Local Food Is in the Eye of the Beholder

HTM prof says ‘local’ is more often a marketing term than a geographic description

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Prof. Iain Murray -- Photo by Martin Schwalbe

If you live in a northern climate, the 100-mile diet isn’t for you, says Prof. Iain Murray, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Foods like chocolate, coffee and fresh produce are off-limits to those who want to “eat local,” especially during the winter. But what exactly does “local” mean? Is local food grown in Canada? What if it’s processed in Canada but grown in another country?

“The single most important thing about ‘local’ is that it’s a marketing word that’s worth money,” says Murray. “That’s why it’s being so abused. When you label something as local, you can command a higher price for it, and if it’s in short enough supply, you’ll get that higher price.”

Using the example of a high-end brand of mustard, he asked people in a survey if they would consider it a local food if it was made in Toronto using mustard seeds from Saskatchewan and served in a Toronto restaurant. Half of the respondents said “yes” while the other half said “no.”

In another survey, 81 per cent defined “local” food as coming from a Canadian location within 160 km of their home, 75 per cent thought local meant it came from their own province, and 22 per cent thought it came from within 160 km of their home, even if it was American in origin.

For some consumers, local doesn’t necessarily mean closer to home, says Murray. Ontario consumers might consider apples from British Columbia to be local because they’re grown in Canada, but not apples grown across the border in New York State, even though it’s closer.

Despite the “locavore” trend, Murray says that consumer decisions are usually based on cost and convenience. Consumers would rather buy food that’s cheaper, even if it isn’t local, and shop at a grocery store near their home instead of driving to a farm to buy fresh produce.

In a survey of shoppers at the Guelph and St. Jacobs Farmers’ Markets, Murray asked what “local” means to them when they see it on a restaurant menu.

Some respondents thought “local beef” was raised, butchered and processed locally while others thought it was drug-free, sustainable and organic.

The confusion surrounding local food, says Murray, is due to the lack of a clear definition. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that local food is “manufactured, processed, produced or packaged in a local government unit” and sold in the same or “immediately adjacent unit.” The definition of a “local government unit” is also unclear, says Murray, adding that it could be a town, city, municipality or province.

Consumers who buy local food might think they’re doing the environment a favour, but not if the food comes with a big carbon footprint. Heating a greenhouse, for example, burns more fossil fuels than shipping produce that is grown outdoors. Driving to the grocery store also produces harmful emissions.

Murray adds that some areas are better suited to growing certain types of produce because of their geographic location and don’t need to use as much energy or chemical fertilizers. Strawberries, for example, can be grown more efficiently in California than in Ontario because of its longer growing season.

Culinary tourism often promotes local food to attract visitors, but Murray says these destinations need to offer more than just unique food experiences. Visitors usually aren’t drawn to a city because of its food, but it could be a secondary attraction. After a day of shopping or a night at the opera, Toronto visitors may choose to dine at restaurants that are unique to the city instead of fast-food chains.

“I’m all in favour of supporting and promoting local foods,” says Murray, “but I encourage consumers to think about what local means to them, and to educate themselves on how the word local is being used by processors and vendors.”