The state of regional food systems

Although some attention is given to localization and sustainable production independently, it is less common for integrated local/sustainable systems to be considered. The driving idea behind integrated local/sustainable food systems is to maximize the environmental, social, and economic benefits that can accrue with a greater emphasis on regional food systems that are environmentally sustainable and resilient (MacRae et al., 2014a,b). Such benefits are more robust than those associated with just local or sustainable systems.

There is, of course, much debate about how to define local/sustainable foods. For this analysis, it is sufficient to categorize local as sub-national food supply chains, conforming to provincial boundaries or smaller regions (Louden and MacRae, 2010), that employ sustainable production meeting the following definition (MacRae et al., 1990):

Sustainable agriculture is both a philosophy and a system of farming. It has its roots in a set of values that reflect a state of awareness of ecological and social realities and of one's ability to take effective action. It involves design and management procedures that work with natural processes to conserve all resources, minimize waste and environ­mental impact, while maintaining or improving farm profitability. As well, such systems aim to produce food that is nutritious and uncontaminated with products that harm human health. In practice such systems have tended to avoid the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. Instead, sustainable agriculture systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off‑farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, and mineral‑bearing rocks to optimize soil biological activity, and to maintain soil fertility and productivity. Natural, biological, and cultural controls are used to manage insects, weeds, and diseases.

The local/sustainable food and fisheries sectors in Canada are significantly understudied, with limited data on their scope and scale (for more on the marine and inland fisheries, see Goal 5, Sustainable fisheries management and Sustainable Food and Aquaculture). While some data exist on the adoption of environmental Best Management Practices (Eilers et al., 2010), there is little information on the adoption of sustainable farming systems consistent with the above definition, except for certified organic production and processing. The certified organic sector in Canada covers a wide range of raw and processed foods but remains small, with 1-2% of land use and retail markets (Macey, 2010). A significant amount is exported and the percentage produced for and distributed in local markets is poorly understood.

Equally unclear is the general state of local food production and distribution, even when not combined with sustainability criteria. Although consumer interest in local has been growing (see for example Buy Local Ontario) and has been accentuated by the COVID emergency (see for example, Charlebois et al., 2020), it is unclear how significantly local food supply chains have been affected because firms do not typically report publicly on this and there is limited data aggregation. In broad strokes, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC, 2011) reports that roughly 70% of Canadian consumption is met with domestic production and that 50% of domestic production is exported, particularly live animals, bulk grains, and oilseeds. There are reports on local food initiatives, largely direct sales (COG, 2007), but limited information on how much food flows through sub-national supply chains. AAFC (2003) also reported a decade ago that only about 1% of retail food sales were direct marketed, but direct marketing is a small subset of local distribution. Even if those numbers have doubled in the past decade, it still represents a small part of the Canadian food system. Canada’s supply managed commodities (primarily dairy, eggs, chicken, and turkey) are largely organized provincially, with restrictions on cross-border trade. However, only a very small percent of production is certified organic (Macey, 2010).  British Columbia (BC) estimated that its producers provided 48% of the food consumed in the province but what percentage would also qualify as sustainable is unknown (BCMAF, 2006). Undoubtedly the sector is larger than these statistics suggest, but its exact size remains obscure. A recent food flow analysis conducted for Metro Vancouver concluded that now only seafood, honey, and the supply managed commodities have over 50% of supply coming from within the province. For Metro Vancouver, approximately 14% of the food supply originated within the region, and 18% within the province (Davies Transportation Consulting, 2020). A regional study of Southwest BC, an area with significant vegetable and livestock production, found only 40% self-reliance in 2011 if imported feed was considered acceptable, or 12% if imported feed disqualified livestock production from a local designation. In NS, the estimate is that only 15% of food consumed is produced locally, down from 60% 50 years ago (Local Prosperity, 2015).

Certainly, provincial governments have attempted at various times to reduce reliance on imports (from other provinces or from international sources) and build domestic supply for specific commodities, without consideration necessarily of sustainability. Examples include the Parti Québecois efforts to increase hog production in the 1970s and 80s, the evolution of the Ontario and BC wine industries, Prairie provincial support (with extensive federal commitment) for the development of an edible canola oil, and Newfoundland's recent efforts to reduce its dependence on imported animal feed.

But for the most part, Canadian governments are currently playing a relatively modest role in the evolution of local/sustainable food systems. While environmentally-friendly agriculture production is rhetorically a priority, federal environment pillar provisions under the Agricultural Policy Framework (APF) and Growing Forward (and Canadian Agricultural Partnerships) represent a relatively small percentage of total federal transfers to farmers (AAFC, 2013). Little of the programming in this pillar links agri-environmental improvements to fully integrated regional food supply chain approaches. Jurisdictionally, local and regional systems are primarily a provincial domain. The provinces do participate in environment pillar programming, in addition to offering grant programmes for local infrastructure development, and many offer generic “buy local” marketing and occasional procurement programmes, but few of these initiatives link local with sustainable production.

A 2009 survey identified only 24 local food procurement policies implemented by public institutions and local governments across the country, some of which also prioritized organic food purchases (CCA, 2009), but the number of programmes was likely underreported given the challenges of such inquiries and they have likely expanded considerably since then. The nature of local/sustainable food procurement at sub-national levels is particularly interesting. Provinces and the Municipal, Agency, Schools, and Hospital (MASH) sector typically procure through foodservice operators. When in place, the requirement for local/sustainable food is usually only a small part of the tendering process and does not have much impact on which firm wins the bid. Given the current limited state of local/sustainable development, setting high procurement targets is unrealistic because of insufficient supply, further reducing the overall significance of these provisions on the bid outcome.

Significant roles are being played by private and NGO actors, and sometimes private and para-public foundations (COG, 2007). Sometimes these actors are collaborating with governmental or para-governmental agencies.

Even more poorly understood are the levels of sustainable food imports. There are reports that 60-85% of the organic foods consumed in Canada are imported (MacRae et al., 2009), but very limited data exist on foods meeting other definitions of sustainability. Organic imports may represent less than 1% of all imported foods. The vast majority of imported foods would thus be produced conventionally.