Comment: The local food paradox

Governments are interested in food autonomy but price remains very important

COVID-19 has pushed governments to consider food autonomy as a priority and support local supply chains. But buying local produce is easier said than done.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting supply chains and impacting food purchasing habits, our relationship with food was different. Quite different.

The pandemic has pushed governments to consider food autonomy as a priority and look more at local supply chains. Discussions are about producing food in Canada, all year round, while offering products to consumers at a reasonable price, especially produce. A recent study conducted by Dalhousie University was designed to gauge consumer willingness to pay for locally grown food as well as the perceptions of greenhouse-grown crops, what factors people consider when purchasing produce, where people purchase their produce, and how important fruits and vegetables are to their diets.

First off, the report suggests consumer definitions of local vary greatly across the country. In the Atlantic provinces and the Prairie provinces, most respondents stated that if food is grown within the province it is considered local, while consumers in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec are more likely to consider only food grown within their region to be local. Prince Edward Island residents consider where produce is grown more than the rest of Canadians, with 38.4 per cent of respondents saying that they consider where their produce comes from as important when choosing fruits and vegetables at the store. Several publicly funded campaigns have assumed most Canadians think of local the same way. This is just not so.

But one of the key points of the study is about pricing. When deciding what fruits and vegetables to buy, 79.5 per cent of Canadians are willing to pay a premium for locally grown produce when grocery shopping. However, only one in four Canadians consider where food is grown as important when grocery shopping. That is 25 per cent.

This is what is known as the “local food paradox.” Most of us want to pay more for locally grown food and will respond so during a survey, but few are actively looking for opportunities to do so.

Price, unsurprisingly, is the most common important factor for Canadians, with almost half (47.8 per cent) citing the price of fruits and vegetables as the most important factor. A significant barrier indeed. Essentially, Canadians may value local food more, and think that it’s worth more money, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re looking for it.

The good news is that controlled-environment agriculture, like greenhouses, appear to have some potential. Offering some level of food autonomy to Canadians will require more use of production technologies.

Most respondents in the survey conducted by Dalhousie University perceive crops grown in greenhouses to be the same quality as those grown conventionally, with 63.4 per cent saying they are the same quality, 27.4 per cent saying they are better, and only 9.2 per cent saying they are worse.

Only among the respondents who grew their own produce did more people say that greenhouse-grown produce was worse than those saying it was better, with 24.7 per cent claiming it was worse compared to 15.9 per cent saying it was better than conventionally grown. Interestingly, those who shopped at independent stores had the highest opinion of greenhouse-grown crops, with 38.9 per cent saying they were better compared to 8.8 per cent saying they were worse.

The bottom line is simply this. Expecting Canadians to buy local, perhaps pay a little more to support the “local economy” in the best of times, let alone during a recession, is simply unreasonable. Supporting our farmers and our rural economy is critical, but many consumers are struggling financially, especially these days. Once we make price points at retail a non-issue, local produce will have a fighting chance against imported alternatives.

Given that the new food guide recommends that half of our diet should be focused on fruits and vegetables, our food economy is particularly vulnerable right now, especially between November and May. Climate change, wildfires, pests, currency devaluations, many things can compromise our own food affordability when the core of our produce in the winter comes from abroad.

Many provinces have awakened to this reality since the start of our COVID-19 adventure. Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia have all been quite active in looking for opportunities to increase their own domestic production capacity for the entire calendar year. Given its high-volume, low-margin nature, investments in agri-food aren’t compelling compared to other sectors in our economy. To move the needle on capital, government involvement is vital.

Let’s hope it doesn’t stop once we are done with this pandemic.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Shannon Faires is a research associate at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

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