Ontario's Local Food Act: Food for Thought

16 November '13

Last week the Ontario Government passed a Local Food Act. Because the term, ‘local food’ is becoming increasingly common, there’s the potential gloss over this act without realizing how significant it really is. Ontario's Local Food Act is a really big deal. It breaks new ground. In fact, it’s the first act of its kind in Canada.  
The implications aren't just political or economical, and the impact of this legislation doesn't begin and end with farmers or processors. It affects us all.
Here are the act’s three main purposes: 
    1.  To foster successful and resilient local food economies and systems throughout Ontario.
    2.  To increase awareness of local food in Ontario, including the diversity of local food.
    3.  To encourage the development of new markets for local food.
The government will create targets in order to improve food literacy, encourage more use of local food in public organizations (e.g. hospitals, schools, government agencies), and increase access to local food. The act emphasizes consultation and collaboration in the creation of these goals, as well as reporting on the progress and outcomes. The act also includes a local food week, to take place each June, and implements a 25 per cent tax credit to farmers who donate excess produce to local food banks. 
At first glance this sounds great, but there’s part of us that asks, ‘is that all?” We can think of some other features we would have liked to see included in the act, and we’ve certainly heard some banter from others about where the act falls short. We figured we’d explore what the legitimate criticisms may be.
Earlier this fall, the Toronto Star published an article called, ‘Does Ontario Really need a Local Food Act?’, outlining the potential for this act to be ‘costly and counterproductive’. Would increasing the government’s procurement of local food waste taxpayers’ money by prioritizing local food over cheaper, ‘non-local’ foods?  Would the required reporting process strain the public purse strings? How would the new act play out in the context of cross-jurisdictional, inter-provincial and international trade relationships and regulations? Could discriminatory practices in favour of local producers backfire with unanticipated restrictions imposed against our own goods? And, does this act ultimately serve the broader interest of society? These are all good questions.
Perhaps purchasing local food for public institutions will cost more than 'non-local' foods, but there’s also the possibility that spending money locally would do as the act intends, and stimulate rural economies. Spending money in support of local producers is likely to circulate more money into smaller rural economies, often in communities where fiscal stimulus is needed most.  
Maybe the idea that simple accounting can capture the implications of purchasing local food is a misnomer, because the returns on this kind of investment might show up in less measurable, even intangible ways. 
In 2005, the Region of Waterloo’s Public Health Department published a report on ‘Food Miles, or the distance that food travels from where it’s grown, to where it is consumed. They examined import data for 58 commonly consumed foods within the region, determining that the average distance travelled by each of these foods was nearly 4500 km. The transportation of these foods was estimated to contribute over 50,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution, affecting air quality and health. Not only that, but it’s a well-known fact that the nutritional content of food declines the longer the time frame from farm to plate. The punch line of this report is that all of the 58 food items studied could be sourced locally within Southern Ontario, and doing so would achieve the environmental impact of removing over 16,000 cars from the roads. Let that all sink in for a moment. 
And then there’s the tax credit for donating surplus foods to local food banks, an important amendment put forth by the PC party. This feature stands to divert millions of pounds of produce from landfills, onto the tables of families in need. Is there a value in preventing the waste of nutritious foods? Or, does increased access to nutritional produce impact family well-being, individual health and public health outcomes? How exactly do we measure these benefits?
The more we look, the more we see the potential for an overlap in the economic, environmental, social and health outcomes. We wonder whether this Act could save money in ways that aren't easily traced back to the direct costs of local vs. ‘non-local’ foods, the reporting expenses, or to the tax credits that will be issued.
There may indeed be regulatory challenges to favouring local food, and this could impact our own exports. It would have been great if this policy could have been grounded upon the lessons learned from other Canadian jurisdictions that already have a similar legislation in place. But once again, this act is the first of its kind. Maybe the criticisms of the act not being aggressive enough, or being too vague just highlight protective omissions, in the absence of a crystal ball to know whether unintentional fallout will occur. Perhaps that’s good justification for an incremental approach, with frequent reporting, and ongoing public consultation. One thing we know for certain is that there’s a mutual respect within the farming sector that transcends jurisdictions; if there are negative effects on our peers, farmers will be the first ones to voice concern and look for a solution. If challenges arise, our suspicion is that innovation will rise up too.  
One thing we definitely like about The Act is that it reflects collaboration between Ontario’s political parties, a process that enhanced the original concept with valuable amendments. We also understand that public input was a big part of The Act's creation. Finally, we think the fact that The Act passed through legislature unanimously says a lot.  
To us, it says that as a province, there is consensus in support of local farmers. It says Ontario is onto something significant. Whether it’s a baby step or not, we feel it’s a step in the right direction.