It’s An Ill Wind That Shows Local Food Is No Longer Debatable

Driving from Toronto to Halifax last week to help move my daughter Anika into King’s College, I had a lot of quiet time to rehearse a rant against a recent flurry of attacks against local food systems by right-wing extremists across North America.

I was pretty happy with some of my vitriolic lines until we got to the university residence at the pre-arranged time for first-year students to move in. As it happened, these best-laid plans conflicted with Hurricane Earl, which just blew in from the Carolinas and New England and touched down as a Class 1 hurricane (severe tropical storm, really) in Halifax. The storm wasn’t strong enough to wreak too much havoc on moving day, but the blast drenched and flattened my entire rant, and blew my thinking in an entirely different direction.

A welcoming squad of 50 King’s seniors responded to Earl’s gusts of wind and rain in high spirits. Covered in garbage bags converted into rain jackets, they hooted, hollered and danced as they ran up to each car, welcomed the new students inside, then in no time flat, unpacked baggage and ran it to residence rooms. It was a great demo of human solidarity and bonding, of “all for one and one for all,” and the lifted spirits that come from team spirit. What could have been an ordeal for individuals became a blast for an entire group. The King’s tradition, one student leader told a frosh welcoming rally later, is that “we laughed in the face of Hurricane Earl.”

The rest of the province remained calm, thanks in part to the fact that Nova Scotia has a cabinet minister, Ramona Jennex, in charge of emergency services. We hope for the best but have planned for the worst, she told everyone, repeating an old saying about military preparedness. Preparedness is serious business in Nova Scotia, increasingly the dead-end lane for hurricanes that used to end much further to the south before the era global warming.

As a peninsula, there’s only one main road providing truck access and it’s often shut down during severe snow storms. So putting the province on storm watch – which means the conditions are there, though it’s not certain a storm will actually come – can also mean putting the province on food watch. Measures to manage refrigerated and frozen foods are prominent on the minister’s facebook and web pages, for example. The rep of the fertile and scenic Annapolis Valley area, Jennex thinks that emergency preparedness dovetails perfectly with support for local food systems because local food is easier to access during emergencies.

During a turbulent era of world history, when the prospects of stormy weather and other game-changing mishaps are too close for comfort, the need for locally-based Plan B’s has become a primary element of any government’s due diligence. That’s why resilience, the capacity to bounce back from events that pull out the rug from beneath everyday practices, has become the watchword for 21st century public responsibility.

Since a local food system is central to urban survival – most cities are three days food between civilization and the breakdown of public order, it’s often said — preparing a resilient food system that can supply people with the range of daily food needs is a government imperative on par with other public health preparedness measures, such as prevention of outbreaks of infectious disease. For that reason — and this is the real way Hurricane Earl changed my thinking — the essential public safety role of local food systems needs to be understood as beyond politics.

The mark of social progress over the past hundred years has been the number of policies that have moved beyond politics – from free speech to public safety (public fire-fighting departments, for instance) to public education to human rights codes to infectious and contagious disease prevention (why we have government-run garbage collection, running water and sewage, for example), to public medical insurance. There’s now a consensus on all these issues across the political spectrum.
Local food systems now need to be added to that list.

Therefore, I’ve decided to become a refusenik when it comes to fighting right-wing extremists who’ve recently decided to belittle the importance of local food. I am not going to play their game by conceding that the need for local food systems should become an area for political contestation and cultural conflict. It is a public policy imperative that benefits everyone, and the primary debate needs to be about how to move in that direction how quickly and with what mix of what public and private sector policy tools.

I suspect that the rationale for the recent increase in uncalled-for attacks on local food measures has to do with a possibly sub-conscious foreboding that yet another area of life, one which has long been considered the domain of private monopolies, is about to enter the public realm – at exactly the moment when neo-conservatives are poised to campaign for every economic sector but corporate bail-outs, prisons and the military to be transferred into the private sector.

To give the dominant food companies credit, it’s unlikely they’ve retained a motley crew of poorly-informed extremists to run interference for them. Like any consumer goods industry, the food industry likes to be beyond and above debate, which only awakens minds that should be dozy in order to be in the right mood to be consumed by the desire for goods. The fewer people who wonder whether GE food should be labeled, chickens should be on a steady diet of antibiotics, peaches should be sprayed with toxins, and apples brought in from half-way around the world, the easier crowd control goes at a superstore.
Notwithstanding the industry preference for the quiet life, John McCain, defeated Republican candidate for the US presidency, recently went after president Obama for spending $65 million on a Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign, which McCain claims only serves “affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.” McCain’s sniping is laughable to anyone who can divide $65 million into $12 billion, a standard estimate of the amount forked over every year to producers of corn and other grains destined mainly for long distance markets in fatty livestock and calorie-laden corn syrup. Anyone who gets so exercized over one in about 200,000 dollars spent on ag subsidies shouldn’t be taken seriously except as a charlatan and demagogue.

In Canada, media searching for someone to debate local and sustainable food advocates commonly end up with one person who meets their formulaic demand for balance – Erindale College’s Pierre Desrochers. He and his wife are working on a book in praise of the 10,000 mile diet. His passion for distant thoughts has been nursed by prolonged stints with at least three U.S. institutes and foundations promoting neo-conservative and extreme property rights perspectives – the Virginia-based Institute for Humane Studies (these guys have a great sense of irony) and Mercatus Center, and the Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center.

But I digress. I don’t want to waste time or public policy space on people who have bigger fish to fry than are found in local waters.

Apart from the compelling public safety rationale for having a more resilient and full-bodied local food system, there are arguments that speak to the ease and efficacy of improving all aspects of life by relocalizing food systems. If, for example, every Canadian spent ten dollars more a week on a locally-sourced food, that would improve the Canadian balance of payments by some $15 billion a year, about equal to the effect of all Canada’s pulp and paper exports, capital- versus labor-intensive products that also require destruction of Canada’s forests; how much easier and greener do improvements to balance of payments and forest protection get?

My partner, Lori Stahlbrand of Local Food Plus, has documented that every 10,000 people who spend ten dollars weekly on local and sustainable food take the equivalent of 1000 cars off the road while creating 100 new jobs. How much more impactful can smart money get?

The facts serve as a vivid reminder of the cycle of political change first identified a century ago by an unsung unionist (and often attributed to Gandhi) that goes something like this: “first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they debate you, then you win.” Local food advocates are about to pass into the last phase, and there’s no reason to get stuck at an earlier stage.


  1. Gail Turner says:

    Good article. Needs one small edit in this line:

    “at exactly the moment when neo-conservatives are poised to campaign for every economic sector but corporate bail-outs, prisons and the military to be transferred into the private sector.”

    Prisons are already being transferred to the private sector.

  2. poorlocavore says:

    That’s an interesting-and likely overlooked-angle. I’ve noticed the same thing on a micro level, e.g. when the car breaks down, what’s the closest grocery store?, but to extrapolate that to regional models will take more creativity than I’m willing to give governments credit for. No time like the present to start working on it, though.


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