According to a 2012 survey from Euromonitor, more than half of global consumers took environmental considerations into account when making purchasing decisions.
However, choosing to eat sustainably is not a simple box to check, but rather a complex set of considerations. Small farms, organic certification, and local farms are generally accepted as guidelines for environmentally sustainable produce. But what do these considerations really mean, and how do they affect cost?
Advocates of small farms argue that they allow for environmentally friendly farming practices that larger farms tend to discourage.
Large farms are often monocultures, meaning that fields only produce a single crop. Monocultures are easier to manage than farms with high diversity, and they tend to produce higher yields. However, monocultures are more prone to pests, diseases and weed infestations due to the lack of diversity.
Since small farms cannot produce a high yield on a single crop, they often have more diversity. Practices such as crop rotation and intercropping are commonly used methods to plant multiple products in smaller fields. These practices have the environmental benefits of improving soil fertility and reducing dependence on fossil fuels and pesticides.
However, since small farms produce smaller yields on individual crops, it can be hard to compete with larger grocery stores.
According to Shane Coleman, the owner of Dilly’s Farmacy at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market, it can be difficult to match the prices offered by major grocery stores, especially when they offer specials during peak season.
“Grocery stores sell maybe 5000 items. But they choose what’s in season and they’ll sell that at a very cheap cost,” stated Coleman.
The concept of economies of scale explains why large grocery stores can afford to offer specials. The more a manufacturer can produce, the less production costs. Therefore mass produced products cost less for the consumer.
However, Coleman still tries to keep costs on par with the major grocery stores. The average cost for a pound of tomatoes at Dilly’s Farmacy this past week was $2.50. This was cheaper than the $2.90 average at Fortinos, but more expensive than Nations Fresh Food, whose tomatoes came in at an average of $1.90.
These disparities are not only due to farm size. Organic certification and farm location also have considerable impacts on price, quality, and environmental impact.
If a product is labeled organic, it means that every step of production has complied by a set of rules aimed at maintaining environmental and human health.
In Canada, any agricultural product that is labeled organic is regulated by the Canadian food inspection agency.
Rules for organic products in Canada limit or restrict the use of pesticides and fertilizers genetically modified organisms and synthetic organisms, among other limitations. Organic farmers also must use growing practices that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and pesticides, such as crop rotation, composting and non-pesticide pest control.
The organic label has the benefit of holding producers accountable and assuring consumers that standards have been met. According to public services and procurement Canada, standards recognized by producers, users, and government allows for “easy identification of product ingredients through labeling and common language, promotion of user confidence, and representation of a variety of views and expertise.”
However, not all farmers get organic certification, since it can be expensive and time consuming for small farmers to fulfill the requirements.
Certification costs can range from a few hundred dollars to over two thousand dollars. The more products that a farm produces, the more expensive certification will be. Therefore, for small farms, organic certification can be unaffordable.
It is also more expensive to grow organic food, since preservatives are not permitted to extend shelf life. Crops are lost to pests and considerable effort has to be made to prevent comingling between organic and non-organic crops.
The organic certification can be beneficial to assess quality and environmental impact at major grocery stores, where consumers are unable to communicate directly with producers. However, farmers’ markets give consumers the ability to ask farmers questions about their growing practices.
“You know the person, you talk to them,” said Coleman. “Usually the people that work at the market are really knowledgeable about the produce.”
Food produced locally is generally more fresh and nutritious and better for the environment due to shorter transportation time.
According to Gord Williams, partner at Williams Brothers at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market, the fresh food he offers sets him apart from major grocery stores. Since produce can be harvested and sold on the sameday, it is picked when it is at its ideal ripeness.
Though it seems counterintuitive, local produce can be more expensive than produce imported from outside of Canada. This is because utility and land costs are often lower outside of Canada. Canadian growers, especially those near large cities, must contend with high production costs in order to meet their yields.
While many environmentalists encourage local diets in order to promote sustainability, this only addresses part of the puzzle of what it means to eat ethically.
Many farms across Canada rely on migrant labour to work physically demanding, and sometimes dangerous, jobs. According to Coleman, it is difficult to find Canadians who are willing to do farm work.
Therefore temporary foreign agricultural workers come from countries where work is scarce to work on farms in Canada for minimum wage. Seasonal agricultural workers have reported substandard living conditions and unfair working conditions, as well as abuse.
Despite the environmental and benefits of eating Ontario produce, ethical questions remain.
Fruit and vegetable costs are highly dependent upon climate and growing conditions. In 2016, the costs of produce spiked in Canada in part as a result of water shortages in California. Because of climate change, fruit and vegetable prices are likely to continue to vary more than ever before.
The impact of rising produce costs is unevenly distributed. A 2016 survey from the University of Guelph Food Institute found that young people, low income households and people with less education are more vulnerable to price fluctuations. People in these groups are likely to stop buying fresh produce if the prices rise.
Environmentally sustainable food can be costly in the form of time and money for both consumers and producers. Sustainability is not a box to check, but rather an ongoing set of considerations that continuously fluctuate.
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