Efficiency and Sustainability: two very different concepts!

November 26, 2009

Today I read another article in the Ontario Farmer, that I really didn’t agree with, entitled “Buying Local Foods not the best option for being green.” It even mentioned that the research it was reporting was “bound to curl the noses of organic and local food purists”. I wouldn’t say that I’m a purist by any means but I have been known to attend the local farmers market and talk to urban, local and organic producers; they are right the research did curl my nose.  It curled my nose because it made a few rather impressively large assumptions and seemed to directly equate fuel efficiency with environmental sustainability. These things are very different, hence the existence of two unique words in the English language to describe them; although, the author used them interchangeably.  I decided that I would find the original research article and make sure that the portrayal of the research in the Ontario farmer article was accurate, which it was. The research article was very well written, well researched, and had tried it’s best to take into account some variables commonly left out of such comparisons. All in all it was a scientifically accurate and well reasoned with-in its assumptions; so why am I still upset?  Well the problem is that although the paper “uses a life-cycle assessment model which evaluates all inputs and outputs within the food system” it does exactly that and nothing more.   I’m upset because I don’t agree with some of the assumptions.

The first assumption that they made is that all choices are and should be made on the efficiency of the production of a food product. This assumption that the only factor that should be taken into account is how little inputs we can use to make the greatest output is the definition of efficiency not sustainability. In fact this push to produce more and more with less and less is what has gotten agriculture into the mess we are in, with the price of food so low that farmers require subsidies, consumers taking food for granted and diet linked health issues soring! That is not a picture of sustainability which takes into account so many other issues, including externalities for which the food system is not held responsible, including health problems, environmental impacts such as contaminated ground water and oceans, and the list goes on and on.  This simple assumption the authors made put a major bias on the paper pushing it towards industrial agriculture.

The second assumption that the authors made was that a shift of purchasing from grocery stores and industrial agriculture to local and non-conventional agriculture was the only food related shift that consumers were  making. This assumption is not always valid, consumers who purchase local food on a regular basis also learn more about the food they are purchasing and its impacts. They learn about cooking and nutrition and begin to make new decisions about how much and what types of food they are eating. They chose to eat less meat and dairy products as they have higher overall cost to the environment, and begin to purchase more vegetables and traditional crops that have much smaller environmental footprints. Some even take the step towards producing their own food in their own back yards, perhaps even raising a few chickens. These changes result in much different environmental impact then the paper concluded.

This made me wonder who funded the study as the article stated there were no government funds, NGO’s or private companies involved in funding, then where did it come from, who else funds studies like this? Well one of the authors is listed as being from Elanco Animal Health of Greenfield, IN, a private animal health company in operation in over 75 countries. Or in other words a multinational corporation, which happened to have pirchased the Bovine Growth Hormone from Monsanto in 2008, the other to authors are professors in animal science at Washington State and Cornell University. Even if Elanco didn’t provide funding for the study, having someone from the corporation as one of the 3 authors is a clear conflict of interest on the part of the university researchers.

Therefore I feel that the overall conclusions made by this paper are inaccurate.  Although the authors facts and comparisons are accurate and follow logically within the parameters and assumptions they developed for the study, I take issue with those parameters and assumptions as I feel they do not reflect the true actions of local food advocates and are heavily biased towards conventional agri-business.

1 Lonely Aggie Jacket

November 26, 2009

This Friday I attended a great symposium on the University of Guelph campus, filled with groundbreaking, hardworking and interesting farmers from around the  province. The symposium hosted by the Plant Agriculture was on urban agriculture, an often neglected sector of the agriculture industry.  Never was that fact more apparent to me then at the symposium. Now I wasn’t expecting to see lots of people I knew but being the only person there wearing an Aggie jacket; at an agriculture symposium on an agricultural college campus, was somewhat surprising.  I do need to admit at this point that I was not the only OAC student at the event, their were a number of organic major students, and there may have been other OAC students that I did not recognize,  but the point isn’ t that I was the only aggie there, its that an interesting and growing field of agriculture isn’t attracting attention from students or the college as a whole.

So how come the agricultural community isn’t giving their urban farming counterparts the respect and attention they deserve? I think the primary reason is a complete lack of knowledge of what urban agriculture is and how it functions. The farmers I met at the symposium deserve the title of farmer just as much as any other farmer I’ve ever met. This isn’t a hobby to them, they work long days, and wear just as many hats as any other farmer. They negotiate contracts for land, plant, manage weeds and pests, harvest, store and sell their products, and generally hold off the farm jobs.  Due to their urban environment where land is very expensive and generally buried under buildings and pavement it means that these urban farmers utilize generally under 5 acres of land to grow their crops. In North America this is more comparable to a large lawn of an estate then to a farm, but internationally the average farmer worldwide still farms less then 5 acres.  Therefore on the global stage these urban are in no way too small to be effective and sustainable.

These farmers deserve just as much help and support from their industry and government as conventional farmers, but instead receive little to no support.  This means that when they have problems to solve, they turn to each other, this is one of my favorite parts of working with farmers in urban agriculture and organic agriculture as well.  Put three farmers in a room and soon someone has put forward a question they have been unable to solve and an hour later they are still discussing things they have tried, their successes and failures and working towards a solution. Unfortunately this is also one of my biggest problems with working in these sectors, they are so used to being turned away by the industry and the government that they have stopped looking for answers from these resources and there are so few scientists and agricultural professionals willing to talk to them that they turn to other less reliable sources of information. For example, a farmer I talked to at the symposium spoke of the process she had taken to learn about chickens and chicken slaughter. She had looked at government resources, but none had applied to her, she had tried to find a veterinarian willing to talk to her and teach her,  she was un-successful. Finally she found a small abattoir that she could deal with and learn from but it was too far away to be feasible, so eventually she turned to YouTube, thats right the social video website, to learn how to identify sick chickens and to learn how to slaughter her own chickens! As agriculture students we hear of these things and shake them off as crazy people, but I’ve talked to them and they aren’t that crazy, they want to learn, they want to do things right and they want help in achieving their goals. I think the agricultural community needs to step up and provide them with that help and leadership, but first we must recognize that they are farmers and that they are an important part of our industry. In other words, we can’t have one lonely aggie jacket trying to bridge the gap! Calling all aggies! Its time to take a look at non-conventional streams of agriculture, they are interesting, growing and looking for bright, creative young agriculture professionals!

Look for Ontario Peppers!

November 14, 2009

This past weekend I was in a local grocery store, buying groceries for a busy week of meals. The menu included fajitas and we were looking for some nice fresh red peppers. Upon finding the pepper display, I was definitely unimpressed to find that all the peppers were from Mexico or the United States, no Ontario greenhouse peppers.  After unwillingly picking up a Mexican red pepper, I started to move on my way  but stopped when I saw a sign: ” Pick Ontario Freshness: Look For Peppers” Well I looked and I did not find!


Later that week, I was skimming through the Ontario Farmer and found an article called:  ” Greenhouse businesses hit by “Dumped” pepper imports.”  I thought, “excellent! Someone has noticed the lack of Ontario peppers and has discovered why!”  I was pretty excited; then I read the subtitle: “The bankruptcy of a Dutch insurer has meant cheaper peppers landing in Toronto”. Dutch? What does a Dutch insurance company have to do with Mexican peppers in Guelph? So I read on; as it turns out this insurance company used to ensure shipments of dutch peppers to Russia and other Eastern European countries and when they went bankrupt those shipments stopped. This meant that these dutch peppers are now being flown across the ocean to markets in Toronto. The rest of the article didn’t really give anymore explanation of the pepper problem, but was more focused on greenhouse growers attempts to lobby government and complain about the greenbelt act from 2005.


So this left me asking: why am I buying expensive Mexican peppers; where are all the cheap dutch peppers; and what happened to all those Ontario peppers?  Well I did a quick online check of some Toronto grocery flyers and found a few advertising Ontario peppers. I also decided to check back at the original store and their flyer this week is advertising Ontario or Mexico peppers, where as many other grocery stores owned by the same company are advertising Foodland Ontario Peppers. I found another online article explaining that the USDA closed its borders to peppers from the Netherlands on October 21st, this year citing a pest problem on a shipment.  This shows the further complication of the international pepper market and all the forces of trade and economics that play a role in determining the supply of produce to Ontario consumers.

So whats the take home message from all of this? In order to buy local and therefore support local farmers, you really need to  support local grocers, who will take your concerns into account when they are purchasing their products. Help out our farmers and take a second to talk to the managers of your favorite grocery store. Try to read labels before you buy, and ask someone, ” Where are the Ontario peppers, I’ve been looking for them?”

PS: Keep your eyes peeled for snow peas and sugar snap peas direct from China, nicely wrapped in plastic wrap.