Getting your veggie fix, from home and abroad

A new report suggests that vegetable prices will go up by as much as six per cent next year. That’s significant because, unlike meat or fish, fewer alternatives exist when it comes to replacing vegetables.

According to the report, recently released by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph, El Nino will be to blame, since Canada imports a great quantity of vegetables from regions prone to drought during El Nino periods, including the western United States and northern Mexico. And 2019 will be an El Nino year.

The six per cent increase is in addition to the 4.8 per cent hike in vegetable prices in 2018.

Given that we could experience a second consecutive year of significant price increases, many wonder whether eating local produce is a better option.

Global supply chains have allowed us to become more efficient and given consumers more choices and a broader selection of affordable food products. But eating local has its advantages, too.

The environmental case for eating local is almost undisputed. You can significantly reduce your carbon footprint just by increasing your locally grown food consumption.

And local food prices are consistently priced, if generally higher. Price is much less volatile when short-circuit distribution systems are involved. The number of intermediaries is limited compared to global food chains, which are exposed to environmental fluctuations and differing economic conditions, which can all lead to greater cost variations.

Extensive, large-scale networks always give markets what they need at the right time, at the right place, at a decent price, and with an acceptable level of quality — until something goes terribly wrong.

A case in point is the romaine lettuce disaster in November. Grown in California and Arizona, fresh lettuce is delivered to Canadians at a decent price. But with the recent E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, not only did people get sick, but the prices of leafy greens in Canada skyrocketed.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency prevented romaine lettuce from entering Canada. When that happens, importers must procure similar products elsewhere, likely at higher cost, to meet consumer expectations.

Eventually, the situation will go back to normal and most will forget about the romaine lettuce crisis. That’s the nature of market failures. Systems adapt and improve over time.

But many people in the marketplace envy the stability and sustainability of local food systems. Unlike global supply chain systems, transparency is a non-issue since most producers know each other.

Buying locally grown vegetables can also give some peace of mind to shoppers. You’ll likely pay more, but the prices are mostly predictable. Simplicity has its virtues, but it also comes at a cost. Local foods typically cost 20 to 40 per cent more than the cheapest imported varieties.

Research shows that city dwellers are more likely to favour locally grown or manufactured food products, for the simple fact that agriculture is often a distant concept to them. Many Canadians have never been to a farm.

Buying local is the one way to feel a real connection with agriculture and farmers.

Sylvain Charlebois is scientific director of the Canadian Agrifood Foresight Institute.

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