The Canada blogger guru Rob asked a great question in the Millarville post below, and my answer grew until it was unmanageable in size, so it moved to a post of its own. He was wondering how much of the stuff is locally grown, pointing out the mangoes specifically. Of course mangoes and several other items are nowhere near local. In fact mangoes, coffee and tea are 100% foreign. So what’s the deal with eating locally and indulging in stuff grown thousands of miles away and shipped to wee cold Alberta?
Trade of goods has been the staple of mankind since people figured out their area has unique resources that can be harvested in surplus and traded for goods they lack. Since each area of earth is abundant in its unique form of wealth, trade allowed us to have access to foods, goods and minerals that our area may not have. From merchant ships of Phoenicians to the silk caravan and the spice trade people have bartered and traded wealth and redistributed world resources a bit more equitably.
As the modern society of North America evolved, things went a bit sideways what with the subsidization of agriculture, industrialization of food production, excessive use of pesticides, monocultural farming practices and all the other unsustainable problems outlined exceedingly well in books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and many others. Throughout all this small organic farmers and eaters kept the ‘healthy food/healthy planet’ fires burning, embracing vegetarianism, tofu, amaranth and composting with vigor, and earning derogatory labels smacking of hippy-ism and Birkenstocks. Some facets of their culture were admittedly not for everyone, but they had a pretty inarguable fundamental point – we ARE what we eat, and earth IS where we live. As more problems arose with childhood diabetes, grownup obesity, vivid campaigns of animal rights activists and pesticide horror stories, the mainstream population woke up and paid attention.
In the last decade that I’ve been paying attention, there’s been a large and growing movement of eating locally, organically and sustainably with lots of shades of meaning for each word. Now people are tossing out things like the ‘100-mile diet’ (a movement that incidentally started in Vancouver), going to see Food, Inc. and listening to podcasts like Deconstructing Dinner. An organic food delivery SPUD has actually succeeded in Calgary, and our farmers markets are busier than ever. Of course as the movement grows so do the problems – everything from horrendous legislation that aims to do direct harm to the small farmer (NAIS), Monsanto’s lawsuits against small farmers, to the expensive organic certification and dubious standards, to the aptly named ‘industrial organic’.
Of course what the whole thing boils down to for consumers is a bit of personal responsibility. Just like so many areas in life we have to be unwilling to abdicate personal authority to decide what’s best for us, and leave things in the hands of legislators. I love food. It’s about as primal of a passion as it gets, right up there with breathing and sleeping. I like food that tastes good, real and fresh and for my inaugural garden I grew primarily things where you can really taste the difference between supermarket varieties and heirloom ones – tomatoes, peas, carrots and strawberries come readily to mind. I enjoy food grown locally – the less shipping required the more taste remains for you, and I enjoy support the local farmers who spend such time and effort to grow our food. I enjoy eating animals that were raised humanely, have eaten a diet natural to their species and enjoyed a lifestyle reasonably appropriate to their needs. I adore freshly picked veggies, awesome Okanagan wine, ready made meals and fantastic meats from the farmers market. These comprise about ninety percent of my purchases.
But the other ten percent are simply not available locally no matter how you look at it. We can grow mustard, canola, wheat, corn, meat and veggies, but we will never grow fruit like BC, coffee like South America or tea like India. So we do what people have always done – trade. Now we trade currency rather than goods directly, but we still trade for the things we want and can’t have. Again we can ensure we purchase organic, shade grown, fair trade good and minimize the impact of these transactions, but unless we get militant about eating locally, we will always import some goods. I am perfectly okay with perpetuating this habit since it makes so much sense to do so. Someone imports our wheat, we import their coffee. When you take a peek into international trade on a global scale the issue becomes impossibly perplexing with tariffs, quotas, customs and so on, but if someone who lives in town, and wants to select their favorite goods and offer them for his neighbors to enjoy – I’m all for it.
And to answer Rob’s question, yes the mustard is about as local as it gets – Canada is the world’s largest exporter of mustard seeds, and Brassica Mustard is just like their logo says – “Prairie Grown, and Prairie Made.”