Eating local is hard, even in B.C.

Buy BC logoIf there’s anywhere in Canada you’d think you could make a whole meal out of locally grown and raised food, you’d think it’d be Vancouver. Possibly Niagara, at harvest time.

Well, the crown is Niagara’s to lose, this story from the Vancouver Sun‘s Chantal Eustace suggests:

“It was just too expensive to do for a group of 100 people,” said Heather Harrison, one of the organizers of Sunday’s community workshop, Eating Locally, Thinking Globally, held at the University of B.C.

The event attracted more than 100 people — including professors, farmers, activists and concerned shoppers — to discuss how eating locally can help save the planet.

Harrison said she tried contacting numerous caterers for the lunch but couldn’t find any that met the 100-mile specifications at a reasonable price.

Instead, people paid $15 each for sandwiches, chips and vegetables, provided by UBC’s campus caterers. While the tomatoes, cucumbers and sprouts were local, Harrison acknowledged the lettuce and the sandwich bread didn’t fall within the diet’s guidelines.

Of course, it’s a lot more difficult to feed 100 people with food from less than 100 miles away than it is to feed a single family. Realistically, I’d think the only way to source most things locally, given today’s long-distance economy, is grow them yourself.

One person’s vegetable garden isn’t going to cut it for the produce, let alone the salt and yeast and sugar and flour going into the bread. You need stuff in bulk, and it’s a real niche market: even for sandwiches and salads, you’re not likely to find someone who can provide you with 20 loaves of bread and cold cuts and tofu and hummus for the vegans and 100 tomatoes and 15 heads of lettuce and so on, and be able to guarantee that not one of the ingredients in any of the more complex items comes from a processing plant in Nebraska.

I’d also expect this sort of thing will get easier with time, particularly if the price of fuel to ship things continues to rise. Local agricultural economies will diversify to take up the slack if it’s no longer possible to get Mexican tomatoes in early spring for $3.69 a pound. Easier, but not cheaper, mind you, since it’ll only be economical to try growing the stuff locally once the prices of the distant foodstuffs rises out of sight.

Or, possibly, if we get properly freaked out by what’s going on in some of the places where today’s cheap food comes from. Also in the Sun, from columnist Jonathan Manthorpe, there’s an assessment of all the stuff that’s, well, potentially poisonous coming out of China these days.

(Incidentally, before we get to Manthorpe, there’s a mild line from the Reuters story, the second link in that last paragraph, that I think is worth repeating: “The Chinese authorities say they have toughened their customs rules to try to stop contaminated products reaching world markets.” In domestic markets, apparently, you takes your chances.)

Manthorpe’s found some perturbing cases:

U.S. officials especially have become alarmed because imports of food from China are growing at a phenomenal rate. In the first three months of this year, for example, imports of fresh fruit from China grew 279 per cent over the same period last year.

Yet Food and Drug Administration inspectors are able to test less than one per cent of the traffic. But even with this almost non-existent testing regime FDA inspectors turned back 257 shipments of food from China in April, far more than from any other country.

A high proportion of these rejected shipments were fish and seafood such as shrimp, mahi-mahi, eel, tilapia and yellowfin tuna. In Alabama alone the discovery of banned antibiotics in catfish from China led to the seizing of over 300,000 kilograms of the fish.

Aside from seafood, FDA inspectors found contaminated dried apples, dried peaches, candy, bean curd and herbal teas. Non-food items found to be too dangerous for humans to be allowed on the shelves included lip gloss and medical catheters.

His conclusion: Chinese manufacturers are dangerous because they’re cheap. He dismisses a conspiracy theory that has China sending contaminated goods to countries that have ticked Chinese leaders off, by supporting Taiwan for instance.

No, Manthorpe figures, the basic problem is that it’s only barely worthwhile to grow and make things in China and ship it to the rest of the world, so they really can’t afford quality and safety standards. If they had ’em, their stuff wouldn’t sell. This bodes ill, if you expect shipping costs to keep rising.

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