Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Buying Ontario Strawberries:: Rejecting California Fraises Fraîches

Growing up, I have fond memories of local strawberries and homemade shortcake. I remember roadside stands in Cypress, California {a northern corner of the OC} and the cool May/June gloomy weather that went along with late spring. These farms would disappear over the next 20 years, a statewide trend in many suburban areas.

About 7 years ago, Crispin Shelley and I wrote a case study for the USDA on the resurgence of small-scale strawberry farming in areas in northern California by Laotian immigrants. Also during this time, I became interested in sustainable and local agriculture. I learned quite a bit about strawberry production in California, particularly the practices of large-scale growers and the pervasive use of methyl bromide as a soil fumigant by non-organic growers. Even fresh, local California strawberries that were full of flavour {unlike the rock-hard, tasteless ones shipped to supermarkets} were methyl bromide sponges. Methyl bromide was supposed to be banned in the United States in 2005 {Montréal Protocol} as it's an ozone depleter, but critical use exemptions have been granted since there's no effective substitute. Sorry, no cost-effective substitute. Healthwise, MB is a likely mutagen, a substance that alters human DNA.

So, a few weeks ago, the Toronto Star ran an article tracing the path of California strawberries to Ontario.
"Strawberry farming in California is highly mechanized. Before planting, every field is fumigated, often with methyl bromide. It's a toxic, ozone-depleting gas that kills everything down to 2.4 metres – weeds, fungi, bugs. Then tractors mould the soil into furrows, to boost drainage and speed up picking. Plastic irrigation tubes thread each bed, providing precise amounts of water and fertilizer. Once the plants are in place, they are covered with plastic. Workers burn individual holes to free each plant. The only hitch is the labour. No one has invented a successful mechanical planter or harvester for strawberries. They are too fragile. Fingers plant them; fingers pick them"
Here in Ontario, the leading Canadian producer of strawberries, the season is a short 3-4 weeks, although new cultivars are being planted that should extend the season. Based upon my unscientific observations in downtown Toronto, Ontario berries tend to cost as much as imported organic berries from California {$5 CAN}, alas, sans methyl bromide. In contrast, California berries in T-Dot can go as low as $2.50 per box on deal and are typically $2.99.

Why should the consumer pay so much of a price premium for local berries? Isn't the market under globalization and NAFTA rewarding the efficiency of California's berry growers? Well, according to Adam Dale at Guelph University, Ontario strawberries have taste and nutrition advantages. While nutrients aren't lost due to transit time, the prevalence of California may lower consumer expectations of taste and quality. The trends according to StatsCanada are clear {below}. Imports are exploding and domestic Canadian production is receding. Ontario strawberry sales have declined 18% from 2003-2005. Urban encroachment in the GTA is also taking a toll.

In terms of a carbon footprint, buying locally may not be better than not. A truck going across the country might use less carbons per pound than a local truck going 100 kilometers. What matters most is how the crops are grown. Strawberry production in California tends to be on larger farms, upwards of 20 hectares, compared to an average of 4 in southern Ontario. Larger farms tend to be more carbon intensive. In the future, I suspect more information will be provided to consumers about the carbon footprint of foods.

It's up to the Canadian consumer to support Canadian strawberries. While the price might be high and the season might be short, strawberries are a high-margin crop that can keep valuable land in production, as opposed to being subdivided and adding to urban sprawl. When compared to California berries, Ontario production has advantages salient to buyers::
  • Better taste, quality, and nutrition
  • No methyl bromide
  • Lower carbon footprint is likely
  • Supporting the local economy
I plan on getting more and canning some. I'm all for buying Ontario and while everything can't be locally grown, e.g., bananas, I'm being mindful of my choices. Plus, I have many Ontarian microbrews to try, a topic which I'll save for another post.

Twitterversion:: #Ontario #strawberries-in season. Reasons to think about buying local, rather than from #California. #Canada #Agriculture @Prof_K

Song:: Christine - Siouxsie And The Banshees

Video:: Foodland Ontario Ad {2007}

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