Promoting sustainability (information)

The heightened interest in local / sustainable food systems has  analysts exploring the many policy obstacles and opportunities to enhance their development, including examining the role of consumer information systems. The information architecture for identifying local/sustainable systems is, however, poorly developed in Canada. We briefly review current rules and then later propose a series of changes.

Defining locality

For a review of the problems of a placeless food system, go to Get Started, Problems. A review of the literature reveals that local has no specific and uniform definition (Canadian Organic Growers, 2007; Vargas et al., 2021) and is contentious, changing with each supply chain and region. One food system actor may view the term ‘local’ as their surrounding community, another as a provincial or regional parameter (Canadian Organic Growers, 2007; Allen et al., 2003; Selfa and Qazi, 2005). The conceptual terrain has been set out by Kloppenburg et al. (1996) in their arguments in favour of a foodshed analytical frame, but no specific distance has been attached to that concept. The most common modern definition is by sub-national political boundary, e.g., state, province, region or geographic feature. Earlier definitions focused more on cultural boundaries or unique eco-regional features, e.g., terroir. With the possible exception of Quebec, Canada does not have a tradition of terroir. There is, however, a significant tradition of terroir and terroir labeling in Europe and a number of studies confirm that it has both an emotional impact on consumers and increases their willingness to pay for foods with territorial identity (Vargas et al., 2021).

Given this murky terrain, Hinrichs (2003:37) suggests a “diversity receptive localization” as a template to support and protect local industries as this type of localization encourages “the richness of a place while keeping in mind the rights of a multi-faceted world. It cherishes a particular place, yet at the same time knows about the relativity of all places”. Her approach takes into account that local economies would not remain fully autonomous from global trade. Hinrichs (2003) uses the example of an artisanal cheese maker who would not likely sell enough of his or her product within the limits of his or her locality to financially survive. Also, many food items now considered staples cannot be grown in a Canadian climate, for example citrus, coffee and chocolate.

A small number of surveys of producers involved in local food distribution have been undertaken, lending credence to the idea that it is primarily the nature of the current supply chain that informs the definition of local among current food system actors.  One study examining 3 counties in Washington State (Selfa and Qazi, 2005) found that 80 to 240 km was generally considered the local food distribution chain with several country boundaries crossed. But in a county with extensive existing direct market channels and premium niches, the county was more likely to be considered local.  Those with limited direct marketing outlets were likely to have a larger view of local and were also more likely to include other supply chain actors in their definition. Only a small percentage of producers defined local by the quality of the social relations or the freshness attributes of the product. Consumers, on the other hand, are more likely to employ a shorter distance to define local than producers (Canadian Organic Growers, 2007), which may in part be a result of more limited knowledge of supply chain dynamics.

Given that most of the current literature highlights the importance of spatial definitions of local, some converging lines of analysis suggest that a local definition in the 160-200 km range is both conceptually legitimate and operationally viable at this stage in the relocalization process. Kloppenburg et al. (1996), in their conceptual argument, emphasized that a functioning foodshed provides a diversity of products from a diversity of suppliers, within the context of the area being examined. Given the nature of Canadian settlement and agricultural development, few regions of the country would be able to provide that diversity within a 50 km distance. A wider range provides greater possibilities.

Another way to evaluate the term local is to contrast existing local and global food supply chains. The average North American food molecule currently may travel 2500-4000 km (Haliwell, 2002). Full empirical studies of domestic food miles in Canada are lacking, but an Iowa study of local vs. global meal comparisons found that local supply chains are about 5% of global (Pirog et al., 2001). Five percent may underestimate the situation in many regions of Canada. For example, a supermarket vs. farmers’ market comparative study in Toronto found a 50 fold difference, rather than the 20 fold difference reported in the Iowa study (Bentley, 2004). Based on this, assuming a 4000 km distance, 5% is 200 km.

There is currently an extensive, and contested, set of rules regarding Made in Canada labelling (CFIA food labeling for industry). However, given the discussion above, this represents too wide a geography to qualify as a definition of locality.

There are rules around the use of local and related terms, and they have shifted in a positive direction over time. First introduced after the creation of the 2003 Guide to Food Labeling and Advertising, the first statement on local food was found within a CFIA “Information Bulletin": Local or locally produced - “domestic goods being advertised originated within 50 km of the place where they are sold, measured directly, point to point, or meets the requirements of section B.01.012 Food and Drug Act (CFIA information bulletin), which states, "local food" means a food that is manufactured, processed, produced or packaged in a local government unit and sold only in… the local government unit [or] one or more local government units that are immediately adjacent to the one… in which it is manufactured, processed, produced or package (FDA 5.1).”

According to officials, the CFIA policy pertaining to ‘local’ was instituted to prevent “violations of section 5(1) of the FDA” in the “use of the term ‘local’ on fruits and vegetable”. (Food and Drug Regulations C.R.C., c. 870; B.01.012). This definition reflected a supply chain distance approach, consistent with definitions used in some European and US jurisdictions where farmers’ markets are central to the conception of local (Canadian Organic Growers, 2007). The distance specified in the CFIA rules was limited because it assumes a direct marketing context for local, and consequently focused on fruits and vegetables, the most common direct-marketed goods. This represents, however, only one stream of local market development, and for only a limited segment of the food supply.

More recently, CFIA has acknowledged that this approach was outdated, and has replaced the original conception with an interim definition:

  • "food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
  • food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory" (CFIA, Food Labeling for Industry)

This is a positive efficiency stage development, but will need additional modifications as per proposals at the Substitution stage.

Production system and processing from which the food derives (adapted from Louden and MacRae, 2010)

The current system focuses primarily on product, not process. In this view, the means by which a food is produced is not relevant unless it changes accepted food safety and nutritional parameters. There are a few significant exceptions to this general rule and the exceptions have been growing to respond to market realities and consumer demands. Rules for using the label “organic”, “kosher” or “halal” are all process-based. They describe how the food is grown, raised and processed. Canada has regulations about the use of these terms, but given consumer concerns and interests, and how these relate to national sustainability objectives, there is a need to widen the use of process terms. Other than these terms, it is feasible for claims to be made without third party verification, and with minimal oversight and enforcement. Barham (2002:354) has stated:

The focus on process challenges the inability of market economics to take long term impacts into account, and simultaneously calls for conscious social decision making about the direction of the economy, rather than passively waiting for the market to tell us, after the fact, what is optimum. It means that environmental and social impacts will have to be considered ahead of time…The social construction of quality, as it is represented in values-based labeling, can call on aspects of human rationality that move beyond the economistic. To the extent that it incorporates recognition of the responsibility of choice, it breaks free from defining the human being as primarily a self-interest maximizer.

The regulation of 5 key terms provides information on the current state of affairs and how they might be altered to better facilitate knowledge transfer to citizen - consumers. These terms are or could also be used on many current third party labels in use or under consideration and would support certification.

  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – in programmes that demonstrate reduced chemical use with alternative pest control methods.
  • Ecological – where the certification results in environmental stewardship and enhanced biodiversity.
  • Environmentally friendly – where a programme results in reduced packaging and promotes recycling and energy conservation.
  • Natural – to describe a minimum standard of animal welfare.
  • Sustainable agriculture or sustainable food production – when food producers and processors follow a sustainable food production regime that isn’t specifically organic.

In Canada at present, there are limited or no regulations for these  terms except Natural and very marginally sustainable agriculture. We review their status here.

The term natural is problematic, given current regulations. It has traditionally been reserved related to the degree of  processing.

"A food or ingredient of a food that is represented as natural is expected:

  • not to contain, or to ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive.
  • not to have any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water. For example: the removal of caffeine.
  • not to have been submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state (i.e. maximum processes)." (CFIA Method of production claims)

The term natural can be used in certain ways in animal production, but must be consistent with this use across all food categories. This limits its application as an animal production method. Limited claims are also permitted regarding non-use of antibiotics and hormones, and the type of feed (CFIA Method of production claims). But many terms in use to suggest animal welfare are fundamentally unregulated including: cage free, free run, free range, and nest-laid. Several animal production associations and companies have promised to eliminate battery cages for layers with different end dates, but how that might be verified and communicated to the public is unclear.

The use of natural in animal production is not well linked to existing federally supported Codes of Conduct for the Care and Handling  of Farm Animals, developed from the late 80s under the guidance of the Canadian Agri-food Research Council (CARC) and now coordinated by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). Many Canadian animal welfare and natural livestock standards, including those of Local Food Plus (LFP), the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA), and some livestock commodity associations already reference the CARC or NFACC Codes of Practice, but the current rules may limit the market penetration of these systems and codes and make them less viable for producers.

CFIA will permit certain method of production claims (sustainable, dolphin safe, etc)  for fish and fish products, but leaves it up to the manufacturer to put in place procedures to justify the claims under general fraud provisions. Those procedures must be available to CFIA inspectors upon request (CFIA Food Labelling for Industry).

Although not currently specifically regulated by CFIA, the use of the term “sustainable agriculture” could be problematic in the future, given the CFIA practice of consulting with other departments, in this case AAFC, on unspecified labeling terms. A definition from 2001 by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (2001) is broadly emblematic of their approach. Sustainable agriculture is a system that:

  • protects the natural resource base; prevents the degradation of soil, water, and air quality; and conserves biodiversity.
  • contributes to the economic and social well-being of all Canadians.
  • ensures a safe and high-quality supply of agricultural products.
  • safeguards the livelihood and well-being of agricultural and agri-food businesses, workers and their families.

Other organizations define the term more consistently with an agroecological interpretation of sustainability (Altieri, 1995) and demonstrate a greater commitment to reducing reliance on environmentally problematic processes and inputs.

Efficiency strategies

Requiring immediate attention are existing federal labeling regulations related to the 3 terms that appear to be out of step with other policy-related developments at the federal level and/or conceptual developments in the field – local, natural and sustainable agriculture. Making the labeling rules more supportive of the local and sustainable food movement will require better integration with those concepts and processes.


The current CFIA is more workable than the previous approach and could remain until new information and changes in supply chain dynamics warrant a revision.

Natural livestock production

Natural livestock production is, admittedly, notoriously difficult to define. It also has an imprecise, but usually significant, relationship with humane livestock production. The term is more closely related, currently, to food preparation and processing than to livestock production.

Linking natural with wild, however, is out of step with other parts of the labeling regulatory apparatus. In the organic standards [Canadian General Standard Board], part of the federal government organic regulatory apparatus now regulated under the Safe Food for Canadians Act and regulations, the term employed for wild products is “wild crafted”. For consistency, it would make sense for CFIA to not now use natural in other parts of its labeling regime for wild crafted products.

It would also be coherent to link the definition of natural and humane livestock production to the existing NFACC Recommended Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals. Developed from the 1980s with numerous scientists, practitioners, and some government and NGO representatives, these voluntary codes have received fairly widespread acceptance from the agricultural industry, although they are viewed as minimal guidance by many NGOs and humane treatment activists.  Nevertheless, they have also been used as foundational material for codes developed by humane treatment NGOs. LFP has also used them as the foundation of their livestock protocol. However, as discussed under Goal 9, Human Relations with Animals, the codes will need to improved to significantly advance animal welfare, which in turn can produce more robust labelling rules.

Sustainable production

Sustainable agriculture definitions are numerous, but in Canada, they have yet to be directly translated to specific product labels, and there is no current guidance on the term in the CFIA Food Labeling for Industry. Given the history, discussed above, of ambiguously regulated sustainable production terms, a preliminary assessment of government use of the term, relative to leading sustainability specialists, is important for assessing potential future challenges.

Governments typically employ definitions that account for multiple interests and policy pressures, but are not necessarily rooted in the historical context from which the concept evolved. The early scientific pioneers of sustainable agriculture, (e.g., FH King, Sir Albert Howard), had a more profoundly ecological interpretation of sustainability (King, 1911; Howard, 1943, 1947) than is reflected in Canadian government definitions. Much of the scientific literature of today employs an agroecological paradigm that is at odds with the underlying paradigms of the Canadian government approach. The federal government’s conception of sustainable agriculture is also out of step with its main trading partners and international agencies, such as the FAO.  Labeling regulations consistent with the conceptual foundations of the term and other bodies would bring coherence to its use, both for locally and internationally traded goods. We foresee, ultimately, the need for regulation of a full suite of sustainability- related terms and given that Canada already participates in numerous international reciprocity and harmonization activities (including organic products and pesticide approvals), these terms will need to be applied consistently with trading partners.

Also important to reconcile is the difference in approaches between land and water-based products. Use of the term sustainable appears to be more possible at the moment with fish.