local food on the big stage

I love to see the mainstream media jumping on the local/organic food bandwagon. When you hear a story on AM drive-time radio about buying local to preserve Ontario farms, as a co-worker of mine recently reported, you know a very high level of public awareness has been breached.

The Globe and Mail is running a series about food production. Many of the stories focus on corporate agriculture, food safety, subsidies, and genetically modified foods, but it also includes stories about the local eating movement, food traceability and how to at least partially extricate oneself from the global food chain. Depending on how well versed you are with this issue, it may or may not tell you anything new, but the fact that it's there is very welcome.

One story emphasizes raising your own consciousness about the origins of what you eat, and making small changes - the perfect strategy for the beginner.
Lesson 1: Be aware of your choices

Even if you can't afford to buy local, free-range and organic, and don't have the resources to grow your own, the first step is to simply be mindful of the consequences of your food choices, says Jes Goulet of Cobble Hill, B.C.

Ms. Goulet grows much of her own fruits and vegetables, raises hens for eggs and buys her other groceries from an organic delivery service. She recognizes not everyone has the time, yard space, inclination and ability to do the same.

But, she says, it starts with “sitting down and in your head evaluating, ‘Okay, these are the different sources for this particular food? Which one of these is ideal? Can I afford it?'… and trying to get the best you can with what you've got.”

That often requires making sacrifices. Ms. Goulet estimates she spends $200 a month on organic milk alone for her family of four, but has cut costs in other areas to keep her total grocery bills to about $400 a month. Even though it's less expensive to buy organic milk in plastic jugs, she's willing to pay more for the stuff that comes in glass bottles, since she prefers the taste and the bottles can be reused instead of recycled. . . .

Lesson 2: Start small

If you were to analyze the lifecycle of every grocery item you bought, you'd be paralyzed whenever you went shopping, says Liz Gaige, the Vancouver resident behind the website LocalDelicious.com.

“You don't have to change your whole diet,” she says. “But if you just shifted 5 per cent of your grocery budget into eating more locally, eating more healthfully and … thinking about where your stuff's coming from, it has this huge impact.”

Lessons 3 and 4 involve planning, both short- and long-term, and collaborating with others with similar goals.

Another story deals with food traceability as marketing technique. Surprise, surprise: if the government won't act on our behalf, Walmart, Loblaws and other for-profit enterprises end up enacting policy for us. This works, to a very limited degree, only as long as food safety and the environment stay "hot" concerns, so public interest can be used to leverage profit. But corporate and public interests will rarely dovetail. It's usually quite the opposite. Corporations exit to create profit, not to protect our health or the environment. Let's not forget, that's how the industrial food chain came to exist in the first place!
“The idea that companies might help us all by imposing some standards is not a bad one,” said Charles Fishman, an investigative journalist and author of ‘The Wal-Mart Effect.’

“A corporation is not accountable, except in the marketplace,” he said, adding: “If we depend on corporations to figure out what the standards should be and impose them ... we may like it in the first year, stop noticing it in the middle eight years, and in the 10th year, the corporation may decide ‘This is just killing us in terms of money. We’re not going to do it any more’,” he said. “There’s no recourse [for consumers]. That’s not the way a food safety organization should work.”

Jorgen Schlundt, the recently departed director of food safety at the World Health Organization, worries big retailers view food safety as a marketing tool.

“There is a huge difference between what consumers ... think is important and what is really important,” Dr. Schlundt said. “It is extremely important that the science that standards are built upon and the standards themselves are not made by industry – not made by the people who are supposed to be monitored by government,” he said. . . .

“If the food safety system isn’t up to the task of a complicated global food supply, it may be that. . . we’ll be sorry if we don’t fix the normal system rather than simply relying on corporate food cops, so to speak,” Mr. Fishman said.

So when you see your local supermarket congratulating itself for being green, remember that it's good, but not good enough.

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