Last week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced its intent to review the term local in relation to food. Calling this undertaking “an initiative to modernize its food labelling approach” the agency promises to soon seek input that will help it better define the meaning of local. Its old definition deemed local food to mean that:
- the food originated within a 50 km radius of the place where it was sold, or
- the food sold originated within the same local government unit (e.g. municipality) or adjacent government unit
It turns out that somewhere along the way the CFIA decided to do away with that policy and replace it (for now) with
- food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
- food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory
That interim policy is apparently considered less “outdated” and better suited to the “current food production practices” and “consumer needs and expectations”.
I am currently living in Nova Scotia, where many of us do indeed consider anything that comes from this province to be local. But this is a province of roughly 55 thousand square kilometers and fewer than one million people. In contrast, Ontario boasts 20 times the area and more than 10 times the population. Some Ontarians who live in the North would not accept that Southern Ontario food is “local”, as was made clear in a recent province-wide report Models and Best Practices for Building Sustainable Food Systems in Ontario and Beyond. Moreover, our report highlights the need to recognize the unique needs and circumstances of each food region and even each community. Many of our research participants were particularly dismayed by one-size-fits-all approaches, and would be concerned that such disparate food regions would even be thought of as one locality. Local can mean different things in different places. The diversity of geography, demography, and scale in Ontario’s food system could not be overstated and to fail to recognize that is to disconnect policy from reality.
The Canadian Association for Food Studies listserv saw a flurry of exchange on the issue this week. Many of the discussion participants see the CFIA’s interim definition as inadequate and really missing the point of the increasingly popular turn to local – a turn that, in most general terms, aims to address multiple ills of the current food system and not just the simple mileage issues. As one post suggested, the attempts to “operationalize” local result in an “artificial geo-political boundary” that, according to another post, ”does not begin to address all that we need to do in rebuilding healthy citizens and foodsheds.”
In my work, I have criticized food labels as shortcuts meant to stand in for informed consumption. They are easily manipulated, and yet they reassure us that we don’t need to know our food beyond the messages on the packaging. Such shortcuts quell our curiosities and lull us further into food oblivion. They make us ask fewer questions and justify our convenient choices. And they also shape our perceptions of the world making us think that there is a definitive authority on such things as local, and that someone, in this case the CFIA, is being accountable for the well-being and honesty of our food system.
Local is diverse. It is at the same time vague and meaningful, and no one geographical definition can quite encompass all the different things that local embodies. A province-based definition can hardly begin to reflect that. The upcoming CFIA’s consultation must include considerations of regional foodsheds, layers of diversity, and the multiple goals that are embedded in local. This may possibly mean no policy at all, and it certainly means that a policy that relies on the “province or territory” as the foundation of its definition completely misses the mark. To that end, I invite you to keep an eye on the CFIA’s website and have a say in the consultation in any way you can. Perhaps the diversity of local can be reflected in the diversity of our submissions.
Irena Knezevic is a Nourishing Ontario research associate and a postdoctoral fellow at FoodARC. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily represent either of those organizations. Irena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org