Good things can grow outside Ontario

“Buy Ontario” is part of the $12.5-million Pick Ontario Freshness strategy aimed at increasing the demand for Ontario produce in both our stores and restaurants. It’s seductively crafted by policy-makers to ensure you, the consumer, feel healthier and socially and environmentally virtuous.

“If we buy Ontario, everyone wins, because we are supporting our farmers, processors, rural economy, environment and ourselves with healthy food from here at home,” said Leona Dombrowsky, Minister of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs. But does everyone really win?

Of course, buying local reduces packaging, increases bio-diversity, supports local small farmers, and minimizes energy consumption and pollution. But increasing the demand for Ontario produce may put foreign agricultural imports at a disadvantage, threatening the livelihoods of the people who produce them.

Many developing countries rely almost entirely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Even slight fluctuations in the market can have major socio-economic effects on these countries.

The economies of developing countries are already at a great disadvantage with regards to market access to Canada. Canadian farmers received approximately $3.3 billion in subsidies in 2008, according to the department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. And Ontario spent $717.1 million in direct subsidies to its farmers in 2008.

Canada does not import very much from developing countries. In 2001, 0.1 per cent of our agricultural imports were from Africa and zero from the world’s least developed countries. Most of our agricultural imports are actually from the United States.

Some economists argue that buying local might benefit developing economies. By decreasing trade between the global north and south, poorer countries may be encouraged to trade with one another. Over time, this would promote sustainable agricultural development, food security, and a variety of other benefits.

But because of the current global economic set-up and the wonders of “free” trade, many developing countries actually import more than they export. Protectionist measures such as agricultural subsidies make it very difficult for a country like Uganda to sell its rice to Kenya or Mozambique. It’s much cheaper for Kenya to buy its rice directly from the United States. Buying local in Canada would thus only disadvantage these countries further.

These road blocks need to be removed in order to promote intra-regional trade between African nations. According to the United Nations African Recovery Program, African countries must first eliminate trade barriers within the African community for agricultural export to become viable. They must diversify their produce, increase agricultural development initiatives, include the informal sector in their economies and improve transportation, infrastructure, and distribution.

There’s a long way to go, but intra-regional trade is on the rise and it’s changing lives. However, until those road blocks are obliterated, many people in developing countries will depend heavily on international export opportunities for the bulk of their income.

It’s not just Ontario and Canada that are developing armies of locavores. The United States is also urging its citizens to buy local produce, and the boom in Europe is astounding. If this eating local trend continues to explode on a global scale, it could further marginalize and harm developing countries. Good things grow in Ontario, but great things grow all around the world, too.

Ally Henderson is a Toronto-based writer. This article originally appeared in The Varsity and is republished here with permission of the author.

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One comment

  • The quantity of our food that comes from other countries has been on the rise for the past 10-15 years. The buying local strategy is actually a response to the increasing globalization of our food getting system in attempt to normalize the system.

    The increase of Globalization has seen both the small local farmer & farmer from a developing nation marginalized in favor of corporate entities. While theoretically buying imported products should help developing nations it is really the corporations, (who coincidentally also often control commodity prices) who are reaping the profits at both ends.

    Currently, fair trade practices are the most effective at helping developing nations receive fair payment for their products. However with the popularity of fair trade products still quite low, there is no immediate solution.

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