Painting the future: Opportunities for more healthy, local and sustainable food

Beth-2014-1Three years ago, a small group of senior staff from three foundations gathered to talk about our common efforts to support local and sustainable food development: helping farmers access markets, improving supply chains, protecting prime farmland, raising public awareness and informing public policy. What was missing, we mused, was the background to all this work that would help us and others understand the context for all these individual efforts: imports, exports, pollution, waste, taxes, and subsidies.
So we decided to jointly commission a piece of research that would paint this backdrop, engaging a team with a strong diversity of skills and experience, headed up by Atif Kubursi of Econometrics. The Econometrics team’s extensive experience in economic and transportation modelling would be complimented by Harry Cumming’s knowledge of rural dynamics and Rod MacRae’s food policy expertise. There was an on-going conversation between researchers and foundation staff as the work unfolded.
Unlike most artists painting a landscape, the researchers didn’t know what their painting would look like once completed. This made it very difficult to make a communications plan for the work, but kept the process exciting! The research set out to track major economic and environmental impacts of the food system in southern Ontario (a region where all three foundations were working). It found that local food impacts are largely positive — the food economy creates jobs and generates tax revenues.
The poD&S Info p. 83sitive impact of food to Ontario’s economy was largely known to scholars and policy makers, if not to the detailed county level provided by the report. But the researchers also calculated scenarios of what things might look like if more local, healthy or organic food were eaten. The what if? discussion to choose the scenarios was one of the most interesting parts of the process.
While we won’t start growing bananas in Niagara, the analysis found that over half of Ontario’s $20 billion trade deficit could be wiped out by the introduction of more local food. Replacing 10% of the top tend fruit and vegetable imports with Ontario-grown produce would create a $250 million GDP increase and 3,400 new full-time jobs. However, the feasibility of the scenarios depends on the choices of entrepreneurs, governments and others regarding land use, local infrastructure and other resources. For example, eating more organics would mean more emissions from trucking food in from afar, unless more land is shifted into organic production in Ontario.
For me, one of the most striking findings from the report was the environmental impact of cereal transportation, which generates over 84% of all agricultural transportation emissions. Much of this is grain corn, which is transported around Ontario and to the US. In our focus on the growth of local food systems, it’s easy to forget the broader context of the commodity-dependent food system, much of which is now based on processed food derived from corn.
The foreword to the report notes that consumer demand has driven much of the recent growth of local food, and points to the importance of a supportive regulatory environment, infrastructure and distribution networks for these systems to flourish. But, lead researcher Atif Kubursi points out, real systems change will require efforts from a diverse landscape of actors, from inside the supply chain and out: farmers and fishers, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, non-profits, academics and everyday people.

Dollars & Sense Infographic

Click on the image above to see the full Dollars & Sense Infographic


A webinar discussing research results was held April 27th and the recording can be found here