Local food is a future necessity

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There was a bit of upset over the fact that a province-wide local food event called the Incredible Picnic, scheduled for August 23, was cancelled because of hurricane Bill, rescheduled for August 30, then cancelled again because of tropical storm Danny. It was a success in its initial run last year, and this year there was a lot of anticipation, with farmers having geared up for it and some having taken a loss when it didn't happen.


The Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture is taking heat for not having planned differently.

I raise this because of what it says about the quickening interest in growing and eating local foods, here and throughout the Western world, and that it's starting to count in real dollars and cents.

Farmers' markets are cropping up everywhere; the big grocery chains are getting in on the act; there are programs for schools; some towns and cities have local food guides, local food co-ops, even local food social networks. In some places, there's research and training, local food restaurants and local food online services.

Some of the usual suspects think this is all a fad, and at worst another socialist plot led by Al Gore and the Hollywood fashionistas; but in fact, it's not only real but arguably the prelude to a dire necessity. Simply, the industrial agriculture that has fed increasing numbers of people for 60 years, thanks to more and more chemical fertilizers and advances in technology, is hitting several brick walls.

The thickest is that farming as we know it is the biggest producer of greenhouse gases among economic sectors, not to mention one of the biggest polluters of land and water. Huge oceanic "dead zones" worldwide are being linked to agricultural runoff -- the biggest being a 7,000-square-mile or so area of the Gulf of Mexico, fed by the U.S. agricultural heartland via the Mississippi River.

Then there are the United Nations figures: from one acre of available arable land in the world per person in 1970 down to half an acre in 2000 and dropping towards eventual unsustainability, assuming the world's population keeps increasing.

And that's not counting losses even now occurring because of climate change: more droughts, floods and other extreme weather events (was Bill -- unusually early for a hurricane -- part of the pattern?), the Sahara desert galloping northward, and glaciers melting atop mountain ranges that supply more than half the world's population with their fresh water.

And of the world's fresh water, 70 per cent of what's consumed goes to agriculture. Of the world's great rivers, some -- the Colorado, China's Yellow -- don't always make it to the sea, being sucked dry before they get there.

Further, the system is warped towards junk and over-processed food which is linked to health problems, overuses antibiotics and pesticides, and is perversely subsidized.

In the U.S. in particular, which is the heart of the matter, huge subsidies go to the entrenched farm lobbies producing wheat, corn, soybeans and rice. Those plants are the pillars of the world food system and are healthy enough on their own, or as animal feed, but they are also ingeniously confected by food companies into the rampant phenomenon which is junk food. To make things worse, corn is being subsidized to make ethanol.

Meanwhile, producers of vegetables and other healthy foods, especially for the local market, get nothing. This is the source of increasing friction in the U.S. Congress.

The local food movement is a reaction to all this, but there are different components to it -- it's not all back to the land. There are plans afoot for "vertical farming" -- urban, solar-powered highrises rigged to produce food on every floor with soil-free hydroponic and "aeroponic" (spraying plants with a nutrient-laden mist) techniques, recycling water and using only a tiny fraction of what's used in conventional, large-scale agriculture. The Middle East might be the first place for this.

Meanwhile, whenever you start a backyard garden, you're actually creating sustainable arable land -- especially if you're carving it out of basically useless and resource-sucking lawn area. Local food is being defined first as what you produce yourself, then by the farmers on the urban fringe, then on to the province and region.

As a lifelong gardener, I had meant to get around to the question of the superior taste of local produce, and how that induces you to eat better. But I'm out of space. Let me just make this point. It's tomato time. A local tomato is so superior to that imported wooden stuff that you could easily call them different vegetables. Yet at the height of local tomato season, the wooden stuff is still in the stores and apparently being bought by the unwary who don't know the difference. When this reverses, I'll take it as a signal that things are really changing.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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