Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shopping locally, sourcing globally

I'm now a couple weeks into my car-free life. I'm walking more and, not surprisingly, buying more from neighbourhood stores. This is no great hardship. I live in a city. I live in a Chinatown. There's lots of fresh produce. Granted, a loaf of whole grain bread might necessitate a hike to a grocery store (there are three within a kilometre of my house, though). On the other hand, I can also get posh, organic artisinal bread from the bakery at the St. John the Compassionate Mission a couple blocks down the road.

So, I am certainly using less gas and creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Or am I? Because of the neighbourhood I live in, a lot of products are imported from China. Some things, like fruit juice, are hard to find. I bought apple juice for my son last week, and then noticed that it was imported from China. Think about this for a moment. We live in Ontario, which is covered in apple orchards. According to the Ontario Apple Growers, the province's orchards produce about 150 million tons of juice apples a year. I shudder at the thought of the energy wasted shipping apple juice to a major apple-growing region.

The local food movement has made people much more conscious of the distance their food travels. The 100-Mile Diet, by James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith certainly added a Canadian perspective, though I have my doubts about the feasibility of a city the size of Toronto feeding itself with that small an area. It's about 30 miles to the nearest farm. But their point is well taken.

Right now, I'm reading one of the latest additions to the library of books concerned with tracking the environmental and social cost of food and other commodities. In Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, Fred Pearce goes on a selective journey to figure out where his stuff came from and how it got to his local shops. It's a British book, so some examples will be less relevant to North Americans, particularly sections relating to fresh produce. But much of the book is relevant, and a good overview of just how global our closets and pantries have become.

The book is something of a travelogue, though Pearce frequently leaves out the colour that would really bring to life the people who grow and produce his stuff. In that regard, the book was a disappointment. But Pearce has travelled the world, and he does have fascinating stories to tell. The section on cotton made for a particularly compelling read.

The other shortcoming of the book is that it rarely presents a solution. After reading his section on coffee, for example, I'm left without a clear answer as to whether or not "Fair Trade" coffee really makes a difference. But the book is not about easy answers, it's about difficult questions, and he gives us the information we need to start our own journeys toward answers. In that regard, it's a valuable resource. And thus, it's going onto the Green Tenant bookshelf.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if the Toronto weather allows it, but Chicago has farmer's markets for at least 6 months out of the year where it is possible to find almost all of the fresh food you need from local sources. I find it is a great way to buy green.

Craig Saunders said...

There's a lovely farmer's market on Saturdays in Withrow Park. But a lot of farmer's markets take place during business hours, when many cubicle dwellers can't get to them.

Also, the quantity of food at the market wouldn't feed the entire neighbourhood, and much of it comes from farms that are outside the 100-mile radius.

I do love the market, though, because it's a great source of really fresh organic veg. I don't know if it's because they're organic or because they're so much fresher, but the flavour is often superb.

KarenInTo said...

There are numerous seasonal farmers' markets around Toronto, including in front of City Hall. The one at Dufferin community centre (just south of Bloor) is open year-round. There are organic markets at Liberty Village and at East Lynn (Danforth and Woodbine, near my place). I don't buy their produce much; I did buy bread from flour that was grown and milled in Ontario, and goat cheese...