December 30, 2010

Why Buying “Short” Can Be Better Than Buying Local.

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

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.

December 15, 2010

Small Internet Mistakes You Want To Avoid

If you're new to Internet marketing and are about to take the plunge, there are a few common mistakes you need to avoid - mistakes which can come back and bite you later.

Among them are:

When you choose a domain name, make sure it is registered in YOUR name. Many Internet services or web consultants are quick to offer you a domain name but register it in THEIR name. This provides a bit of a stranglehold on a vital part of your new Internet presence and it means it can't be moved to another provider without their permissions.

Domain names are assets. And like any assets, choose them carefully, and keep a tight grip on them. The domain name you have, that cost $15.00 a year to register, might someday solicit an offer of $5000 from someone that wants it bad enough. Be mindful.

Internet services and hosting services are a dime a dozen. Your new website can be hosted almost anywhere in the world by almost any Internet services provider in the world. So be careful not to pay too much for your service. A typical Internet hosting provider should be in the range of $80 to $150 a year for conventional hosting. If someone is asking you to pay more - be skeptical - make sure you're paying for something you need or want. Security, anonymity, and certain special services are worth paying extra for, but basic internet hostings services are not.

Don't overpay for your website. Websites aren't complicated and many good websites use open-sourced content management technology (which makes it very easy to maintain). The key is not to pay for the technology - technology is cheap. Instead pay for content like graphic design and copywriting. It's content that will get you good search engine rankings and get sales, not the technology.

If you build it, they may or may not come. Remember that having a website doesn't automatically mean that people will come knocking on your door. The world-wide web is filled with websites that nobody (except the creator) ever sees. The most important part of your web strategy is going to be how to get people to visit your site.

The Internet has a long memory. Be very careful of what you put on the Internet in any form. Facebook, LinkedIn, Tweets and other social site content can come back to bite you. Misspeillings, grammar errors, and inappropriate comments can be associated with you for a long time on the Internet. Be mindful.

All that being said, the Internet is an essential place for any business to be. Yes, mistakes need to be avoided, but yes, it can make a huge benefit to your business so it's worth investing in.