VANCOUVER – Canadians may prefer buying their produce from local growers, but the shelves at our neighbourhood grocers are largely stocked with fruits, vegetables and other foods from afar.
Be that as it may, Canada’s produce imports are only going up — bringing in more than $2.4 billion worth of vegetables, fruits and nuts in the first three months of this year, up more than $300 million from the same period a year earlier.
And despite our best buy local ambitions, it appears we’re only going to rely more on agricultural imports, said University of Toronto associate professor Pierre Desroches.
It’s not because we’re not trying hard enough to be conscious of where our food is coming from, so much as buying local is not as sustainable as we might think, argued Desroches, co-author of the book The Locavore’s Dilemma — In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.
When we discuss sustainability, our thoughts often turn to what impact our lives and consumerism has on the environment or supporting local farming operations. Desroches is in favour of keeping farming local, but local to where the people working in agriculture come from.
“A lot of Canadians who don’t want to pick berries or do that kind of work anymore. So, what do we do? Well, we import Mexican workers to spend four-to-six months away from their family and, you know, if they were able to produce things closer to home and actually see their kids grow up, I think that would be the humane thing to do.”
He said the notions of local farms or urban farming romanticizes food production.
“In terms of feeding a large number of people at a reasonable price, well ultimately better growing conditions and people still willing to work in agriculture will be what makes the difference for a number of production,” he explained.
Most of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and the number of city dwellers is only set to rise in the coming decades.
For those who are still living in rural communities and living off the land — subsistence farmers — Desroches suggested that’s not sustainable either.
“They are typically limited in what they can grow, they cannot generate economies of scale,” he said, explaining commercial farming is far more sustainable when it comes to living off the land.
He’s not calling for the death of Canadian farming by any means but believes the sectors that will survive in this country are the ones that are more mechanized.
It may grow local, but you’re not always buying local
The growing demand for food imports has made Canada the sixth largest agriculture and agri-food importer in the world — behind the European Union, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
But it’s not just cost to producers that’s contributing to it.
“We are becoming a very culturally diverse country and when people come here they want to have a taste of the old country, a taste of home,” said Susan Abel, Vice President Safety and Compliance at Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC). Certain fruits and nuts, for example, can’t possibly grow in Canada or need more time to grow than our seasons allow.
Consumers have also become accustomed to getting what they want when they want it — like fresh berries or melons in the middle of winter.
“We’ve had so many great advances in shipping and logistics and the ability to get things moved from point A to point B very quickly, so that we can enjoy the benefits of having fresh things year round that we normally wouldn’t have.”
Just because food is grown locally, doesn’t mean we can always buy it locally. Sound confusing?
Among the food Canada is importing is food from Canada.
In the first quarter of 2015, for example, Canada was among the top 10 countries from where we imported tomatoes (although roughly 11,400 kilograms of Canadian tomatoes we imported was a significantly less amount than more than 58 million kilograms we brought in from Mexico.)
Even though certain products are grown in Canada, the facilities being used to process or manufacture those items may be in other countries, Abel explained.
She said the high cost of utilities, such as electricity, and labour in Canada makes it more lucrative for companies to process and manufacture foods off-shore.
“We have great labour skills here, but it also comes at a price,” she said. “Consumers who are in that grocery store and are making that decision and there’s that price difference between product A and product B… often consumers will ultimately use price as their decision point.”
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Canada is a major food exporter as well — the fifth largest in the world according to a recent report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
And it’s a similar situation for wheat, oats and corn that are winding up in non-perishable products in the dry goods section of your local grocery store.
Abel said we don’t have the “luxury of what we call a dedicated manufacturing line” — being able to devote a single manufacturing line to a single product — for Canadian products. Because we use the same manufacturing line for multiple products, a significant amount of time is spent cleaning and reconfiguring the equipment each time there is a change in products.
“If you’re manufacturing for a larger overall population, like you see in the United States, it’s much easier to have a line that runs continuously day in, day out,” thus lowering the cost of production, she said.
“We all want to support our local businesses… but unfortunately when you’re in that moment in the grocery store and you have a budget you’re trying to live to, you’re faced with some difficult decisions and frequently price is a big, big factor in a person’s decision on which product they’re going to buy.”