Replacing imports with local food
Quiet leadership with solid proposals lead to real impact

By John Clement

editor's NOTE

John Clement

The Christian Farming Federation of Ontario (CFFO), Guelph, Ontario, produces a weekly radio commentary which we occasionally carry under the column title “Letters from Ontario.” John Clement, the group’s general manager, writes most often, with others from the group taking their turns. With the group’s permission, we continue use of the CFFO columns as they seem useful for our international readership.

Posted August 9, 2007: Local food is all the rage across the province. It’s being advocated for all kinds of reasons, including variety, freshness, environmental sustainability and regional economic development. It is now showing up in restaurant promotions, supermarkets and roadside stands. And the local food concept has shown up in CFFO correspondence and literature for at least the last decade.

The most recent endorsement of local food came from the provincial government. It recently committed $12.5 million to a "Pick Ontario Freshness" strategy aimed at supporting local promotions and commodity-specific programs. By building interest in all Ontario foods and raising general consumer awareness, the program hopes to build demand for Ontario foods in stores and restaurants.

The Ontario government announcement has come on the heels of other symbolic nods to local food. The province’s political parties have been pledging to include local food purchases for the menus of public institutions. And the University of Toronto’s campus food services signed a “first ever” supply agreement last year with Local Flavour Plus. The not-for-profit organization certifies local farmers and processors who produce local food in environmentally and socially responsible ways and links them with purchasers.

Clearly, local food has become a hot topic and people are scrambling to both access and build the market among consumers. Almost a decade ago, the CFFO was already pointing out in presentations to government officials that additional markets could be opened up by Ontario farmers through concentrating on import replacements.

Some of our position statements of that time called upon governments to commit annual funding to an import replacement program. In essence, the program would target the $9-billion-plus worth of food imports to Ontario and seek creative ways of displacing them through entrepreneurial activity. The concept of import replacement found its way into the CFFO Vision Statement and also was eventually fleshed out to include the call for the development of an infrastructure for local food systems.

These systems would include an agricultural development officer in every municipality, investment support to farmers so that they can restructure their businesses to serve local markets, legislation protecting regional branding, land use and taxation policies that encourage value-added activities on the farm and food safety guidance designed for local markets. The CFFO also called for an increase in meat processing capacity, part of which was for accessing local markets, during the BSE crisis.

The CFFO doesn’t believe that local food is the solution to all of agriculture’s problems. But because Ontario is a net importer of food it does believe that local food initiatives will help to create opportunities for new markets. We didn’t invent the local food concept, but we have been offering our quiet leadership to its promotion due to its ability to help grow the marketing opportunities for Ontario’s farmers.