The 3000 Mile Caesar Salad: Making Sense Of The Food We Eat

Joe Fiorito is a Toronto Star columnist.  He’s big time when it comes to us scribblers.  So I was quite surprised last week when he mentioned Canada’s farmers.  In his column, “Listening To Our Farmers On the Row They Hoe” Joe Fiorito points out some of the fallacies of food production in this country.

Fiorito took part in Agriculture Canada public consultations on the next generation of agricultural policy when that road show pulled into Toronto.  However Fiorito had no grand vision of future agricultural policy.  He simply wanted to know why he couldn’t buy local produce in his local super market.

That surely is reasonable grounds for any Toronto writer to show up.  It’s amazing in this country how poor our government’s agricultural vision can be.  However for Fiorito I have the answer.  The reason that you don’t find any local produce in your local super market is because Canada already has an agricultural policy and it’s called the cheap food policy.  Mr. Fiorito’s local super market sources the cheapest food for its shelves regardless of where it’s from.  And our Canadian government gladly sanctions that.

What you say?  That’s right, you see it everywhere.  The big losers are Canada’s farmers but losers too are people like Mr. Fiorito who’s looking for Canadian produce in his local super market.  Consumers get cheap food, but where it comes from nobody knows.

I have a somewhat similar story regarding Mr. Fiorito’s desire for local produce.  In one of the biggest food retailers in Chatham, I’m greeted with a huge display as soon as I go in the doors of apples from Washington State.  The apples look nice are priced competitively but they are from 4000 miles away!  What about Ontario apples?  Can’t they satisfy the requirements of local consumers?  Or is it a case that the local corporate food retailer totally disregarded a local source?  Bingo!  I’m sure they didn’t even think about it.

It gets even more comical.  Last year Ontario farm country was a cauldron of farmer unrest.  Tractor blockades and farm rallies dotted the landscape.  Your loyal scribe was asked to speak several times.  At one of those rallies a couple farmers told me this large food retailer in Chatham actually had the audacity to feature “European vegetables” in their flyer.  When confronted by one of the local farmers the reaction from the store was incredulous.  They didn’t think it was any big deal.  They had no idea that such advertising might insult the many local families who produce local vegetables.

Rewind for a moment to December 2005.  That’s when I got a call from the local Green party candidate during the last election campaign.  He told me that James Harris, the national leader of Canada’s Green party was coming to Chatham and could I have breakfast with him.  I said yes and a day later James Harris and I sat down for a private breakfast.  That’s when he brought up the 3000 miles Caesar salad.

I didn’t know what he meant.  So he informed me every time a Canadian sits down for a Caesar salad, the ingredients come from about 3000 miles away. (California)  He went on to say as Canadians we could do better and use a lot less energy getting the food to our dinner tables.  I chimed in with my ideas too.

So we have problems.  Most people who are involved in agriculture know that.  In fact many of them take it for granted.  However, consumers don’t really get it.  With most food supermarkets resembling “food Disneyland” consumers are easily duped into their food choices.  Cheap food is almost a default mechanism.  Corporate policy and marketing strategies lurk in the background.

Of course what’s this mean for the Canadian farmer?  Last week we learned the federal government has committed new money to the tune of $1 billion into the agricultural safety net for Canadian farmers.  Last May the same federal government committed $1.5 billion to Canadian farmers.  However, most farmers especially those growing grains and oilseeds haven’t received a dime.  And of course there is Mr. Fiorito’s legitimate concern about not being able to buy local produce in his neighbourhood grocery store.  Meanwhile Agriculture Canada is running around the country consulting on what to do next.  You have to love this country.

At the end of the day I hope Mr. Fiorito finds his local produce grown fresh from Ontario fields or greenhouses.  At the end of his piece he comments on the state of Canadian agricultural policy by writing “that everyone is okay except the guys who grow the crops. Our new agricultural policy had better address that little problem”.

Mr. Fiorito, I agree with you.  Making sense of this sorry mess is a road to nowhere.