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Dry Spell: why local isn’t simple

Anna Bowen

Well, it’s nearly August and Margaret Wente’s abrasive views notwithstanding, I am still standing by my local Community Shared Agriculture program in this raging drought. (If you’re looking for a fight, check out her column from earlier this month where she says, “[locavorism is] the most wasteful, inefficient way to feed the human race you can possibly imagine. It’s also bad for the environment.”) The garlic harvest is coming in from bulbs planted in late fall, and the first tomatoes are ripe off the vine despite the lack of rain.  Although “my” farm in Southern Ontario got ½ an inch of rain recently, the farmers say they need ¾ to 1 inch of rain per week to sustain really bountiful gardens.

Community Shared Agriculture is a system of buying vegetables where people buy shares in the farm and pay for the harvest at the beginning of the season.  Members pick up a box of their veggies every week, and farmers benefit because they were given the capital they needed up front to buy seed and equipment before the season began. At our CSA, our farmers get between $475 and $725 per family at the beginning of the season, when they need it most (people are paying about $25 in veggies per week).  The other benefit to farmers is that while the whole CSA membership shares in, say, a bumper crop of strawberries, they also stand with you in case of a hard season – like this one.  Members take their share of the harvest, and that means if the cucumber crop was smaller than usual because of the heat then everyone takes home one cuke instead of two.

As Wente unceremoniously points out, being a “locavore” or eating only organic has its limits.  Food can be both organic and have a huge carbon footprint.   Food can also be local but represent large-scale cash crops, as with PEI potatoes, which are sold in part to McCain Foods.  McCain wouldn’t be the poster child for local food in the minds of Whole Foods-types and community market shoppers, but if you lived in Charlottetown, it’d be local.

Part of the attractiveness of “local food” is that being close enough to our farms and food sources allows us to think about them as part of a larger system.  For example, if we eat local fish we might be more concerned with mercury poisoning in a local river.  Whereas if we are getting fish from abroad, through a large-scale distributor like Captain High Liner (Haddock caught in the Arctic Ocean, for example) we’re not as aware or concerned about how that fish harvest is integrated into local ecosystems, for better or for worse.  In the same way, if we eat “organic” or wild fish from far away, it’s easier not to think about why we aren’t eating fish from the river that runs through our city, the same one the kids can’t actually swim in.

The answer isn’t just eating local and/or organic, but being accountable.  Eating local and/or organic can in some cases become an expensive badge of honor for those trying to follow the trends—I think that’s what Wente is talking about here.  There is no pat answer to how to make food part of a sustainable future (although some would say being vegetarian would make the biggest difference), and likewise its probably not going to be an answer that makes a good bumper sticker.  But I’m still going to opt for getting to know my soil better, my farmers better, and this water better, in the interest of being accountable for what I consume.  This means I’m turning down the proud label of “vegan” or “locavore” in favor of weighing my impact and what I can afford on a case-by-case basis, and being open to change.  What about you?

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