Eat locally, act globally

Photo: iStockphoto.com/Kcline, Livjarn

Choosing organic may seem like the obvious best choice for you and the environment, but if that organic pear made its way from Chile, it's time to recalculate.

Local is the new organic
Choosing organic may seem like the obvious best choice for you and the environment, but if that organic pear made its way from Chile, it's time to recalculate. It's hard to imagine nowadays, but imported produce was once a true luxury - an orange in winter was a bit of magic. And Ontario, with its wealth of fertile farmland, including the Greenbelt that surrounds the GTA, was once almost entirely food self-sufficient, notes Lori Stahlbrand, the energetic woman behind a new non-profit called Local FoodPlus (LFP). Today, the vast majority of our produce is trucked, flown or shipped from great distances. Not only is that bad for our local farmers, it also means that most of your supper items have travelled between 2,500 and 4,000 km to reach your plate. A shocking quarter to a third of all greenhouse-gas emissions are from conventional food production and transportation - including the production of pesticides and fertilizers, farm equipment, food refrigeration, packaging and more. So, heck, forget about saving for that hybrid car - check under the hood of that tomato.

If you grow it
The words "organic" and "sustainable" are often bandied around, but in fact, they are as different as, well, apples and oranges. Whereas organic can simply mean no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or genetic engineering (especially with a large-scale corporate organic company), sustainable practices take a broader view of environmental stewardship specific to a particular area. Stahlbrand, an academic and author in the area of food and the environment and a former CBC broadcaster, has made it her mission to bring sustainability back. Through independent inspectors, LFP certifies farms based not only on their reduction of synthetics but also on labour and animal-welfare standards, habitat preservation, packaging and energy eff ciency - and energy efficiency means food produced locally. Local and sustainable are the logical next steps for concerned consumers.

LFP is all about creating a solid local market so that farmers are supported in their sustainability efforts, whether they are fully organic or not, and Stahlbrand works to link certified farms to large institutional clients. She has already signed up an enthusiastic University of Toronto for the initiative, and phones in the new LFP office are ringing off the hook with interest from daycares, hospitals, corporate cafeterias and even restaurant chains. The trick will be finding the supply for all the demand. "It's astonishing just how much people are yearning for it," Stahlbrand says. Organics have really raised people's awareness and now they "want to know the story behind their food."

The 100-mile challenge
A Vancouver couple, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, put themselves to the ultimate local-eating test last year by vowing to consume only food and drink produced within a 100-mile radius of their home for an entire year. In so doing, they have made themselves a hub of the local-eating movement. (Their adventure is chronicled in The 100-Mile Diet.) MacKinnon isn't surprised their experiment struck a nerve. "The way we eat today has left many people with a real sense of loss," he says. "We've lost touch with the seasons, the landscapes we live in, the people who produce our food, even the way things are supposed to taste." And despite the year's hardships - no coffee, no chocolate - Smith is adamant that local produce is "some of the most delicious food I've ever had." Chart your own 100-mile radius, and then you can start your local menu.

Eat-it-yourself
"Whether we intend to or not, we make choices with every meal that we eat," says Stahlbrand. Buying closer to home is a chance to make those choices count for your own and your family's health, local economies and the earth, too. Try putting a fresh Ontario strawberry in a taste test against its California counterpart to be reminded of just how drastic the difference is between fresh, local food and food that is picked days or weeks before it hits your mouth. Farmers' markets are the best place for fresh fruits and but be sure to talk to the vendor and make sure you're buying from an actual farmer. Reselling (buying from a wholesaler and implying the produce is local) and selling imported produce is an increasing problem.

A final tip: choose local apples over organic ones from elsewhere. Stahlbrand says that most apples in Ontario are now produced "using very sustainable methods" - in other words, with less reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides than in the past. So you'll be making a truly healthy choice, for you and the planet.

by Lisa Rundle