I wish I could buy those cheap mangoes. I love them and my kids really love them. But I find that I cannot enjoy a mango as much as I used to because, drat it all, I can read.
Here’s what I have been reading lately: Canadians pay about seven per cent of their income for their food — more, obviously, if we are poor (as I sometimes believe I am until I read about migrant farm workers), but generally we pay much less than we did a few scant decades ago. In fact, we used to pay about 17%.
It is easy to pretend that we pay less for our food only because we are getting better at producing it cheaply. And that is partly true. But that low cost feels like a bribe when I read (drat!) about the living conditions of foreign producers and even how large corporations are putting the family farm out of business. I frankly believe that family farms are important not only to our culture and values, and to the availability of locally grown, safe, good quality food, but to the security of the food supply itself. It is like any kind of diversity, whether the number of businesses a person can work for in a town or the number of amphibians hopping around the forest: diversity indicates stability and resilience to negative forces.
The economies of scale enjoyed by the big companies cannot be realized by the smaller producer or food processor, so they cannot compete price-wise. As a consumer, I feel like I am selling out my neighbours when I pay less than I ought to. The total number of farms has declined from 291,879 in 1981 to 215,581 in 2001 (a decrease of 10.7 per cent). Think about that for a second: imagine if one out of every 10 of your colleagues simply disappeared. That scares the crap out of me. Obviously, it scares the crap out of young people, too; farming is not, these days, the career of choice. Rural population has declined by 4.5 per cent since 1981. I bet that number will be a lot higher once all the retired farmers pass on.
The food manufacturing sector has been able to increase the amount of value it is able to add to food products, but only by half the manufacturing industry average. Average annual wages of food industry workers have been essentially flat, declining an average of 0.2 per cent a year since 1992 in comparison to a 1.6 per cent annual increase in the manufacturing sector.
If Canadians do not start paying that extra dollar for food grown locally by family farms and produced by independent food producers, how much of our industry will be left in another 20 years?
But then I wonder about the farm workers in other countries. What will they do if we stop purchasing their products? Well, maybe they’d be able to build their local economies again. Countries like Canada not only force domestic prices down, but also dump excess on foreign local markets, priced lower than cost. Unable to sell their own products, farmers have no choice but to live and work in squalid conditions. Are we helping them with all this cheap food? Heck, no. Why are we growing so much? Probably because we can.
By the way, did you now that foreign food safety requirements are in some cases nowhere near what they must be by law in Canada? I bet you thought that our government inspects every can of peaches at the border. Not true. This isn’t an ethical issue — just an icky fact of global trade. For example, because they have no provision for health breaks, foreign farm workers sometimes have no choice but to urinate and defecate on the produce they harvest for sale in Canadian supermarkets. Just thought I’d mention it in case you feel like paying a bit more for local produce grown under On-Farm-Food-Safety programs and harvested by employees who are legally entitled to bathroom breaks.
Anyway, ethically, I am mostly concerned about the environmental impact of farming. Here in Canada, most farmers have access to information and programming to help them use environmentally-friendly practices. But I cannot understand why we use so darned much carbon-based fuel to grow more food than we consume. I worry about preserving water sources and reducing chemical residues. I am concerned about soil degradation and I am concerned about water useage. But I cannot tell from the label whether the producer is as worried as I am about all these things, and certainly not whether he created my food without using fossil fuels.
What I can tell, immediately, is where the product came from. I can probably live with purchasing my fruit from BC, but I cannot justify a head of lettuce from California; I really believe I have no right to a 3000-mile head of lettuce. Or a mango from wherever. I may be able to afford it, but the earth no longer can.