Our Global Trade in Food

The sudden surge of demand is bringing to light some severe limitations in in our local food supply chain.  For meat products, the bottleneck is processing capacity. Someone commented to me that “we live in farming country… at least we won’t starve!”  But the sad fact is that while the countryside of Ontario is filled with farm animals, the number of local facilities capable of turning those animals into food for the people has steadily declined in the past decades.  Increasingly stringent regulation from government, and competition with mega facilities based around urban centers have spelled the demise of most of the small abattoirs and meat cutting shops which at one time served the province.

This is just one repercussion of a 40 year long transition to globalization.  It has affected every sector from textiles to manufacturing, but the one that is perhaps most troubling is food.  

As we all struggle with this crazy, upside down world of social distancing which we are unexpectedly plunged into, many of us are asking “What can be learned?” or “How might our world change for the better as a result of the pandemic?” Those are huge questions which can be asked from dozens of different perspectives, each one yielding potential insights.  But here, we will limit ourselves to a few thoughts about food.

In his 2008 book, “Folks This Ain’t Normal”, Joel Salatin describes the evolution of the food supply chain on this continent, beginning with the indigenous peoples, whose winter storage was in their homes.  The first European Settlers were mainly farmers who grew, preserved and ate the fruit of their own cultivation. As towns and cities grew, many non-farmers continued to rely on backyard gardens for vegetables and fruit.  Farm animals raised on farms outside the town or right in the backyard were cut up in the town butcher shop and meat was often delivered to people’s houses. My uncle who died only last year told me about his job as a delivery boy for the Walkerton Meat Market, making the rounds with a horse and wagon, a route that the horse knew so well, it would repeat faithfully without guidance from the driver. 

If you ask any of your older surviving relatives to reminisce, you will hear stories like this, of home delivery of milk, of picking up a fresh chicken, intact – with just the feathers and the head gone – waiting to be taken home and “drawn” – a skill that few would possess today! During both World Wars and the great depression the already common practice of cities and towns producing food took on new importance. It would have been rare, just 50 years ago for a family not to have some skill and experience in growing and preparing at least some of what they needed to eat.  Before home freezers, householders packed their cellars with jars of homemade jams, pickles, applesauce and other treats. Nutritious and inexpensive root vegetables were home grown or purchased in bulk, kept in the dark, cool cellar and brought up as needed throughout the winter. A chest freezer made things a little easier. I remember my Mom blanching and packing hundreds of bags of green beans and corn.

Fast forward to today.

Most homes rely on the supermarket for everything. Where is the food before it gets to the supermarket? It could be anywhere.  But you can almost be guaranteed that it’s somewhere far away, totally dependent on a gas-guzzling, wasteful and unnecessary global food distribution bureaucracy to appear on the shelves each week.  We have a 3 day supply in the typical urban center. If the trucks stop rolling, in 3 days we’re out. Last week I noticed a jar of pickles on my Mom’s table labelled “Product of India” Why? If you know anything about gardening you know that the cucumbers that become pickles are not particular about where they grow.  And making them into pickles is one of the oldest, least demanding food preservation techniques going. Couldn’t we manage to feed ourselves with pickles?

The old theories of economics, which promote globalization as a key to prosperity for all rely heavily on the principle of comparative advantage; that is, if all encumbrances to the free movement of goods are removed, production will concentrate in the places which have the lowest cost.  So places with natural tendency toward a particular item make that one in abundance and the rest of us do something else, making everything cheaper and everyone richer. Where the soil and climate favour peaches the farms should grow the peaches. Hilly landscapes with a temperate climate and lots of rain should produce sheep; plains should grow wheat – and so on. I get it. So we need Florida to keep us in citrus fruits and we will never be self-sufficient in coffee or bananas. But is it prudent to rely on California, a state perilously close to ecological collapse for half of Ontario’s vegetables?  Wouldn’t it make sense to grow our own. We certainly have all the natural advantages.  

When I worked as a consultant with producer organizations trying to develop the infrastructure for local organic food, I often ran into offers from the federal government for generous grants aimed at development of export markets.  I could be subsidized to go to Germany to attend a trade show, and showcase our line of organic dairy products or host a delegation from China – all at the expense of the Canadian taxpayer. No thanks!  

I am hoping that this little crisis might cause us to question the way we think about food.  Already I’ve witnessed firsthand and heard on the radio that stores are sold out of yeast (nothing to do with toilet paper!). That means that people are baking at home.  Apparently there’s a run on vegetable seeds. That means people are planning gardens. The restaurants are all closed so we have no choice but to prepare food at home. These are positive developments.  Let’s face it – if you are a middle class Canadian under the age of 70, you have probably never gone hungry or even thought seriously about being unable to eat. Unlike much of the world, and most of our ancestors, our attitude toward food is founded on complacency.  Always having an abundance has made us lazy and incompetent consumers who don’t know or care about the health of our food system. A small dose of food insecurity might be a good thing! 

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