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Local food: Is it good or bad?

leeay aikawa The Globe and Mail

Dear Pierre,

I hope you don't mind if I call you a local food naysayer.

Right now, our industrial food system is not sustainable. It uses too much fossil fuel and is destroying the environment - we are eroding our soils, chemical fertilizers are destroying our waterways and oceans. The only way we can feed ourselves into the future is by cultivating local and sustainable food systems.

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Dear Sarah,

I hope you don't mind me calling you an eco-doomster :)

Soil erosion and unsustainable agricultural practices were what made environmental activists tick in the first decades of the 20th century. But back then, the main fear among activists was that traditional agricultural practices were not sustainable. You might have heard of the dustbowls of the 1930s, but many people believed that the problem was truly worldwide at the time.

Fortunately, modern agricultural practices, especially innovations such as no-till agriculture that are based on the development of new seeds and herbicides, have gone a long way in addressing those problems. Modern farming in the best locations and increased international trade is the way to go to improve human nutrition while addressing environmental degradation.

Bring your questions to the table as our experts continue their debate in a live discussion Thursday at noon ET.

<iframe src="" scrolling="no" height="650px" width="600px" frameBorder ="0" allowTransparency="true" ><a href="" >The local food revolution: good or bad?</a></iframe>

Dear Pierre,

While I am by no means suggesting that we should return to the agricultural practices of the 1930s or to the days of subsistence farming, the Green Revolution has taken its toll. I can't stop thinking of the algal blooms, caused by fertilizer runoff, that are killing entire ecosystems in oceans and lakes. Not to mention the vulnerability of large-scale agriculture's monocrops. When you plant field after field of one crop, it is more susceptible to pests and weeds. It also makes the soil thirsty for nutrients, making it dependent on those very chemicals that are causing so many problems.

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Right now the food system is sick. Farmers in the Holland Marsh grow enough carrots to feed the city of Toronto but trucks loaded with Ontario carrots to be sold in the United States pass other trucks that are shipping Californian carrots to our supermarkets!

Dear Sarah,

As I see it, the Green Revolution put an end to hunger and starvation in many parts of the world. I can live with some of the tradeoffs that were made. Look at the whole picture of large-scale monoculture. Forests in countries that are at the level of development of Chile and higher are seeing either an increase in the area of their landmass covered by forests or, when there is no room left to grow as in Japan, an improvement in their quality. Large-scale monocultures give us the opportunity to produce an ever-growing amount of food on a given amount of land. The result is that a lot of marginal land is being abandoned and reverting back to forests or grasslands, even in places like China and India.

The same holds true for carrots and other produce. Because of better overall conditions, California producers can grow a lot more things on the same amount of land than their Ontario competitors. They can therefore develop economies of scale in they way they handle all of their inputs (fertilizers, harvesting equipment, packing and storage facilities etc.) that more than compensate for the energy required to move their produce around. Buying cheaper products from more efficient (even if more distant) locations means that, as consumers, we are actually rewarding greater overall energy efficiency.

Dear Pierre,

California's vast farms are dependent on massive irrigation systems, not to mention the low-paid workers who pick the food. Californian carrots might be cheap at the checkout but what we pay doesn't reflect the environmental cost of the industrial food system.

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Another problem with this kind of a long-distance food chain is food safety. When you have food from one farm being shipped far and wide and something goes wrong - like, say, the spinach becomes contaminated with E. coli - there is the potential for many, many people to get sick. Kids have died from eating fast-food hamburgers tainted with E. coli, peanut butter has been laced with salmonella, sandwich meats have been contaminated with listeria. When you shorten the supply chain you can have more checks and balances.

Dear Sarah,

There will soon be almost nine billion of us. The question is not whether or not we will have an impact on the environment, but rather how do we minimize it. The best way toward using our resources more efficiently is to get rid of subsidies and trade barriers of all kinds, not to encourage production in suboptimal conditions near final consumers. And while food safety has always been an issue, our modern globalized food supply is built around centralized distribution points, which makes it much easier to detect problems than when countless producers deliver their food directly to consumers.

We need more globalization in our food system, not less.

Dear Pierre,

Have you ever eaten a freshly picked tomato, still hot from the sun? Food that is grown locally, using sustainable agriculture practices, is not only better for the planet and for the future but it tastes delicious. Oh, and it's healthier too - the fresher the food, the more nutrients it contains.

When I buy my groceries, I first choose fruits and vegetables grown locally without fossil-fuel derived pesticides and fertilizers. I buy meats and eggs that are humanely raised on small farms and organic milk. Yes, they cost a lot more than the supermarket offerings but we don't eat meat every day and I know that I am supporting a local and sustainable food system. This doesn't mean I've banned bananas from the house. But when I do buy imports, I prefer to buy certified fair trade so my money goes to support the people who grow the food.

Why do I politicize my grocery cart? Because our current food system is rife with problems such as unethical labour practices and low wages, food safety hazards, immoral animal husbandry, massive environmental degradation - not to mention its carbon footprint. Eating good food is not a selfless act either. It's a win-win situation: I eat delicious, healthy food and I know that my dinner isn't causing anyone else serious heartburn.

Dear Sarah,

I grew up in the countryside. My parents (who had full-time jobs) owned a sugar shack and a small apple orchard. We also had a huge garden and in our backyard we kept rabbits for years. My first paying job was working for a neighbour who produced raspberries. I've had plenty of "backyard" food in my life, but I remember more the work that went into producing it than its taste. This is probably why I cannot relate to people who discovered small-scale food production later in life and have an almost religious devotion to it.

Sure, some people can make a living producing a few expensive things for a niche market. Producing large quantities of affordable food, however, is another matter. There are nearly a billion people who don't have access to a proper diet and there will be at least another two billion of us in the near future. I'm sorry, but "local" and "organic" low-productivity agriculture cannot deliver on that scale. There simply isn't enough manure and cropland available in the world.

I don't politicize my grocery cart because I know that poisoning your customers or not taking the best possible care of your land and animals is not in the interest of successful large-scale retailers and farmers. Only the best can survive in those businesses. I defer to their expert knowledge to sell us ever more diversified and affordable food. Bon appétit!

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