Over the last few decades, Canadians’ weekly shopping has changed. We have been increasingly placing items in our carts and baskets that have originated from distant places that we may have never visited ourselves.
The transportation of food from farm to fork (and often several distribution depots in between) is responsible for the release of tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. Also, as the distance food travels increases, so does the role of chemicals and processing to reduce spoilage before the food reaches the marketplace.
In these modern times, we have seen increases in the treatment of food with pesticides, the use of irradiation, and food processing methods that introduce countless chemicals into produce.
We need to consider the impacts our food choices have on our health and the health of our environment.
Agriculture, Climate Change and Health
The long-range transport of food has a significant impact on climate change and the amount of air pollutants released into the atmosphere. In Canada alone, the transportation sector accounts for one quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. It has been estimated that the CO2 emissions attributable to producing, processing, packaging and distributing the food consumed by a family of four is about eight tonnes a year.
The health effects of climate change demonstrate even more need for precaution, as many scientists have determined that air quality and the impacts of contaminants in the air will be a significant health factor. Other emissions from burning fossil fuels in cars, trucks and buses form photochemical smog that causes and exacerbates asthma, while diesel particulates help deliver pollen and molds deep into lung sacs.
The combination of air pollutants, aeroallergens, heat waves and unhealthy air masses, increasingly associated with a changing climate, causes damage to the respiratory systems, particularly for growing children, and these impacts disproportionately affect poor and minority groups in the inner cities.
The potential impacts for reducing air pollution, especially in urban areas, and the associated health effects of increased greenhouse gases demonstrate why the promotion of sustainably-produced, locally-sourced food is essential. Indeed studies have shown that fresh, organic vegetables have significantly higher levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus than conventional vegetables. For some nutrients, they are on average ten times more nutritious than regular supermarket vegetables.
The promotion of locally-sourced food also helps to build the local economy and has significant social benefits. Communities come together to support locally-produced food and the individuals who produce that food. In fact, sociologists have estimated that people have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets than at supermarkets. 
What can you do?
1. Talk to your neighbours, family and friends about the importance of buying local.
2. Visit your local farmer’s market and support the efforts of local farmers.
3. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that links individuals directly to a farmer and supports their efforts in agricultural stewardship.
4. Write to your MPP/MLA and MP and tell her/him to work towards policies that support local food production and consumption.
1. Climate Change Plan for Canada. 2002. Government of Canada.
2. Building Research Establishment, 1998. Building a sustainable future. General information report 53, energy efficiency best practice programme, Building Research Establishment, Garston, UK.
3. Patz et al. 2000. The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Variability and Change for the United States: Executive Summary of the Report of the Health Sector of the U.S. National Assessment. Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(4)367-376.
4. Worthington, V. 2001. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables and Grains. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 7(2):161-173.
5. Organic Retailers and Growers Association 1999. Press release: Is our food supplying us with adequate nutrition? Study performed by the Australian Government Analytical Laboratory and commissioned by the Organic Retailers and Growers Association. 3 November.
6. Robert Sommer. “The behavioural ecology of supermarkets and farmers markets.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 1, March 1981, pp. 13-19, and discussion with author, 23 February 2002. Cited in: Brian Halwell. Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004.