Why is local food so expensive? On September 19th we had a discussion about the Economics of Local Food, featuring special guests Cookie Roscoe, Wychwood Barns farmer’s market manager, and Carolyn Young, lead consultant at Organic Council of Ontario.
Roscoe started by recalling that when she was a kid in the 1960s, her father would drive around town every Saturday morning with the grocery flyers, looking for bargains and buying loss leader products. While it used up gas to drive from store to store, savvy shoppers saw it as their civic duty to be conscientious and keep food prices low. Grocery shopping was all about cost. But grocery stores were smaller then and most stores stocked products from within 100km. Times have changed.
Roscoe now works with farmers who are grateful to have a spot at the Wychwood market because the income helps them keep their farms, but many Torontonians won’t shop at the market because they think it’s too expensive. Roscoe says there’s a chasm between our perception of what expensive food is and what is really is. Food requires labour and so there’s no cheap way to produce it. Costs can be cut by sourcing food from places where labour or environmental costs are cheaper, but we can’t produce food more cheaply in Canada. Roscoe strives to eat food that has a traceable source and that everyone who worked in the production of that food lived a decent live and was paid a fair wage for their work.
Young mentioned that she’s from Brampton, which used to be home to some of the best farmland in the province but is now full of suburbs. The cost of land is part of food economics. Young explained that economies of scale, competitive advantages, and specialization all play a role in food costs. With recent developments in pesticides, fertilizers, and technology, labour requirements are lower than they once were but that doesn’t mean production overall is cheaper. Climate change is affecting soil and the capacity for places to specialize, which led, for example, to high cauliflower prices earlier this year following a draught in California. Externalities – or dumping costs on someone else. There is pressure on food producers to maintain prices but this can create other costs for the public, such as phosphorus in Lake Erie, soil degradation in the dust bowl, and declining topsoil. Some people say our food system is broken but it’s very effective at what it’s trying to do; we can get food from all over the world at any time and it won’t be spoiled and it’s generally affordable.
When it comes to organic food, some people criticize that only yuppies can afford it. Young asks why shouldn’t people with wealth pay higher prices? Supply for organic food is low right now because the systems for it are still being developed, but demand is high so the price is high. Young’s organization is doing advocacy work for the organics industry since currently, for food that is produced in and stays in Ontario, it’s voluntary for farmers to follow national standards to identify as organic; and she’d like to see the government pay for transition costs in the years when a farmer is going from non-organic to organic.
Following these opening remarks, a participant asked what are the major costs in food production? Roscoe mentioned that many farmers she works with need 1/2 acre of farm land to make $800/week at the market, which is their breakeven point. Raising a cow requires spending a lot of money. Producing fruit incurs different costs. Young said it’s a hard question to answer, but that to get into any type of agriculture in Ontario right now requires investing millions of dollars in a license, and then supporting high labour costs and high mechanization costs. Land development speculation, foreign ownership of agricultural land, and the quota system are also making it a challenging environment.
Another participant asked if the speakers were aware that TPP will disallow promoting local food. Young said she’s written to Premier Wynne about this. There is supposed to be a buffer so that small producers won’t be affected, but the dairy industry, for example, is worried that TPP will let in a lot of European cheeses for cheap and our local industry will fail as a result. Someone asked a follow up question – how is it possible that cheese flown in from Europe could be cheaper than local cheese? Young explained that there are deep subsidies in Europe and economies of scale mean that travel isn’t a major factor in food cost. We also have high milk costs locally due to quotas.
There was then a question about whether or not residents of metropolitan areas such as the GTA could exist on a 100 mile diet and if that would be a good idea. Roscoe said it’s a nice idea but we drink coffee, use lemons, eat avocadoes – things we don’t grow locally. She is more concerned with worker dignity and fair wages than proximity. We’re so far away from the 100 mile diet that it’s almost a moot point. The restaurant industry also doesn’t to enough to support these practices – as consumers, we need to ask for what we want to see. Young added that cities exist because they are able to access food from afar. She noted that it’s desirable to rebuild our food system to the degree which it would build resilience in our local system.
The discussion then turned to eating seasonally as a more sustainable option. Roscoe pointed out that if you shop for what’s in season and cook for yourself, much of the affordability issue goes away. Young noted that people are generally interested in new and diverse food, but community supported agriculture box programs are helping build awareness about seasonal eating.
Someone sad that if land ownership is a major barrier to expanded agriculture locally, should the government own and lease farm land to remove that barrier? Roscoe said that there are situations like this currently and they’re not working out. Governments have the onus to get the best money they can, so they encourage cash crops like grain, corn, and soy and offer one year leases. Apple trees are a 25 year project but governments are 4 year entities. Young added that if a farmer is leasing land, he or she doesn’t have the motivation to invest in the soil and neither does the landlord, which doesn’t’ bode well. One idea is to attach tax credits to certain agricultural choices, such as giving carbon credits to farmers who improve organic matter in their soil each year.
So what can we do to keep good farm land safe from development and be fair to land owners? Buy local organic food, support the green belt. There are many small scale ideas but no panacea. We’re all under pressure to pay our bills but demand dives supply and changing consumer demands are impacting the industry (for example, Subway and A&W advertising and investing in new food practices).
There was a brief discussion about temporary foreign workers, and how we need to set up processes for migrant workers to be able to move between farms and access health care. Roscoe encouraged people to stay informed and ask questions about their food.
The evening ended with a discussion about ethnic food and cultural produce that isn’t native to Ontario. Young said that we need to give immigrants access to farm land. Roscoe said that people need to see the diversity of Toronto reflected in sellers at markets. Maintaining this diversity requires supporting local farmers at every meal.
Our guests highlighted the complexity of the situation and gave us much food for thought.