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Watching the odometer – food miles and the local food movement

food miles and the local food movement

March 17, 2008  By Marg Land

Imports – the dirty word of
Canadian fresh fruit and vegetable producers. About 30 years ago,
imported fresh produce was pretty limited north of the 49th parallel.

Imports – the dirty word of Canadian fresh fruit and vegetable producers. About 30 years ago, imported fresh produce was pretty limited north of the 49th parallel. Sure, there were oranges, pineapples, bananas and the odd foreign apple, but they were expensive or had quality issues and weren’t really viewed as much of a threat.

With the advancement and growth of new technologies in the area of food quality preservation, there has also been advancement and growth in fresh produce imports. And, where they used to just come from North and South America, now they are heralding from all over the world and digging deep into the market share of Canadian fruit and vegetable producers.


What’s a farmer to do?

In the case of Ontario’s berry growers, fight back.

Ontario Berry Growers’ Association (OBGA) president Lee Etherington recently announced a plan by the grower group plans to focus a lot more of its energy and financial support during 2007 on marketing the province’s berry crop. This is in direct response to increased pressure being felt in the Ontario market from U.S. berries.

Over the past few years, Canada’s strawberry industry has been taking a beating. It used to be consumers only saw fresh strawberries on the shelf from late spring through to late July, maybe August. Now, with the advancement of production techniques, development of specialized cultivars and enhanced product preservation through controlled atmosphere storage and chemical treatments, there are berries on the shelf 365 days of the year.

Etherington says that in late June, Ontario berries aren’t necessarily on store shelves in season because the grocery stores still have a mandate to sell California product. During past berry seasons, Etherington has consistently supplied his local grocery store with 100 flats of strawberries each day. In 2006, he delivered 75 flats the first day of strawberry season. “Three days later, they still had them because they had to move the California berries out first.”

It’s a similar experience to that had by London area strawberry producer Rudy Heeman. “We’re having a harder time selling the early berries,” he explains. “It used to be you’d put your first berries out and you couldn’t keep them on the shelf.” That’s not occurring now.

Both producers are hoping that by drawing consumer attention to the issue of freshness and quality in U.S. strawberries, they will be able to woo customers back to the Ontario product. For Heeman, that’s by utilizing entertaining, tongue-in-cheek radio advertising, complete with an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. Etherington is hoping the OBGA can benefit from a growing consumer trend – food miles and the local food movement.

What are food miles? Simply put, these are the number of miles a product has traveled to make it to the consumer’s home, the idea being that the lower the number of food miles, the less environment impact the food has, the fresher it is, etc. According to World Watch, the average American meal is made from ingredients that travel, on average, 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres. This is a 25-per cent increase in distance from that traveled in the 1980s.

The concept of food miles can also be linked to the idea of local or regional food – the consumption of food products locally grown. This is currently the environmentally responsible thing to do with grower
organizations, such as Peel Region’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local group, producing and marketing regional maps highlighting the location of fresh produce growers in the area.

“Local food has become such a phenomenon,” says Brampton area strawberry grower Nick Ferri. “It’s something happening worldwide. It’s a wave and we don’t want to miss out on it.”

A great example of the marketing potential and buzz around local food can be found in the hype surrounding the 100 Mile Diet, a concept followed for one year by B.C. residents Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. The idea has sparked a website (, seminar series and hundreds of individual and grassroots 100 mile diet followers, all trying to survive eating only food and beverages originating within a 100-mile radius of where they live.

It can be confusing terminology and concepts for growers to get their heads around, let alone consumers. As one berry producer wondered, how effective will another “trendy” term such as local food be when compared to the numerous other trendy terms used by farmers over the years, including farm fresh, homegrown, and homemade? Etherington stresses that growers stick to the concept of food miles rather than subjective terms, such as local food. After all, what exactly does local mean? For Loblaw, local might mean anywhere within a 24-hour transportation route of the company’s nearest warehouse.

If you’re interested in learning more about food miles, the local food movement or the 100 Mile Diet, visit for more information, including Internet links.

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