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Local Economy

Why We Pay Too Little for Well Travelled Food

Charging the true cost of "food miles" could change the way people eat. Fourth in a series

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon 12 Aug

J.B. MacKinnon is an independent magazine journalist and writer. He is the author of Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), which won Canada’s highest award for literary nonfiction. He is also coauthor of The 100-Mile Diet (Random House, 2007, with Alisa Smith), a bestseller that is widely credited as a catalyst of the local foods movment, and I Live Here (Pantheon, 2008, written with Mia Kirshner, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons), a unique “paper documentary” about displaced people.

J.B.'s Connection to BC: Born is Sheffield, England, but raised in Kamloops, B.C., J.B. loves this province. (He has been down nearly every highway and a lot of the dirt roads, too.)

Reporting Beat: Environment, food.

Website: J.B. MacKinnon

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Walk into a supermarket and look at the pile of tomatoes. Maybe they're from BC or Washington; maybe they're from Mexico. Chances are, either way, they're about $3 per pound. How does produce that has travelled thousands of kilometers end up retailing for no more than the local goods-and sometimes for even less?

There are a lot of complicated equations at work here, from economies of scale to labour costs to the pricing power of trend-setting agricultural giants like California. One area that is often overlooked, however, is the realm of "externalities"-the term economists use to describe the costs (or benefits) of producing an item that affect people other than the producers themselves. Externalities are typically not reflected in prices. The Economist magazine calls this a form of market failure, as well they might.

In terms of our sample tomato, those hidden costs might include government tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies (which reduce costs of chemical fertilizer, shipping and packaging); government-funded water diversion projects; subsidies to industrial agriculture; support of expensive highway systems; and the downstream costs of agrochemical pollution, such as health care and water purification.

Who pays the price for all of that? We all do, though our taxes. Where we don't pay for it is at the supermarket till when they ring through our $3-a-pound tomato.

Hidden costs paid later

Call it the Mxyztplk Economy. You remember Mr. Mxyztplk from the old comic books-the super-villain from a different dimension where everything was the reverse of what it ought to be. That parallel universe is the industrial food system. Instead of each of us paying the true cost of our food choices up front, we buy our food cheap and pay the hidden environmental and social price later as a society.

In March, James and I started a yearlong experiment in local eating that we call the 100-Mile Diet. The distance that food typically travels to get to our plates was a major motivator, and sure enough, "food miles" are a seriously see-no-evil externality. In fact, despite the gas-pump rage that many of us now feel, subsidies continue to keep transportation costs artificially cheap-right now they amount to only 10 percent of the retail price of a tomato that's been shipped halfway across the continent, says a 2001 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

No one seems to have calculated what an imported tomato should cost in an honest economy, but I'll make a guess based on recent British research. A 2002 Worldwatch study shows that the British government spends CAN$3.2 billion fixing farming-related problems, such as purifying drinking water polluted by agrochemicals and containing mad-cow disease. This is nearly the amount of all British farmers' annual income-in other words, the present wholesale price of produce. Then there are the many other expenses the British people bear to keep industrial farmers afloat, most notably $6.4 billion in annual subsidies (a situation paralleled in North America). Transfer these tripled expenses from taxpayers and onto tomatoes, and they could cost $9 a pound.

Suddenly, an imported, chemically treated tomato would cost far more than a local, organic variety. We have escaped from the Mxyztplk Economy.

China's agro ambitions

In July, the British government made a move in that direction by promising to reduce by 20 percent the environmental and social costs of food transport by 2012. Closer to home, Capers markets recently began working to consolidate produce deliveries from local growers, saving fuel costs to the farmers and externalities to all of us, and Small Potatoes Home Delivery lists food miles on its receipts. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the direction that the global food system seems to be heading-if anything, we're digging deeper into a world where the cost of our choices is hidden from us until everybody has to pay them.

"China has committed to being the world's biggest supplier of produce," says Rich Pirog, the marketing and food systems program leader at the Leopold Center in Iowa. Externalities in this case will include massive government damming and irrigation projects, dislocation and relocation of millions of people, and devastating environmental impacts as the world's most populous nation expands farmland and turns more aggressively toward agrochemicals. If China succeeds in its aims, it will also increase the average distance the food on North American plates travels (let us mention again that it's already 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres), further revving up global warming.

Fortunately, a countercurrent also exists. In those parts of the world that matter least to the global marketeers, local eating is still the norm. In North America and Europe, a bioregional philosophy is being revived. Consider the Broad Street Restaurant in Dorset, England, which pledged to use only produce grown within a 30-kilometre radius; the 15th-century Red Lion pub near Canterbury serves lamb and beef raised 90 metres from its door.

Vancouver bright spots

Vancouver has its own adherents. James and I pulled into the cool calm of the Raincity Grill while the Mardi Gras of the Pride parade streamed by on Denman Street. As we read the brunch menu-preserved tomato and goat cheese frittata, Dungeness crab omelette-James said incredulously, "This looks like what we eat at home." He didn't mean the sumptuous dishes themselves, but rather the ingredients: hazelnuts, daikon radish, lettuce, local cheeses and sea foods, lots of potatoes. Almost everything seasonal and local. According to chef Andrea Carlson, the menu right now focuses on the nearby farming community of Agassiz. She's proud of the role restaurants like hers play in helping local producers grow.

"I met a woman who makes phenomenal cheeses and I put them on the menu. People loved them, and things just took off for her," says Carlson.

Raincity has even given farmers seed money to ensure a steady supply of organic lamb, which is too large a start-up investment for many small-scale producers. Good will aside, she has been forced to be innovative by the global marketplace. "It's surprising how hard it is to get produce from local growers," Carlson says. "They want to sell cooperatively to big distributors, and then you don't know where stuff came from."

That's much less of a problem for Aphrodite's Café on West Fourth Avenue, where owner Allan Christian estimates that more than 90 percent of the food he is currently selling comes from the 50-acre Glen Valley Organic Farm Cooperative in Langley and its immediate neighbours. The reason? He calls the place home.

"To me, this is not a concept," he says of the local menu for his two-year-old restaurant, which began as a pie shop. "I grew up on a farm and I live on a beautiful farm and I just thought-I'll do it the way I live." His Saskatchewan roots show through when he tells us that even in winter he can call on cellared, ground-stored or winter-growing vegetables like squash or kale. Even in the early spring, when the new year's crops are nothing more than sprouts, he figures that 50 to 60 percent of Aphrodite's menu is from the cooperative.

Buying from a restaurateur who might have cut the kale leaves himself that morning? By gosh, it sounds like something from a parallel universe.

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the 100-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk.

Read the rest of the 100-Mile Diet Series.  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy

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