If you are what you eat, there’s no shortage of Canadians seeking eco-salvation through their stomachs.
Walk through just about any grocery store and you’ll see ads for “local” produce, “free-run” eggs and “pasture-raised” beef. The variety of choice suggests consumers are thinking more about the food they eat: not just its nutritional content, but also how it was produced.
In an Ipsos poll conducted for Global News, 83 per cent of Canadians said they try to buy locally-grown and produced food; 71 per cent said they’d pay more for it.
This is the idea behind “ethical eating”: deciding which foods to buy and eat based on whether producing that food had a positive or negative impact on the world. But that ethical choice of grocery also comes with a higher price tag – placing it out of reach for many Canadian families.
Colette Murphy runs Urban Harvest, a Toronto-based company that sells organic vegetable seeds and plants. She sees a parallel with the Slow Food movement, which says that food should be good, clean and fair: “Certified organic if at all possible. Clean in that we’re taking care of the environment. And fair in that all the people who do the work are also treated fairly and humanely, which is not the case for most agricultural business.”
But in the end, even livestock with the most freedom get eaten eventually.
“We treat our animals as well as we can, but nonetheless, at some point they get butchered,” said Jens Eller, co-owner of Marvellous Edibles Farm.
“It’s not a sanctuary, it’s a business.”
Eller raises and sells various heritage breeds of pork and turkey on his farm in Owen Sound, Ontario.
“Everything we have, we try not to cage. We put them out in pasture, we use electronic fencing, give them as much run as we can, but then this is Canada, with six months of winter. At some point, certain ones have to come inside.”
Dan Morreale of Plan B Organic Farms thinks ethical food has to be grown in a sustainable, ecological manner. And for him, how farm workers are treated is even more important than how the animals are.
“Are people treated fairly in order to produce the food? Are the merchants paying them the money they deserve so that they can live good lives just like everybody else?”
Don McCabe, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, is a corn, soybean and wheat farmer. He cringes at oft-circulated images of abused animals or environmental pollution on farms.
“That is not the way that I want my family and my farm to ever be portrayed because that’s not the way I operate,” he said.
“Consumers seem to feel that we are doing certain things to our environment, we are doing certain things to our workers or we’re doing certain things to our animals. And I wish to stress, if we were doing those things, there is no way the grocery stores could have the bounty that they have right now.”
Farmers are happy to have a dialogue with consumers and the government about how food is produced, he said, but consumers need to be willing to pay more for the quality or ethical production they claim to prize.
“One of the big, big, big concerns that I had with a bunch of this stuff is that the agricultural producers, we can do a lot of things. But there’s a cost to doing these things.”
The cost of ethical eating
“I eat less chicken than I would probably like because raising organic chicken is expensive,” Murphy said. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts at one Toronto grocery store cost $20.48/kg. Organic chicken breast at the same store costs $28.64/kg.
Food is the most important thing in our lives, Murphy argues, and we should expect to spend a bit more of our income on it. “We’ll spend $7 on a fancy coffee at Starbucks and then complain about $3 for an organic broccoli. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s values, you know?”
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At those prices, though, not everyone can afford to make these choices. Nearly 8 per cent of Canadians can’t afford healthy food, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.
“Of course a prime determinant of whether or not you can afford organic, sustainable, local, pesticide-free, non-GMO food, should you choose to eat that way, is very very income-dependent,” said Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada. “I think that to not look at how income affects those choices is in itself unethical.”
“4 million Canadians who live in food insecurity in this country, that is unethical. And that’s not about individual choice, that is about a deliberate choice that we have made to let certain categories of our population go hungry.”
However, she believes that sustainable, ethical, healthy and accessible food choices can and should be available to all Canadians. And the answer isn’t to mass-produce more cheap food at more factory farms. Instead, she said, the national food system should be changed to put healthy food within the reach of more people. This would include more low-income subsidies, school food programs and more support to a new generation of local, organic farmers, among other changes.
McCabe believes consumers already have a wealth of food options depending on their income and what they want to spend. For everyday meals, they may purchase meat in bulk from Costco, he said. For a special occasion, they could visit a specialty butcher to get fancier steaks.
Bigger changes to the overall food system are more difficult, he said. “Everybody has a right to express what they want in their body. That’s just common sense. But there’s also a reality of how far you can make demands of general society to get there.”
“If there is not a large enough contingent out there that wants to pull this stuff through, we cannot expect agriculture to survive under growing demands without reward.”
Bronson isn’t convinced that changing the system would cost that much more money. “I think it’s a different allocation of existing resources,” she said. “I think you could go a very long way with some very modest supports.” For example, governments could save billions in health care costs for diet-related problems by making healthier food more accessible, she said. Aside from in the North where food prices are extremely high, raising the income of people on the lowest end would also make more of a difference on their ability to eat well than keeping prices low, she said.
How to choose ethical food
If you’re lucky enough to be able to make food choices, you need to decide what’s important to you. One person’s definition of ethical food might differ significantly from another’s. If you’re concerned about animal welfare or worker’s conditions, for example, talking to a local farmer about how they produce their food may help you to decide whether their practices meet your expectations. If you don’t visit farmers’ markets, you can try seeking farmers out online. Many small-scale farmers have websites and Facebook pages that allow you to reach them directly, said Lindsay Coulter, who writes the “Queen of Green” blog for the David Suzuki Foundation.
There are also some shortcuts, she said. “If you’re at the grocery store, you’re going to encounter third-party certified logos,” she said. These logos, like the Rainforest Alliance green frog stamped on coffee packages, indicate that the product has been certified by an outside body. That frog, for example, means the Rainforest Alliance has certified that the coffee comes from a farm which meets guidelines for sustainable agriculture.
Other helpful logos to look for include the BC SPCA certification on eggs, or the Canada Organic logo.
Having a good local grocer is also helpful, said Coulter. If you trust them to bring in the best produce, that can save you a lot of time.
Finally, eating ethically doesn’t mean having to stint yourself, said Coulter. An ethically sourced breakfast could be an eggs benedict, with eggs from “happy chickens,” butter and bacon from a local farm and organic bread, with fair-trade coffee and organic milk to drink.
“I think people are a little more conscious that their food choices aren’t benign and that they have an impact,” she said. “It’s definitely much needed today for people to think about the bigger picture. And the rewards are really vast as far as knowing exactly where your food comes from and what went into making it.”