Mohamed Hage is the founder of Lufa Farms in Montreal, Canada. Lufa Farms is the world’s first commercial-scale rooftop farm. More perspectives on urban agriculture by Mohamed Hage can be found at www.lufafarms.blogspot.com.
Imported food up – Exported food down.
Since the early 1990’s the amount of fresh produce exported by North America has steadily decreased compared to the amount of fresh produce being imported. Now, the typical foodstuff in your dinner has travelled more than 1000 miles to get to you. Based on current trends, this is not likely to change anytime soon.
The basis of “buy local”.
Many consumers do find lower prices as a result of this movement to import, and certainly some gourmands appreciate that exotic items such as mangosteens, star fruit, and dragon fruits can now be easily found and purchased in North American markets. But critics would suggest that so-called energy ‘food-mile’ cost, lack of sufficient inspections, lack of food traceability, fair-trade issues, and child labor, more than offset such benefits. These criticisms lay at the foundation of the “buy local” movement that has taken root in the North American food politic.
But food distribution is the real issue.
While many do find the notion of transporting food from all over the planet onto our dinner plates to be disturbing, that’s only part of the problem. As big (or bigger) an issue is the process of getting it to market.
The long road to you.
Once a “fresh” food item is harvested it begins a long, arduous ordeal to get to your dinner plate. The items are typically packed up by the grower and transported to shipping warehouse. From the shipping warehouse, the produce is sent to a wholesale food distribution terminal outside of your city. There it may be unpacked, repacked and then sold to a retailer. The retailer than packs up the produce and ships it to its distribution warehouse, where it may be unpacked, repacked and sent to the actual retail store where it is unpacked, sometimes repacked and eventually sold to you. This long ordeal will result in as much as 50% of the produce being lost to spoilage or damage along the way, and will take between one week and three weeks - no matter whether the produce was grown in Malaysia or grown at a farm in your state or province. So much for being “fresh”!
‘Buying short’ is more relevant than ‘buying local’.
The argument that buying local will somehow save significant energy, while not entirely wrong, is focused on the smaller issue – actually, shipping produce from the Southern Hemisphere to North America by boat, for example, is surprisingly efficient. But the real energy usage and waste, once the produce has been grown, lies in the local transport and refrigeration used in the local distribution channel.
How “buying long” hurts us.
In addition to the large carbon footprint left by the long local food distribution system, buying through long channels also forces growers, wholesalers and retailers to make food decisions – choices - that compromise the consumer. How? Simple - every grower, wholesaler and retailer is concerned about ‘yield’. What is the crop yield per acre? And what is the yield to market how much gets sold once the produced damaged or spoiled along the way gets subtracted?
Here are a few examples of choices that hurt the consumer:
(1) Picking crops earlier. It’s a long way to market and if produce is picked ripe they may arrive way past prime and begin decay. But earlier picking means the fruit or vegetable has not fully produced its final flavor or final nutrient content.
(2) Using post-harvest treatments to boost yield. Fruit and vegetables are subject to a variety of problems once in the distribution channel. Poor temperature and humidity regulation, poor handling and inattention to packaging often results in the introduction of moulds, bacteria, loss of moisture, and decay. Often, fungicides, insecticides, gases and water conditioning agents are used to treat produce to minimize these problems.
(3) Increasing use of petroleum-based polyethylene containers. Though comparatively expensive, at some point, the cost of produce damage and loss becomes large enough that it can be economically justifiable to use petroleum-based protective plastic or clamshell containers.
(4) Selecting cultivars for the wrong reason. The long distribution channel, and the damage caused by it, often results in growers choosing plant cultivars (special varieties of plants) that are tougher, more durable and more market-ready. Essentially, this means that the fruit or vegetable will be tougher, but not necessarily more nutritious or flavorful .
What happened to the idea of growing good-tasting, nutritious food?
Someplace in the development of the North American food chain, the idea of good-tasting, nutritious food has given way to tough, shippable (but cosmetically good-looking) food. Taste and nutrient content no longer govern the choice of foods grown and therefore no longer govern the choice of foods bought.
Buying short is the best way to buy local.
All of these issues disappear when the distribution channel collapses to a simple straight line between the grower and the consumer. No early harvesting. No post-harvest treatments. No petrochemical clamshells. And plant cultivars can be selected for taste and nutrient content.
Buying short, of course, will likely mean that you will also be buying local. This way you get the best of both – high quality foods, highly traceable foods, and the security of knowing that your purchases boost the sustainability of your community’s food source.