Like many places in Canada, Ottawa is taking a hit from the high price of vegetables and fruit, especially cauliflower. In part, this is due to the plummeting Loonie, but it’s also caused by a drought that’s affected California during the past four years.
For Ontarians, California represents one of the largest growers of fruit and vegetables. In particular, it is estimated that the province sources 84 percent of its broccoli and cauliflower, 76 percent of its fresh strawberries, 68 percent of its lettuce, 89 percent of its almonds, and 69 percent of its carrots, turnips and other root vegetables from this state —the latter may surprise some, since Ontario has always been thought of as being able to plentifully grow root vegetables, as they are hardier and are easier to grow in Canada’s cooler growing climes.
That this drought should be having such an impact highlights problems with North American food security, as well as the consequences of monocultures. Ottawa Magazine spoke with Patricia Ballamingie, Chair of Just Food, a local not-for-profit organization that advocates for vibrant, just, and sustainable food and farming systems in the Ottawa region.
What does the recent spike in the cost of vegetables from California highlight about food security —for Ottawans in particular?
Our supply chain in Ottawa is predicated on cheap oil (to facilitate trans-continental shipping), a favourable exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollars, and climatic stability. While the cost of oil is low at the moment, the prolonged drought in California and a falling Loonie highlight that what we have enjoyed to date is the illusion of food security. If the price of oil were to rise (as it surely will over time), the problem will only worsen. The pendulum has swung so far towards the global supply chain, that we really must rebuild our local productive capacity.
What is the problem with sourcing the majority of certain foodstuffs from one region?
When you source the majority of your food from one region, your food security becomes tied to the ability of that region to continue to grow that food. California has a climate and growing conditions that are particularly well suited to growing vegetable, fruit and nut crops —but all of these require a significant amount of water.
For a century now, producers in California have been growing these crops in larger and larger plots, to take advantage of economies of scale in production and harvesting, and to feed the growing urban populations. With tens or hundreds of acres planted to a single crop – or monoculture – producers also gain efficiencies by limiting the equipment and inputs that they need to purchase. This also means that retailers can source large amounts of a crop from a single producer or a single region. When that region is reliant – as California is – on large quantities of water to maintain food production, drought conditions highlight just how tenuous such an over-reliance can be. After all, California doesn’t just supply Ottawa or Ontario, they supply large urban populations across the U.S. and Canada.
Are there other monocultures that grow foodstuffs that Ottawans rely upon, which could be similarly affected, either by drought, extreme weather, or pestilence?
We also import foods from all over the world that are grown on large industrial monoculture farms —and they all have their own unique challenges. The risk with a monoculture is the lack of diversity. Diversity provides resilience in the form of adaptive capacity when attacked by a pest or disease, or adverse weather conditions. Monoculture is like putting all of your eggs in one basket.
What is the solution? Is it not possible – for example with root vegetables – to grow enough locally or provincially to supply Ottawa’s year-round needs? Why is it necessary to buy from California or other southern states?
The solution is diversity —of sources, of growing methods, and of scale. We will always rely on food produced elsewhere, but can increase our local production to reduce our reliance on imported food and strengthen our local food economy.
As an example, there are regional and Ontario producers of root crops, but they simply don’t produce on a scale that could supply the demand. In part this is due to price: in order to make a living producing significant quantities of root crops, the wholesale price has to be high enough to make it possible. And with the current large volumes of cheap, imported root crops, that wholesale price simply doesn’t encourage enough regional root crop production. Also, the demand is 12-months-a-year, and the southern states can meet that demand for most months, whereas Ontario production is limited to given months every year.
But we do have the potential to rebuild some of our lost infrastructure for food preservation and storage as we grow food more locally. We also have the viable farmland to grow more food for direct sale to people in the region. Right now, the land is devoted mostly to growing corn and soy —used locally for animal feed or exported for processed foods.
One criticism of growing locally is that it requires a greater expenditure of energy and resources in order to grow a variety of different fruits and vegetables, which can impact climate change, versus growing in areas where resources can be better exploited to create less of an impact on the climate? Is this a fair argument? Do Ottawans have to choose between one benefit over the cost of the other?
Farmers in this region produce a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, cereals, pulses, meat, eggs, dairy and processed foods. And they produce vegetables and fruits with no greater expenditure of energy and resources than any other region —in season! In fact, in a region like this where we have plentiful water resources, there’s a strong argument that this production is far more sustainable than California’s, which — even in non-drought years — draws down water levels from underground aquifers that will never be replenished (at least not on a timeline relevant to humans!).
People now expect to eat fresh fruit and vegetables 12 months a year —but to compare the resources required to do this in our winter months is unfair. Ottawans can eat locally in season, and learn how to preserve the harvest during the winter months (e.g., Just Food offers canning workshops) to improve their food security and reduce their environmental footprint.
Is it realistic for northern climes to expect to eat things grown in the south? Given diminishing resources and impacts to climate change, should Ottawans get used to a new reality where tomatoes, oranges, even cauliflower will be treated as a luxury, much in the same way that these same foodstuffs were centuries ago?
We’re a long way from that ‘new reality.’ The existing industrial food systems will continue to produce and import large quantities of cheap food until the value of the diminishing resources that they rely upon is truly reflected in the price. In the meantime, we would be wise to re-build our local productive capacity, and to re-equip people with food literacy skills (from growing to storing to cooking and more), encouraging food production at different scales – households, community gardens, medium – and large-scale local farms. We are seeing a growth in all of this now. It just needs more support to scale-up.
Where can people buy local food in Ottawa right now, in this mid-winter season?
- SavourOttawaOnline.ca Order locally-grown and raised food online by Fridays at 11:30 p.m., and pick up at the Parkdale Farmers’ Market the following Wednesday or Thursday.
- Check out Just Food’s Buy Local Food Guide to contact local producers of meat, honey, and eggs that can be purchased year-round (the app is coming in spring 2016!).
- Visit Savour Ottawa retailers and restaurants who serve local food.
- Visit Ottawa Farmers’ Market winter markets at Lansdowne Park.
- Visit ByWard Market (look for Savour Ottawa signs to indicate who is a local farmer)