in Ontario and Canada have disappeared and a lot of our mass-produced food is transported here from far away. Since it is so massed produced a lot of chemical inputs are needed to grow it, which means that mass produced food is not more nutritious than locally, organically produced products.

So, NO, Wente, I and a lot of other Canadians will not ditch locavorism, I appreciate knowing that our farmers have incomes and that my food does not have to be transported from far away when we have great farmers, farmland and produce within arm’s reach right here in Ontario and Canada.

To view Wente’s article, click here

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