A crack lets the light in, the song goes, and a first crack has just appeared in the corporate walls of Canada’s top food retailers.

Sobeys — a chain that flies the banner “the Hometown Advantage,” and which ten years ago took over a chain that called itself “Hometown Proud”– now confronts nine formerly locked-in franchisees from farm country in Ontario, who have mutinied to form their own Hometown Grocers Co-op. In an industry where behemoth corporations typically foster an image of themselves as plain, decent and hardworking country folk, the new mini-chain is the real thing. The main mover behind the new co-op is Dale Kropf, who last year partnered his six stores in south-central Ontario with Local Food Plus, which promotes local and sustainable foods.

In an area of Ontario well-suited to livestock and dairy farming, and where most livestock farmers are reeling from a billion dollars in lost meat exports as a result of new US pro-local measures called COOL (country of origin labeling), the nine stores plan to stock their fridges with local meat.

Buying local would have made a nice statement about a Good Neighborhood policy and an enviro-friendly fuel economy policy, but local doesn’t square with deeper realities of the Canadian or global food system. The crack in the Sobey empire – likely to widen among franchisees of all the major chains that resist increasing customer pressure for local goods – sheds light on these shadowed realities.

In a globalized food system, food travels many miles on many roads. But all roads lead some distance away from the Sobeys, Loblaws, Metro’s and Wal-Marts — to the agriculture departments of central and regional governments, which started treating farming as agribusiness back in the 1950s. Once politicians and bureaucrats declared farming an industry like others, they told farmers to “get big or get out,” just like in other successful industries of the day, such as auto, steel and nuclear power generation. (From the vantage point of 2009, we can judge the economic wisdom of the “go big” policy in its full glory.) The smartest way for farmers to go big was to get production up by mechanizing for one specialty, and then get volume up by exporting that specialty. The small and mixed farm was declared obsolete.

That “get big and successful by exporting” dogma, which long predates the neo-liberalism of the 1990s, explains why North American federal and regional governments have been so slow, indeed resistant, to policy changes that give local farmers an even break with local stores.

Don’t be fooled by the “buy local” ads that many governments put out. Check what they do, not what they say — which is to put the onus on customers, not the system, to buy local.

Canada has an export advantage in meat, as well as wheat, so the federal government inspects meat to give it a stamp of approval recognized by other countries. Then Canadian supermarkets and most restaurants demanded the same stamp of approval that exports got. If they couldn’t get Canadian meat with the Canadian government stamp of approval, they got US or New Zealand meat, because Canada’s federal inspectors automatically recognize those national standards as their equal – a favor they won’t extend to their own provinces.

To encourage big is better, especially after the 1990s, the feds limited the slaughter houses they inspected to the biggest and most centralized ones, which in turn preferred dealing with the smallest number of farmers who could deliver the biggest orders. Three heavy-hitting corporations – Maple Leaf, Cargill and Tyson, of which two are US-owned — are the beneficiaries of this government-backed discrimination against small and local meat producers.
Farms that were too small or too distant from the centralized slaughterhouses relied on local slaughterhouses inspected by the province. Ontario’s standards are, by all accounts, as good as any. Yet no government officials challenge the corporations that refuse to accept the Ontario label as good enough for them.

No-one – except nine stores in Ontario farm country – wants to rock Big. The Big system worked to downsize the labor force – fewer inspectors, fewer clerks at order desks, fewer farmers. Big also worked for price discounting, the dominant trend in food retail since the 1990s, when Wal-Mart flexed its muscles on the Canadian food scene.
But Big doesn’t work for any of the five megatrends of today. The energy impacts of Big are ludicrous in a world threatened by global warming. As figures revealed in StasCan’s recent report, “Fork in the road,” show, meat and other goods participate in a game of musical chairs, whereby one area imports the same goods it exports – a trend officially called “redundant food miles” which leads to needless global warming. Canada both exports and imports meat, for example.

Secondly, the low price of meat — demanded of processors by retailers and of farmers by processors — makes meat artificially cheap, which is not smart policy when obesity, heart disease and cancer link to excess meat consumption.

Third, from a food security and systems resilience standpoint, it’s irresponsible to discourage small, diverse farms spread across the landscape, able to respond locally in the event of a food disruption or emergency.

Fourth, from an increasingly hot-button humane perspective, Big is bad ethics. The long trip to slaughterhouses is a major time of animal mistreatment, as is feedlot organization, which disregards basic animal needs and instincts, such as herding. Low standards for mostly immigrant workers in giant slaughter factories, brought to movie theatre audiences in Food Inc, are just waiting for a boycott.

Fifth, no-name and no-place meat is not what customers want. They want local, and some of the sustainable things that go well with local.

Canada’s food sector is among the most centralized in the world; by the latest official count, in 2005, four retailers control 78 per cent of sales. Big enough to find out how harder the fall when the bigger they are.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, July 30-August 5, 2009)

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