What will Alberta’s proposed law mean for ‘local?’

I once interviewed a pair of farmers who described their operation as a “regenerative-agriculture, soil-building, carbon-sequestration, grass-fed meats, pastured poultry, direct-to-consumer farm.”

Being in the thick of it, I didn’t think twice about the litany of adjectives that described their farm.

From supermarkets to farmers markets, food eaters are inundated with ag buzzwords: organic, non-certified organic, non-GMO, non-sprayed, gluten-free, ecological, agroecological, grass-fed, grass-finished, biodynamic, fair trade, pastured, free-range, free-run, cage-free, and many more.

All of these labels mean something, but that something is sometimes hard to define, and is often defined differently by different people.

That’s why one of the largest grocery chains in the world, Walmart, is currently facing a class-action lawsuit for selling organic eggs purportedly lain by hens with “outdoor access,” which consumers thought meant the hens were taking dust baths and chasing dragonflies and scratching up worms. What it really meant was the hens had a screen on their cages that allowed them to see the outdoors.

Becoming fluent in the language of labelling is challenging and now, the Government of Alberta wants consumers to broaden their lexicon to include another word: local.

Local seems fairly simple, right?

To me, it means buying a side of beef from your ranching neighbour instead of a pound here or a pound there from the grocery store. It means finding a hobby beekeeper and buying a jar of raw honey fresh from the hive.

In a new piece of legislation, to be tabled this spring, the Alberta government is defining local food as something along the lines of “food grown, made and/or harvested in Alberta and then marketed in Alberta.”

That means, if you live in Lloydminster, tomatoes grown in Lethbridge are more “local” than tomatoes grown in North Battleford, Sask. If you live in Calgary, chicken from Fort McMurray is more “local” than chicken from Kamloops, B.C.

As it stands, the Local Food Act consists of four pillars: the definition of local; the proclamation of a Local Food Week; enhancement of food safety training requirements at farmers markets; and application of existing federal organic standards to organic products produced in Alberta.

The local food industry is growing in Alberta. Last year, the money spent at farmers markets and direct farm purchases surpassed $1 billion, and 92 percent of households had bought local food from supermarkets and 80 percent at farmers markets.

Not only that, but the number of Albertans who spend more than $1,000 a year at farmers markets has doubled since 2008.

Renato Gandia, press secretary for Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, said in an email the government is in the process of reviewing what it heard at roundtable sessions on the Local Food Act in Leduc, Lethbridge, Airdrie and Grande Prairie, as well as the public feedback it received online.

“We’re always exploring ways to connect Alberta consumers and the producers of the fine food we have in this province,” he wrote, adding that, at this point, no decisions have been made.

In my capacity as a producer of local food (and someone who markets their goods that way already), I took part in the roundtable discussion in Leduc, along with other producers, industry stakeholders, and government officials.

The conversation was good, the people were interesting and intelligent and I genuinely applaud the government for its commitment in supporting local.

But despite all of that, I left the session feeling confused as to what the act would actually do for me, and for consumers, besides add another word for them to navigate.

As simple as supporting local food may seem, it raises some questions: what does this act do for larger producers, the ones producing on an export scale?

What does it do for the super small producers, the ones who have already been using the word local to differentiate themselves from medium-to-large-scale direct-to-consumer producers?

What does it mean to sell something as local if it doesn’t affect the local environment in a meaningful and responsible way?

Tianna Albrecht, a local food enthusiast and board member of Eat Alberta, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and educating Albertans on local food, said teaching consumers how to source local food is more effective than giving them a definition.

“Be aware of sustainable farming,” she said. “Be aware of the fossil fuels used during transportation of fruits and vegetables and food. Be aware of the importance of supporting the local economy and then go out and do that in whatever way works for you.”

She thinks the legislation is missing the point as to why local food is important because a consumer’s definition of local will differ just as much as consumers differ from one another.

“The closer you can get things, the better.”

The best way to be committed to the local food movement, and really know where your food is coming from, is to know who is producing it. Otherwise, a made-in-Alberta sticker means very little.

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