Editorial: The importance of eating local

It’s fashionable to eat local. We all know it’s good for the environment, good for local farmers, and best of all, good for easing a guilty conscience.

There are plenty of initiatives encouraging the trend: for example, the “hundred mile diet,” and the recent “50% Local Food Club,” which urged Nova Scotians to make half of their diet local for the month of September.

And it seems those initiatives are paying off.

In 2010, local purchases made up only 13 per cent of Nova Scotia’s food dollar. Now, 15 per cent of the food grown or caught here is being bought and eaten by Nova Scotians.

Time to rest on our laurels?

Not really.

Keltie Butler, executive director of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia, a cooperative of all the certified farmers’ markets in the province, says September’s “Food Club” initiative was a success in terms of awareness: more than 3,000 people participated across the province.

But awareness is just the beginning. Butler calls changing Nova Scotian’s habits “the next level,” and says we’re not there yet – that’s next year’s goal.

We should already be there. With roughly 4,000 farms in Nova Scotia, and the number growing by about 20 yearly, Nova Scotians could – and should – be changing their habits to include a diet of 50 per cent local food.

That 50 per cent figure has more significance than just the “Food Club” goal. According to a study done a few years ago by Dr. Ralph Martin at the former Nova Scotia Agricultural College, the province is actually only able to produce about half of the food needed to sustain its population.

That’s partly because entire categories of food don’t grow well here. For example, the climate is too damp for most wheat and grains, though farmers are succeeding with some heritage varieties.

Heritage varieties, also known as heirloom varieties, are strains of vegetables, grains, or fruit that are no longer widely cultivated commercially. They may have been commonly grown in the past, but aren’t grown on a large scale now.

Experimentation and creative thinking like this, on the part of farmers, is what will save us, says Marla McLeod, the community food coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre.

Nova Scotians need to be thinking about what grows well here, and then cultivating those crops as much as possible, she says.

That includes non-farmers. As the ones consuming the food – or 15 per cent of it anyway – it’s up to us to purchase and eat those crops.

“It’s not about being perfect,” McLeod says. “It’s about eating more of the type of food that Nova Scotia can produce.”

It’s difficult to calculate how much imported food is consumed in Nova Scotia. Of the $100 million worth of food that enters the province from countries like the United States, Brazil and Costa Rica each year, a significant portion is distributed throughout Canada, and food isn’t monitored as it crosses province borders.

But “Is Nova Scotia Eating Local?,” a 2010 report by the Ecology Action Centre and the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, says the average distance a food item has to travel to arrive on a Nova Scotian’s table is almost 4,000 km.

A week of such eating produces about six kilograms of carbon dioxide. That’s the same as burning almost three litres of gas in your car.

It’s a humbling thought to keep in mind as you bypass seasonal Nova Scotian root vegetables for Brazilian oranges that travelled 6,300 km to get here.

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t even have to shoot for 100 per cent local. Half will do fine.