By Kathryn Cooper
The price we pay at the grocery store is not the true cost of our food. Our food systems allow many major costs to be externalized. These externalities include transportation, soil degradation, irrigation-related groundwater depletion, and pesticide and fertilizer misuse. This means that eventually, taxpayers foot the bill for these, without ever making the connection between faux food policy and its social and environmental tolls.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, the value of global trade in food has tripled since 1961, and the tonnage of food shipped between nations has grown fourfold, while population has only doubled. In North America food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate, as much as 25 percent farther than in 1980. Cheap oil, subsidies, corporate consolidation and technical innovations have tipped the balance in favour of large scale production agriculture. Many people argue that there is no alternative for our rapidly expanding global population.
In Canada, a new non-profit certification program called Local Food Plus (LFP) is now helping shoppers separate sustainably grown apples, canned tomatoes, eggs, milk and meat from mass-produced, processed imports. According to Rod MacRae (agricultural consultant and Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University), Local Food Plus is dedicated to rebuilding local, sustainable, supply chains from farmer to consumer. This is done by introducing farmers who produce locally grown, sustainable foods to the food processors, supermarkets and food service companies operating at universities and in cities.
This local food concept got its start with the Toronto Food Policy Council, an organization that brings agriculture into municipal politics. Local Food Plus founder Lori Stahlbrand, formerly a consultant for the World Wildlife Fund, was originally inspired by a number of U.S. and European projects, including the Food Alliance’s approach to sustainable agriculture and food practices. The Food Alliance program, which has been around for more than 10 years, certifies agriculture and processing facilities for labor, animal welfare and the environment.
Local Food Plus has expanded on this model by adding energy and proximity to the list of sustainability requirements. LFP-branded products have a responsible backstory involving production, processing and transportation practices that respect biodiversity; fair and safe labour practices, humane animal husbandry, and conservation of water and soil. The producers are also working to eliminate or reduce synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, and genetic engineering. Today it is possible to find sustainably and locally grown produce, meat, grains, eggs and milk in a number of local grocery stores, restaurants and institutions. The program has the flexibility to accommodate a fuller range of sustainable production practices than the organic standard. Some LFP farmers and processors are certified organic, but many are not.
Third-party certification provides a new level of transparency and accountability beyond what the government and the marketplace currently provide. LFP's research shows that branded products command up to a 10 percent product premium. The decreased input, transportation and packaging expenses keep the consumer price from skyrocketing.
Independent retailers, restaurants and institutional foodservice customers have been the first to sign onto Local Food Plus products. Public institutions like the University of Toronto and the City of Markham have adopted Local Food Plus products as part of their emerging sustainable purchasing policies. Hometown grocers like L & M Foodland (PDF) have also signed on. According to Dale Dropf, vice President of L & M Foods, LFP certification and marketing helps the grocer answer growing consumer demand for "safe, local, sustainable food."
The best part is that LFP is a model transferable to any jurisdiction. It is, for McRae, a type of food citizenship (see PDF), encouraged by a new model of "organizational ecology." Local Food Plus, through its efforts, is helping to re-balance a current market failure. While this program is still in its infancy and is likely to further evolve, LFP represents an interesting potential precursor to a new economic model: one based on values and sustainability.
Kathryn Cooper is a sustainability practitioner and a researcher in sustainability and education at York University, Toronto, Canada.
What about the people who could care less where their food comes from or what ecological effects their food purchases have? In my travels around the United States, I have come to the unscientific, anecdotal conclusion that these people are in the majority by a large margin. These people make purchase decisions based primarily on price and secondarily on empty marketing gimmicks. If they don't participate in intelligent food purchasing, the results of the efforts of the rest of us will continue to be marginal. We need to make ecologically sound food products much less expensive or destructive food products much more expensive or, preferably, both. Sustainability (better yet: regeneration) should be transparent and automatic.
How can we do this? There seems to be no lack of ideas of how to restore ecological health our food systems but I rarely hear any ideas on how to achieve price parity in the grocery store. I was just thinking about that this morning before I came across this article. I was envisioning a philanthropic organization that donates money to local grocers to shrink or eliminate the price differences between organic and conventional foods. That would take a ton of money to sustain... I can't think of much else right now, absent government intervention which is highly unlikely, given the utter incompetence, ignorance and corruption of governments that catalyzed this problem in the first place. Any ideas?
There is no doubt that the current situation can be frusterating - sustainable food is expensive and unsustainable food is cheap - how fair is that? But times are changing - as we put a price on carbon, increase waste surcharges, watch as peak oil drives petroleum price increases and water becomes more scarce, there will be a reversal of fortunes. In the meantime, we need to inch toward the "tipping point". More and more citizens are starting to ask "what can I do" and food is a good place to start. Under the "tipping point" phenomenon the "Law of the Few" suggests that it takes very few people to adopt a new idea for the ideas to spread like a virus in a community. If our message around "local food" resonates with our deeply held values (back to the land, working with farmers, living locally), the message will stick. If we had more organizations (NGO's) like Local Food Plus to help sustainable farmers gain access to the market place, the supply of these products would go up and the price would go down. All we can do now is "hang in there" keep doing the right thing and share the solutions with everyone we know. Others may look at us like we have "three heads" now, but eventually they will come around (eg. smoking, drinking and driving, seat belts). Things will change, at the very least because the commerce lives within a natural biosphere with natural cycles that humans have no control over - and right now - "we are eating the seed corn" (P. Hawken).
Be careful who you let define sustainable. While I support options in the marketplace, many of these "sustainable" schemes are merely gimmicks to attract more affluent consumers to these products.
Local production and consumption is a good idea, but one must calculate the carbon footprint of a local farmer hauling in 1 ton of produce to local markets vs rail cars or semi trucks hauling tens of thousands of tons. In terms of carbon footprint, it should be calculated on a per unit basis.
Take a look at the example of New Zealand lamb in the UK. It was slammed in the press as being bad for the environment because it traveled by refrigerated boat from half a world away. However, when they actually calculated the carbon footprint, it was found to be more sustainable than lamb produced in the UK in many circumstances.
You must also understand that seasonality plays a huge role in sustainability, especially in northers areas where growing seasons are far shorter. Under the assumptions of this article, one could never consume orange juice and consider it sustainable.
Finally, the use of agrochemicals and genetically modified organisms must be measured precisely. The benefits must be weighed and the yield reductions realized from their exclusion must be calculated. Is it sustainable if an ideological opposition to agricultural technology decreases food yields by 50%?
Local Food Plus is a great idea. But what it comes down to is, who is willing to pay $5.69 for a dozen "LFP certified" eggs, when you can get a dozen eggs for under $2, which will get the same eggy job done?
It's a tragedy that we fail to recognize the environmental costs of food on a nationwide scale. Maybe someday we will. But there will still be a majority of people who can't afford to pay the "real" price.
In my opinion, the only way to make agriculture sustainable is to lead people back to their own land, where they can see firsthand, the effects of soil degradation, over-application of fertilizers, groundwater depletion, etc. In the process, they would be growing their own food, and not even paying the price of transportation. And, bottom line, it would be sustainable and CHEAP.
I buy those $5.69 organic LFP certified eggs, so I know the ones to which you refer. Comparing organic LFP certified eggs to the cheapest possible mass produced eggs you can find is not a fair comparison.
You might as well argue against all organics.
I've seen plenty of LFP certified items that are priced on par or only slightly higher than their imported counterparts. The fact remains that at current food prices our farmers can't make enough money to survive. How do we "sustain" a food system if we refuse to pay a fair price those who produce the food?
Local Food Plus rocks. One of my local supermarkets (that I can walk to) offers it and I purchase as much of my produce, dairy, etc. there as possible. Echoing Chris above, the price differential on many items is not that great and the quality is frequently superior. My one quibble with LFP is that some of the produce such as grape tomatoes comes in non-recyclable plastic clamshells. I am hoping that in the future LFP can work with farmers to find more sustainable alternatives.
Just to clarify my earlier comparison, I did not mean to insinuate that no one would buy those eggs. Of course people do, I was identifying that there are some people that can buy them and some people that either cannot afford them or choose not to buy them.
Organics are great, and there's substantial research supporting that we can feed the world using organic farming practices. But there's a long way to go to convince people of that, and as long as there's cheap, industrial products, you are never going to get a majority of people (in an economic crisis, no less) to make buying decisions against their general self-interest.
Full time Farmers need to be paid enough to live on after all their costs have been paid. Amateur gardeners have other sources of income and on the whole don't buy expensive farm machinery but use hand tools. A third way would be if amateur gardeners collectively bought edge of town farmland and used second hand farm machines to collectively till the soil then used their greater numbers to do much of the crop tending, after which they could sell half the crop and share the rest between them.
This is just a part of a world economy rescue plan by Robert Howes (me) who is looking for 25 volunteers from around the world to help start the pilot project around land already purchased in the UK for this purpose. The volunteers will learn what they need to know in order to set up something similar once back in their own countries. Also a good opportunity for people from all over the world to meet each other.
It's your world, it's my world not just the fat cats and farmers world to do with as they please. Come to Wales, UK to learn how to use the world to it's best advantage.
PS. Any ideas for a website name?
There have always been those who shop by brand and those who shop by price. Now we have the option to shop based on how well the product respects the planet.
Truth is, most of us shop all three ways. The push for local and sustainable won't eliminate the other two, but gradual shifts in buying patterns over time can have a significant impact on the planet's health.
I wanted to let you know about a national campaign we are spearheading to help stimulate a national move towards growing more of our food closer to home. As you know, as the economic challenges continue to grow, more and more Americans are considering getting involved in local food production.
As a way to help to accelerate this trend, we have started a very simple campaign called "One Million Gardens" (http://onemilliongardens.ning.com) who's goal is:
To identify, encourage, and document the creation of at least 1,000,000 food gardens throughout the U.S. in 2009.
I was curious if you would take a look at the site, add your garden to the list, and let others know about this campaign. It is also my hope that we can show the Obama administration the growing numbers of people involved in this work and help shift national policies to help encourage these activities.
Thank you for your work and I hope you will encourage others to add their gardens to this growing list.
Local food production is a good idea. Environmentally, economically and for health reasons.
Having food security is important for a community. Local food production could increase job opportunities, provide a source of affordable food when fuel prices skyrocket again. knowing that you food is grown locally using sustainable methods ensures your health, you can also avoid viruses, chemicals and other illnesses, etc. Add to it uncertain climate conditions and pests that could wipe out critical crops, then what?
The perfect model for growing the local food market has not been found. So it is very good to have people trying and testing different ways of achieving local food sufficiency. It is unlikely that one business model will be the solution. So think of your own idea and find your niche in local food production! Keep your family healthy, increase local jobs and contribute to a livable planet, start a local food business.
In order to re-create a working economy in every intentional community, we need to form a global container network so that all can participate. IF we can eliminate and pull within our control the insane vessel packaging pandemic that cancels out all our environmental objectives, we can begin the process of returning local economies to our communities.
Disclosure: Local Food Plus is my client.
I sought them out because I wanted to support them–my grocery store, Fiesta Farms (also a client) carries a significant representation of their certified local sustainable products.
But I'm writing this because I saw a movie on Bananas last night that covered the case of Dole vs. the Honduran and Nicaraguan workers who became sterile from the Dow chemicals Dole continued to use after even Dow refused to sell them.
I woke up this morning thinking about how many conveniences we enjoy, like cheaper eggs, whose margins are created by hurting others. It's going to take some difficult steps, but I'm going to continue to wean my family off the many things we take for granted whose price tags are attached to someone else's suffering somewhere else.