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Ontario’s Local Food Act: More maybe than act

To get a handle on the Promoting Local Food Act tabled in the Ontario legislature on October 4, it helps to know the difference between government support and government policy. If you choose door 1 and get support, you’re in luck. If you choose door 2 and get policy, that’s the booby prize.

When occasion demands, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty knows how to show real support on food measures. On the morning of October 4, he spoke to nothing less than the premier’s conference on food and agriculture (agri-food sector is the undelectable government term) about Ontario’s upcoming trade mission to China, where he will be doing a high-pressure sales pitch for Ontario food exports. No policy is necessary. But the support of government machinery and incentive programs is there, chiefly for corn, pork and milk formula for babies – all three high on China’s list of needs, as well as backbones of a very non-local industrialized export-oriented food system.

Bill 130 on local food, tabled that afternoon, is a different story. Locavores get the policy end of the stick.

There’s one solid will-do in the five page bill. From now on, every week after Victoria Day will be proclaimed Local Food Week.

That might seem an odd time to celebrate local food, since Victoria Day falls on the last weekend in May, when local gardeners and farmers think it’s finally safe to plant without fear of night frost – but a time when few fresh and local foods are available.

I’m guessing that May was selected for local food week because may is the operative word in the food bill. The ag minister “may” set targets and goals, the bill says. A goal “may” be established for government bodies, and the minister “may” require public sector agencies to provide information relevant to targets, and also “may” make regulations, and “may” even “establish programs for the betterment of agriculture, food and rural affairs in Ontario.” Not one commitment of substance. The merry month of May seems the perfect time to celebrate such a merry list of mays.

Let me outline a few things any serious local food bill would identify, but this one does not.

The first would be a tangible commitment from government agencies to specify local content in purchases for such institutions as government cafeterias, hospitals, jails and universities. Such programs may well start modestly, as with the highly successful ones at the city of Markham or University of Toronto, which ordered 10 per cent local and sustainable the first year, 15 percent the next, and so on. U of T cafeterias are now heading for 25 per cent local and sustainable, if the government wants a benchmark of what can be done with this approach.

Government purchasing support for local food is essential for two reasons. One, it encourages farmers of medium and large scale to produce for the local market, not just the small farmers who are the heroes of farmers markets. More important, it helps all farmers jump the economic hurdles placed in the way of local food by a raft of government subsidies and regulations favoring importers.

At this very moment, for example, the federal government of Canada, while crying poor on budgetary items related to social equity, is plunking down the lion’s share of $2.3 billion for a new bridge to make it faster and cheaper to transport food from Florida and California across the border from Detroit into Windsor. According to the September 20 report in the Economist, Canada isn’t even asking Michigan, a major beneficiary, to ante up its share of upfront costs. Hopefully, truckers carrying US food that’s being expedited by the new bridge will wave thanks for the Canadian subsidy as they pass Ontario farmers along the route.

That’s just a sample of the problems faced by local food producers, and the reason why government purchasing is the indispensable starting point for any program supporting local and local-sustainable food. Governments need to do at least one thing to undo some of the harm they cause with their subsidies and regulations.

A serious bill would also encourage young farmers to fill critical gaps in the food system. The biggest gap in Ontario and Canada is fruits and vegetables. Though health units say five to ten servings a day are the cornerstone of a healthy diet, both the Ontario ag ministry and federal ag department privilege meat and grain exports, while protecting dairy, chicken and egg producers in local markets.

As a result, only 7 per cent of Canadian farms do fruit and veg, according to York professor Rod MacRae’s read of the 2011 census. Acreage for veggies is down 13.5 per cent since 2006, a sign of crisis in the sector.

The gap is even more astonishing in the area surrounding Toronto, generally recognized as the most productive farmland in the country. Of 7000 farms in the Greenbelt, only 450 produce food, again according to MacRae’s calculations. The rest raise horses or Christmas trees, grow sod for lawns or corn and soy for livestock and car fuel – a sorry fate for such rich land.

Moving more farmers into meeting the fruit and veg needs of a healthy population needs to be identified as part of any thoughtful local food goals, but there is not the slightest mention of this in the act.

A serious bill would insist that the federal government uphold Canadian laws and standards on pesticide levels of foods imported into Canada, thereby protecting Canadian farmers who follow a higher health and environmental standard, often at the expense of increased labor costs or crop losses.

Organic expert Charles Benbrook, writing in the current issue of the Canadian health letter, Nutrition Action, estimates that 80 per cent of the risk of pesticide exposure comes foods exported outside North America. Imagine: a government actually enforcing a law even-handedly to ensure local farmers don’t lose out to unfair and unhealthy competition from outside.

A serious bill for Ontario and other highly-urbanized areas would address the opportunities of producing local food for multicultural consumers by supporting individual farmers and Non Government Organizations that now carry almost the entire weight of that project.

The preem gave a $5000 innovation award to Peter Mitchell and others, such as the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and Stop Community Food Center , for animating this work of promoting “world crops.” Mitchell promptly donated his award money to a project promoting more multicultural engagement and “world foods” in community gardens – calalloo from amaranth and bok choy are obvious examples of world foods that grow well here. Ryerson University immediately matched Mitchell’s donation. A government promoting such innovation could easily match both donations, thereby also showing support for both local farm-grown sales and community-grown food produced for commercial-free home use.

In my mind, a serious bill would also engage and pay tribute to the people on the ground who started local food work long before government made its first effort to play catch-up. It’s a fact that the local food movement began outside government, and commonly in opposition to government policy.

The Ontario government clearly knows about the heavy lifting already done by community and charitable agencies. The politicians appropriated, without acknowledgment, the argument and promotional language of Local Food Plus — first to make the claim that a ten dollar weekly shift to the purchase of local food would result in $2.4 billion in new sales a year, thereby creating create 10,000 local jobs.

The minister of education will have a hard time explaining to students why they get a F for plagiarizing other people’s original work, but the premier gets a pass. Such plagiarism is the sign of very small minds, intent on capturing all the credit for any progress on the local food file, rather than creating opportunities that government support affords. Not a good way to start on changes as challenging and important as local food.

To gain a sense of how far a shift to local food is from the tip-of-the-hat notion of motion the Ontario government offers, check out the research paper by Kevin Morgan and Tim Crabtree, called Prospects for the Future: Scaling Up the Community Food Sector. Just released from Cardiff University, the paper champions independent and home-based food organizations that can be helped to “connect up” for bigger local sales, not just “scale up” to corporate size. The aim of this project is to move to local by moving more to personalized and community relationships which provide real transparency in terms of growing and safety practices. They call their challenge to non-local food systems “scale-deep” rather than “scale out,” as in developing monopoly power that allows them to dominate national and international markets.

Such perspectives on what’s involved in a genuine shift toward a more localized food system stand in stark contrast to the analysis or proposals in Ontario’s effort at local food acting.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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