The Emergence of Local Food

The locavore explosion, which is very strong in Ontario, across Canada and in the United States, is a dramatic departure or paradigm shift away from the dominant industrial food model. It is not a fad; once the desire for sourcing and eating locally grown food has been unleashed, it will not be supplanted by ‘the next new thing.’

Reaching for local food is driven by a multitude of big and small factors. It is both a questioning of the monoculture global industrial model with its massive carbon footprint and health perils, and a turn towards embracing local and the many rewards linked with it. Qualitatively, local food is thought to be superior in taste, with many other possible functional and emotional attributes. This is not to say that most consumers have suddenly become food literates, but enough people have begun to question what seemed to be the monolithic, unquestionable wisdom of ‘shopping the world’ at the local supermarket. A whole new set of values has gradually emerged, aided and abetted by both positive and negative influences. Gurus such as of Michael Pollan, Alice Watters, Anita Stewart and influential local food writers, media articles and references provided impetus, as have new farmers’ markets and celebrity chefs and their menus. The excitement surrounding local food now can be heard from every corner and is heightened by local grassroots organizations, new and existing.  Food recalls dating back to the Alar scare and numerous others since then has shaken the foundation of confidence Canadians placed in the integrity and safety of the food system. Until this point, polling indicated that Canadians had a high level of confidence in the safety of the food supply. Now food recalls, incidents of food-borne illnesses and e-coli outbreaks have become normative and eaters are jittery.

Insights on the move to buy local food are based primarily on qualitative and quantitative research conducted by Informa and others. While many food shoppers do not call themselves “locavores,” they are attracted to buying local, reaching out for what has been lost or for a more direct relationship with food and the people who produce it. The gloss is off the one-stop, streamlined supermarket experience; comparatively, it is a sterile environment which casts a negative halo over its offering. In choosing the local animated, personal encounters of farmers’ markets, people are feeding a deeply embedded desire to connect with the ‘real thing.’ They want to link with the source even though (or because) there is recognition at some level that they are so divorced from it. Urbanites are on a search for what is called authenticity and in doing so are developing a more holistic view of local world of food choices. For many, selection is no longer driven primarily by just low prices, advertising or convenience. Research conducted by the Green Belt Foundation in 2007 found that 91 percent of respondents say they would buy more locally-grown products if there were more available and it was convenient to do so.

Other factors account for why more people turning to local and challenging the beneficence of globalized food systems. Given availability, access and possibly some flexibility in the amount of income spent on food, some shoppers are able to direct more of their income to buying organic options, and ideally locally produced, to support the local rural economy. Local farmers inspire high trust and respect from consumers. To illustrate, annually the Dairy Farmers of Canada has measured the ‘trust factor’ related to key occupational sectors. Consistently farmers and nurses have been in the top tier, followed by judges, police officers, etc.

Canadians reasoned that farmers care about quality because they are consuming this food too. This perception stands in stark contrast to the reality of shrinking farm incomes and the declining rural economy. Most Canadian eaters have been unaware of the very serious threats to the Canadian agricultural sector posed by international trade agreements and government policies bent on export.

Another key factor in the reach for local movement is the perception that local is fresher and better than food that has been shipped from points around the globe. Foodland Ontario nailed the concept with the jiggling peaches television spot. Integral with the ‘local must be better’ principle is the belief that local farmers are not using as many pesticides and other harmful chemicals as permitted in other countries, and hence local must be healthier. This factor has risen to the fore as concerns about pesticide impacts and residues increase and the ban on the application of pesticides for cosmetic purposes is widely seen as a ‘no-brainer.’

Gradually, as Canadians develop an understanding of the threats posed by climate change and greenhouse gases, local has become synonymous with environmental sustainability and carbon reduction. While it has declined somewhat, there is still the perception that local should translate into cheaper; North America’s cheap food policy orientation is not commonly known. Possibly perceived shipping costs were seen to be a major price factor, while in reality transportation costs in this era of cheap fossil fuel and containerized shipping account for a fraction of the price of imported items. Now many people understand that they are part of the problem and potentially part of the solution. In sum, you build trust through knowing provenance and authenticity. Farmers are real and their food is real.