Canada is a particularly young country compared to many of the other world powers, like Japan, which cites its founding at an amazing 660 BCE. From the first settlers up to modern history, much of the population earned their livelihoods through farming and food producing for their local communities.

In fact, many third or fourth generation Canadians probably came from a farm-family. I myself am a seventh or eighth generation Canadian (at least), my paternal family primarily farmers and fishermen from Gaspé, Quebec until my grandparents moved closer to Montreal. I still have great uncles and aunts who own farms up there, even.

Canada’s reliance on global agriculture is a relatively new thing, comparatively. In 1941, the number of farms in Canada peaked at a whopping 732,832, with an average farm size of 96 hectares (about 237 acres). By 2011, that number dropped by 72%, to 205,730 farms with an average size of 315 hectares (about 778 acres). Considering Canada’s population is estimated to have been 11,507,000 in 1941, and the average household was 4.3 persons, its easy to assume most people were living on those 732,832 farms across Canada.

After World War II, Canada’s economy soared, which triggered social changes, and included changes to things like food production, processing, and consumption. With the increased productivity of fewer, larger farms, coupled with improved transportation at lower costs and increased trade relations, small farms were pushed out and taken over by larger, corporate-run establishments which could offer the new form of family-that of two working adults looking for convenient ways to feed their families-cheaper options that their family-run competitors couldn’t, with year-round produce options.

While this may seem like the most convenient, logical progression, what with Canada’s prominence in global agriculture, and the revenue from our exports, it has had a detrimental effect on local power and economy. We are no longer self-sufficient as we once were, and while it would not be possible to return to the lifestyle of yesteryear (nor should we, progress is good for a reason, though we must evaluate where that progress is taking us in the future rather than the now), we should consider what putting more money and effort into local agriculture and business would mean for us.

In a sense, we Ontarians are very lucky, as much time and effort is dedicated to endorsing the province’s local food, and protecting agricultural land. The Greenbelt itself covers 1.8 million acres of farmland throughout the province, home to approximately 5,500 farms, and its protects 533,000 acres of small lakes, wetlands, rivers, and streams that feed into the Great Lakes (which account for about 95% of North America’s fresh water). The Greenbelt’s farms are also 33% smaller than the average Ontario farm. If you research local food in Ontario, you come up with many organizations, government and otherwise, endorsing local food consumption, environmentally-friendly practices, and educating consumers so they can make well-informed decisions. Other areas of the world, even within North America, are not so lucky!

So, why is eating locally produced food so important? Like many things, it’s not a straight, clear-cut, one point kind of answer.

Health Benefits

Beginning with the most obvious of the reasons: it is just down-right healthier. On average, food travels 2,500 km before it reaches our homes and plates. Due to this, it’s often harvested early so the produce doesn’t spoil on the journey, packaged with preservatives and beaten around on the way. Once produce is harvested, it begins to slowly lose its nutritional value. The longer it has to travel and sit in the store before it makes its way to your fridge, the less nutritional it is. If you opt for local food, you can be sure that your food has not spent who knows how long being transported around, losing all the goods things about it. Food grown on Greenbelt farms, for example, only travels an average of 250 km to your plate!

Local food is also fresher and tastes better. As it doesn’t need to travel as far, it’s allowed to ripen properly before harvesting. This optimizes the nutrients, and results in a much better tasting fruit or veggie!

Economic Benefits

While in some cases, local food may seem more expensive than the imported, mass-produced and packaged alternatives in large grocery store chains, it doesn’t have to cause a big dent in your budget. Eating primarily local also means eating seasonally. When you buy a fruit or vegetable while it’s in season, it’s much cheaper than at other times. Eating seasonally also diversifies your diet, ensuring you get the nutritional benefits of a variety of different produce at different points of the year, when you need it. Of course, there are some things you’ll never be able to buy locally. Bananas, for instance, will never grow naturally in Canada. Neither will avocados, or similar produce that require a much higher temperature and are better suited to places like the southern United States or South America.

While it may seem like you’re paying more for those local fruits and veggies, you’re actually paying for the quality rather than the convenience. Imported produce must be transported in, a costly business. In a way, you are paying more for the greenhouse gas emissions of importing those tomatoes than you are for the actual tomato.

Then there are the greater economic benefits of eating locally. When you buy local food produce, you’re putting your money back into the local economy, rather than giving it to a large company or corporation who are likely not to invest that money back into the community, but use it in their own, larger, grander-scheme ways. A large store, for instance, will not support small, local businesses by using their services, but rather go for the money-saving, corporate alternatives. Thus, that money is gone from the community, out of circulation, so to speak.

Alternatively, when you invest your money in local produce, that money goes to Ontario farmers, to aid in continuing their business, and will likely be reinvested further into the community by them as they use local services and products to run their own establishments. This circulation of currency allows the local economy of flourish, while letting it end up in a corporate account allows it to slip through the community’s fingers. Additionally, opting for local can also reveal any gaps in the local market which the community can fill. This can apply beyond the food industry as well–if there is a need for something not provided within the community, someone can come forward to provide that service or product. Say there wasn’t a local alternative to lactose-free products, for example. There’s a gap in the local market which can be filled, resulting in more jobs, an addition to our economic welfare, and a little more self-reliance.

Environmental Benefits

Finally, there are environmental benefits. As discussed earlier, imported food travels on average 2,500 km before it reaches our homes. That is roughly the distance between Toronto and Regina, for perspective. In general, the international agricultural process is responsible for 44% to 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As you can imagine, transportation contributes to a portion of that far too great number. By opting for local food, such as the Greenbelt farms produce which only travels 250 km on average before reaching your plate (roughly from Toronto to Kingston), you can aid in reducing that number, even if only by a small percent. While it feels like, as an individual consumer, not much can be done at your end, by banding together to promote overall change, every little bit of effort counts towards more sustainable and local agricultural practices!

Here at Food Services, we are huge advocates of local, sustainable agriculture. From our local food standards to our annual Field to Fork festival featuring meals made by a chef’s using local produce, we want to educate all University of Toronto students and staff on the benefits of eating local! Try it out, taste and feel the difference local food makes, and support your community and economy by opting for farm-fresh food.

– Emily Hotton

Sources

Canadian Encyclopedia – Agriculture and Food
Civil Eats – Buy Local, It’s Not Just About Food
Huffington Post – Local Foods: From Fad to Force
One Green Planet – Take Back the Land
Ontario Greenbelt Fund
Statistics Canada – Estimated Population of Canada, 1605 to 2007
Statistics Canada – Shift to Smaller Households
Time – Buying Local: How It Boosts the Economy