Growing Farmers Markets in Cumberland County

For the third year in a row now, the Ecology Action Centre’s Our Food Project has partnered with the Cumberland Food Action Network (CFAN), to produce a handy reference for locating local farmers markets in Cumberland County, NS. The Farmers … Continue reading

Local farm contributes food and fun-filled learning

I recently had the pleasure of leading a food skills workshop with some lovely women at Autumn House in Amherst, NS (http://autumnhouse.ca/). We got together to cook a lunch from scratch and while it may not sound too eventful, it … Continue reading

Telling the story of community gardens

In November 2013 we brought together 20 community gardeners for an evening of good food, good connections and good stories. On the team at the Our Food project we work with a range of community garden coordinators at elementary schools, … Continue reading

Food Miles Book Club: Social Benefits and the Food Community

Today we’re discussing the social benefits of local food. If you’re new to Food Miles book club, here’s a list of the past posts: Introductory post
Self Reliance chapter
Transportation and Energy chapters
Economic chapter

(Full report available here)

Questions for discussion:

What are some of the reasons you buy local food?
Do you have local food story?
Who’s your farmer?

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Social Benefits and the Food Community

Buying locally-produced food, especially in a way that provides a fair price to producers, generates social benefits in this province. These social benefits include nutritious food, entrepreneurial energy, work ethic, mentorship, mutual reliance, relationship-based economic activity, and maintenance of farming communities. Buying imported food generates none of these benefits.

One could argue that imported food provides a greater variety of products for less money than it would cost to grow or raise them here. The economies of scale from large agri-business in the global food system bring us unlimited supply supposedly at the cheapest price possible. But we need to distinguish between ‘price’ and ‘value’. Does importing most of our food bring us better food value than what our own farms can provide? Does the price we pay for imported food somehow compensate us for all the social costs associated with displacing our family farms? Is the money we spend giving us vital and nutritious food, or is it going into advertising, corporate profits, transport, packaging, and preservatives? In a scenario where most of our food is produced in this region, we could still import some of our food. But we would discover the variety of foods we can grow here while at the same time supporting our farmers. The social benefits of a local food system could be the most important reason for buying locally-produced food.

Social benefits and costs are the most difficult to measure and put a value on. That is why they remain hidden. We don’t notice social losses until they are gone and it is too late. We are often not aware of all the ways our spending habits affect people and community life. In cases when we are aware, we make much better, but seemingly ‘irrational’ decisions. We buy apples from the guy we know is the main organizer of the community fair because of his involvement and because they are great apples. It doesn’t matter that his 10 lb bags cost a little more. We go to the farmers’ market instead of the grocery store because we like the vendors and get gardening advice from them. Some people go to a particular u-pick because their parents and grandparents took them there as children. In cases where is a positive connection, price becomes less of an issue.

Knowing the social circumstances surrounding a product can affect our food-buying decisions, which in turn affect the social circumstances. But in many cases we don’t know those circumstances. In fact, for the global food system to work effectively, it is important that we know as little as possible. It is difficult enough to go into a grocery store and figure out where products are from, let alone who is producing them and how. As the gap between consumers and producers widens, and our ignorance of food production grows, we will make poorer decisions with our food dollars, causing our communities to suffer.

Food Miles Book Club: Economic Benefits and the Food Dollar

Welcome to the Economics chapter of the Food Miles book club. If you’re new to this discussion, check out the introductory post, the  Self Reliance chapter, and the Transportation and Energy chapter.

Here’s a quick summary of each of the Economics chapter (full report available here):

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One of the key reasons for choosing to buy locally-produced food rather than imported food is to foster economically viable farming businesses and farming communities in Nova Scotia.

Consider the following:

  • Direct annual farm spending was $460 million (in farm operating expenses) in 2008
  • Total annual employment from direct, indirect and induced employment from farming activity is 10,281 full time equivalent jobs (2004 estimate)
  • Total annual contribution to GDP (direct, indirect and induced) is $400 million (2004 estimate)

Nova Scotia is presently losing farms, along with the interwoven businesses that supply their inputs or process and distribute their products. Farm communities are unraveling. To keep the farms we have, encourage new farmers, and prevent the bleeding out of businesses that make up a local food system, a move to support local farms via our food dollar couldn’t come fast enough.

Even though Nova Scotia farmers are producing more product each year, their average total net income is going down, as is their share of the food dollar. These trends clearly show that to have farms in this province, food needs to be purchased in a way that ensures farmers can recoup their costs of production. If our farms disappear, we won’t have the option to buy local food, which leads to higher prices for imported food, as well as a loss of food sovereignty.

One of the reasons imported food is considered to be attractive, is because it is assumed to be cheaper than locally-produced food. This is not universally true. First of all, there are costs that are not reflected in the price of imported foods. Also, having a local food system gives customers the option to buy directly from producers at a reduced price, and gives producers the option to reclaim some of the margins normally charged by retailers and wholesalers. This arrangement can be beneficial for both customer and producer. The type of food, degree of processing, convenience, and vendor usually has more effect on price than whether it is local or not. Another thing to consider is whether the price of food, whether imported or local, is too low. Farmers are often not covering the production costs for the food they produce, and the proportion of our income spent on food is going down. Most of us could stand to pay a little more for food items so that farmers can make a living. Consider the average proportion of household expenditures spent on food. In 1969, Canadians spent an average of 19% of household expenditures on food, and now we spend an average of 10%. We spend a lower proportion of total household expenditure on food than people in many other countries, including the USA and Australia.

Questions for discussion:
How can we help ensure that farmers make a fair wage?
How can will help foster a strong agricultural sector for Nova Scotia?

Food Miles Book Club: Self-Reliance

As mentioned in our January 20, 2011 blog post, we’re bringing our book club discussions online.

At a recent Food Action Committee meeting, we discussed two chapters of the “Is Nova Scotia Eating Local?” report: Self-reliance and Distance Traveled & Emissions of a Food Basket.  You can read the full chapters here and summaries of the chapters below.

What do you think about food self reliance in Nova Scotia?
What percentage of your diet is locally produced?
What would help you to increase your local food purchases?

Self-Reliance
At the national level, Statistics Canada data show that over the last four decades, food imports are rising relative to net supply. At the regional level, grocery store data show that most of the food in stores is imported from outside Atlantic Canada. At the provincial level, we know that in 2008 at most, 13% of the food dollar is being earned by Nova Scotia farmers (Figure 1). Over the last 11 years, this proportion has gone down. In 1997 it was 17%.

We also calculated production divided by consumption for vegetables, fruit and meat in Nova Scotia. Given the various calculations of self-reliance for Nova Scotia, there is a general downward trend in self-reliance (outside of supply managed commodities). However, the numbers also indicate great potential for producing more of our food – if it was economically viable to do so.

Distance Traveled & Emissions of a Food Basket
In order to calculate the distance food is traveling, we chose to use the National Nutritious Food Basket (NNFB) tool. The NNFB contains 66 food items, from 11 different food groupings which reflect the eating habits of Canadians, as well, these foods, in appropriate combinations and amounts, were designed to meet the nutritional needs of Canadians according to the 1992 Canada Food Guide.

The average distance traveled by NNFB food items is 3,976 km.

When a weekly diet is considered, the weekly basket of goods travels a total distance of 30,666 km and emits 5.911 kg CO2e. The distances and GHG emissions for a theoretical “all-local NNFB basket” were also calculated. To maintain continuity, we estimated 350 km for travel within the province for all local foods. The theoretical, all-local basket is approximately a sixth of the distance and emissions: 4988 km and 1.017 kg CO2e.

There is potential for reducing transport greenhouse gas emissions by switching to more local fruits and vegetables, provided that the fruit and vegetable crops are produced by methods that are of similar or increased energy efficiency compared with imports. Though not included in the NNFB, we produce large quantities of blueberries, as well as variety of tree fruits and berries. We also produce a wide variety of horticultural crops. With low-energy season extension techniques, cold storage, processing and preserving – at both the industrial level and the household level – there is a lot of potential to increase local fruit and vegetable consumption throughout the year.

For foods that we cannot easily produce here, we should promote more energy-efficient modes of transportation, i.e. rail, or consider local alternatives, if they exist, e.g. honey and maple syrup in place of sugar.

Food Miles Book Club: Energy and Transportation

Welcome to the Transportation & Energy installments of the Food Miles book club. If you’re new to this discussion, check out the introductory post and the Self Reliance chapter post.

Here’s a quick summary of each of the chapters (full report available here):

Transportation

Transportation is only one stage in the life-cycle of a particular food item. It is important to reduce CO2 emissions in the food supply chain as a whole, and not to reduce emissions in one area at the expense of another. As the food system becomes increasingly industrialized, and food is processed and transported in ever-larger bulk quantities, transportation becomes a smaller portion of the total energy used to get a product to the consumer. However, the transport stage is growing relative to other life-cycle stages.

Among the problems with a food system becoming more industrialized and globalized, six are identified in this report. The first is that when food is imported, the economic and social benefits of growing that food locally are foregone. Second, food and the inputs for growing that food, are being transported ever greater distances as more global sourcing occurs. More than 8,000 km is now estimated to be the average distance. Third, redundant or unnecessary trade is so common. There are reasons for importing and exporting the same items, like apples, or beef, but we should examine those reasons more carefully if we want to conserve resources and support our farmers. Fourth, food freight is shifting to less sustainable modes. More food, for instance, is being shipped by transport truck instead of train. Fifth, road transport is publicly subsidized because highways are built and maintained with taxpayers’ money. We are inadvertently putting more trucks on the road and taking more farmers off the land because we are not charging the full cost of using that infrastructure. Finally, there is an increasing environmental and monetary cost of transport as climate systems are stressed from greenhouse gas emissions and our bodies are stressed from transport pollution.

Energy

Determining energy use or GHG (and other) emissions in the food system help us understand where we most effectively can reduce our consumption of finite resources (such as oil or coal) and reduce our polluting emissions. Studies of energy use in the US food system show that the major energy-using phases of the system are processing and packaging (more than 20% of total energy use) or the household storage and preparation phase at 25% or 31%, depending on the source.

To effectively reduce our consumption of non-renewable fuels, and emissions of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants, the studies reviewed strongly suggest the following:

• Reduce the consumption of junk food with empty calories;
• Where possible, replace the use of synthetic fertilizer, particularly nitrogen fertilizer, with local sources of nitrogen such as cover crops and animal manures;
• Reduce dependence on refrigeration and freezing because they are very energy-intensive in the food system. These are particularly important for long-distance food transport. Low-energy alternative food storage and preservation methods can be used in a local food system;
• Reduce food waste because it accounts for one quarter of all food sold; and
• Shift diets to correspond to food available locally in season.

Food for thought

How can we reduce energy use in the food system?
Were you surprised by the amount of waste in the food system (I know I was!), how do you reduce waste?
What policy recommendations would you make to reduce food miles and increase energy efficiency?

Yours in Food,

Marla

Is Nova Scotia Eating Local?

Last summer, the Ecology Action Centre and the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture released a report entitled “Is Nova Scotia Eating Local”?

The grim facts: In 2008, only 13% of the food dollar returned to Nova Scotia farmers.  This has decreased from 17% in 1997.


The main theme that emerged from Is Nova Scotia Eating Local? is about making prices more ‘real’. For instance, the price of food should reflect the real cost of producing it. The supply managed dairy and poultry sectors, although not perfect, have helped to put dairy and poultry products on store shelves at a price that reflects the cost of production. They have also managed, to a certain extent, to match supply with demand. That should at least be a goal with the other agricultural sectors. In the case of products that can be grown here, assess supply, assess demand, and see what can be done to match the two.

The real cost of producing food should include fair wages for farmers and their workers as well as the ability to steward the land. People and the land should not be ‘used up’ in the process of growing food.

Over the past few months, we’ve been going through the report, two chapters at a time, at our monthly Food Action Committee meeting.  As we discussed the chapters this month, it occurred to me that we could be having a parallel discussion online.

You can download the full report and executive summary here.   At our January meeting, we covered the “Self Reliance” and “Distance and Emissions of a Food Basket” chapters.  In the next few days, I’ll post a short summery of the chapter and open it up for discussion.

Yours in Food,
Marla