Even five years ago, ethical, environmentally conscious eating seemed, to so many, a very simple affair.
Step one? Look for products labeled “organic”. Step two? Buy ‘em.
Times change. As Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the organic movement, which once felt like a decidedly grassroots affair, has become a $15 billion industry, and still the fastest-growing sector in the entire food chain. While we can all feel comfortable with the idea that organic farming practices are better than conventional ones, the reality has become rather complex.
What, for example, is the environmental footprint of all these large-scale operations, let alone the plastic lettuce boxes they’re shipping all over North America? Do we know whether workers are getting a fair shake? Should it concern us that many organic food companies have been bought up by major corporations - precisely the ones whose food practices helped drive us toward organics in the first place? And isn’t certified organic junk food still junk food, as nutritionist Marion Nestle famously asserted?
Finally, from a purely selfish perspective, is all this stuff as nutritious - and does it actually taste as good - as we expect from something labeled organic? For many chefs and consumers, an alarming amount of “big organic” food is only marginally better than the conventional stuff it was supposed to replace. It goes without saying, of course, that sometimes despite no discernible bump in quality, it also tends to be more expensive.
Like I said: complex.
This preamble is decidedly not directed at the many smaller-scale organic and biodynamic farmers - and surely, it’s still the vast majority of them - that are doing right by the environment, by their workers, and by their local economies. Yes, there are some companies using the organic label as little more than a marketing ploy, a fig leaf for business as usual. These are the few bad apples causing problems for a largely unimpeachable bunch. (And I promise that you’ll see no more of the heinous fruit salad of mixed metaphors I just dished up, but couldn’t bring myself to delete.)
So although for most of us, buying organic - being organic - is undeniably a good thing, when we’re talking about true sustainability, organic farming as we know it may only be one important piece of a much larger puzzle.
Enter Toronto-based non-profit Local Food Plus (LFP), an award-winning organization that certifies farmers for local,
sustainable food production and - critically - helps hook them up with buyers, ranging from the large (grocery store Fiesta Farms, for example) and small (food stores like Culinarium and Pantry, my own take-out and cafe; caterers like Real Food for Real Kids and Vert; and restaurants like the Gladstone Hotel, Cowbell, and Veritas).
The LFP system is unique in that its certified growers - approximately a third of whom are also certified organic - are required not merely to embrace responsible farming practices, but responsible environmental and economic ones as well. In other words, LFP assumes - and insists - that sustainability is possible not only by means of ethical production, but a whole series of interrelated practices encompassing everything from labour policies, native habitat preservation, animal welfare, and on-farm energy use.
It also extends its mandate to ensure that certified farmers prioritize the needs of local buyers, giving them a kind of “first-in-line” status, thus keeping more produce here in the province. This, presumably, further helps the local economy: local farmers, local drivers, local marketers - in the literal sense of “bringing to market” - feeding local buyers, creating a kind of virtuous circle of supply and demand.
This is LFP’s strength: its standards are not merely rigourous and wide-ranging, they’re eminently practical as well. Setting a high standard for food quality undoubtedly offers its own rewards, but if there aren’t measurable overall benefits for both farmers and consumers - and both individually and as members of a larger community - sustainable agricultural practices can run the risk of failing to be…well, sustainable.
Chris Alward, LFP’s Director of Market Development, notes that it’s not by accident that LFP embraces a mandate that stresses the interrelated nature of the economy and the environment: its two founders, Mike Schreiner and Lori Stahlbrand, come from an entrepreneurial and an environmental background, respectively. From the outset, both have always asserted that it’s impossible to separate the two issues.
“Lori and Mike met at an environmental awards ceremony, where they were both being honoured with awards, Lori for her work in environmental science, and Mike for his work as the founder of one of the first organic home delivery box programs in Toronto,” explains Alward. “They spoke after the show and joked that they had both basically given the same acceptance speech about the future of local and sustainable food.”
Essentially, from that meeting about 4 years ago, LFP was born.
Since then, the number of farmers participating in the program has more or less doubled each year, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Just last month, the number of LFP-certified acres in the Holland Marsh alone surpassed 1,000, and should climb to more than 2,000 by the end of this season.
When you consider that the Holland Marsh serves as what Alward calls “the back-yard garden” to the GTA’s high-density population, that acreage amounts to an awful lot of sustainable chow.
Good news indeed, but even more encouraging is the driving force behind this rapid growth. While Alward concedes that his own efforts may have some small influence on the program’s expansion, the much larger one is consumer demand.
“Food is the only consumer good that we actually, you know, consume,” he notes with a smile. “And more than ever, people are mindful of what they’re putting in their bodies. Here in Ontario, they seem to be figuring out that we can be instrumental in helping them find the stuff they want.”
While farmer’s markets are a great self-serve outlet, consumers also putting pressure on more traditional distributors - stores - to start bringing it in. Restauranteurs are demanding the same things of their distributors. “When that happens,” says Alward, “they’re coming to us to find out how to get on board.”
In other words, the LFP brand is becoming ever more recognizable as a mark of local and sustainable practices - environmental, social and economic - and it’s helping buyers and sellers work together.
This trend is sure to continue as LFP expands its operations into some new regions: British Columbia, the Prairies, and the Atlantic Provinces. Alward is quick to point out that this can’t be cookie-cutter growth, however: while the program will still work with growers to ensure that rigourous standards are upheld, the entire certification process will be customized to each region. By necessity, it simply can’t be - and shouldn’t be - a one-size-fits-all program.
As well, LFP’s recognition factor will undoubtedly get a lift from its recent partnership with the World Wildlife Fund on Localicious, a celebration of local eating which ran from October 2-18 in select restaurants across the country.
Next time you’re out shopping or eating, look for the LFP logo. It’s popping up everywhere these days, and for both farmers and consumers - not to mention the environment and economy that we share - this would seem to be a very, very good thing.
In my opinion, at least, LFP is doing everything right. And it’s just getting started.
To learn more about the Local Food Plus, and to find certified, local, sustainable food near you, visit LFP’s newly-redesigned website.