Do we want to eat Canadian food?

The following column was printed in the Guelph Mercury on September 25 2008.

Do we want to eat Canadian food?

By Lilian Schaer

Harvest is upon us and you can’t go very far without running across someone promoting local food. It’s everywhere – new farmers’ markets and road side stands, festivals and advertisements. Everyone, seemingly, is talking about it and there’s a plethora of new buy local programs for farmers with a dizzying array of requirements for them to meet in order to participate.

I experienced a similar environment in Central Europe recently when I was attending the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists congress in Slovakia, Austria and Slovenia. The European Union has various special support programs to encourage local production and help keep farmers farming – especially on hill and mountainsides where they hope to maintain rural communities whose populations are dwindling.

But on the flip side of this outpouring of support for local food in Europe, I also heard a lot of complaints about foreign food imports, particularly in Slovakia. In that tiny country of five million people, farmers have taken a beating from low-priced imports. In dairy production, for example, low milk prices have shrunk the national cow herd from 450,000 cows seven years ago to only 215,000 milk animals today.

But probably the most dramatic drop has been in the country’s struggling pork sector. Pork is hugely popular in Slovakia, with Slovakians consuming approximately 31 kg of pork per capita annually. Very low pork prices and a flood of cheap imports from other EU countries has led to a drastic reduction in the national sow herd – from 130,000 head to only 50,000 in about six years.

Here in Canada, there are similar complaints about food imports, although no one other than farmers seems to be very vocal about it. Fruit growers have long been frustrated by the California strawberries, the Washington cherries or the Chinese apples that dominate our store shelves at the height of the fruit harvest in our part of the world.

And as a consumer, I can personally attest to how hard it has become to buy Ontario-grown garlic at the supermarket – even though I know there are farmers in Ontario who grow this particular crop.

The story is a similar one in the meat industry. The Canadian beef and pork industries have long produced much more meat than we can eat here in Canada, forcing us to depend heavily on export markets.

However, despite the oversupply of Canadian pork and farmers who are struggling to make a living because of low prices, there is a growing amount of US pork showing up in our grocery stores. According to the latest numbers, in 2007 Canada imported just under 200,000 tonnes of US pork, compared to 122,000 tonnes two years earlier.

This is where I think our retailers need to step up to the plate and do more to support Canadian farmers instead of simply following the dollar and bringing in whatever happens to be the cheapest. At the same time, consumers need to actually practice what they preach and turn their sentiments into buying habits. It’s great to talk about buying local, but unless we actually follow through, the support is token at best.

I know that is getting tougher and tougher to do these days as everything gets more expensive and belts are tightening across many sectors. But we need to keep the bigger picture in mind as well. Healthy and vibrant rural communities are the backbone of urban Ontario. They’re essential for a strong economy and we need to support them in meaningful ways if we want to continue to have farmers produce our food and look after our land and water.

Programs like Local Food Plus, Pick Ontario Freshness and Foodland Ontario are great – but they’re a tip of an iceberg that is a much larger issue. Do we want to eat Canadian food? Or do we want to be dependent on others to feed us? The choice is up to us.

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