by SUSAN MANN
Local food legislation to boost Ontario’s farm product sales is an appealing idea but some farm leaders say more details are needed to tell if it will benefit growers.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the provincial government’s intention to introduce a local food bill that supports, promotes, and celebrates Ontario-produced food. The proposed bill hasn’t been introduced at Queen’s Park yet. McGuinty made the announcement Tuesday at the International Plowing Match in Roseville near Ayr.
In a Sept. 18 press release the provincial government says the Local Food Act would support a leading provincial industry that annually contributes more than $33 billion to the economy and employs more than 700,000 Ontarians.
Several Ontario farm group leaders see the proposal as positive for the industry and its farmers but one group, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, has concerns Canada’s regulatory system doesn’t support a local food system.
CFFO president Lorne Small says “you can’t help but like the idea” of local food legislation. But if there’s going to be a local food system “you need to have a regulatory system that supports it.”
Small says farmers involved in local food marketing are “really frustrated with the regulatory process.” The regulations causing them grief come from all levels of government.
While farmers agree that everyone wants safe food, “the burden of the regulatory pressure is really discouraging for those people.” He says he’s not convinced local food legislation will improve farmers’ incomes unless the accompanying regulations are appropriate for the industry.
Small says farmers agree with food safety regulations but question ones “that don’t make sense to them” and are just rules because someone likes to make rules.
Mark Wales, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, says even though Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t specific that’s okay because it’s just setting the stage for the act that’s going to come.
What would local food legislation mean for OFA members? Wales says it would hopefully mean some greater marketing opportunities and increased consumption of local products by both consumers and processors. There are also opportunities for better and more consistent labelling of fresh produce on store shelves and the development of local food hubs, such as the Elmira Produce Auction, a regional wholesale market.
Wales says such legislation could also lead to greater consumption of Ontario product in government institutions. “That’s something we’ve all been pushing for as well.”
Ann Slater, coordinator for the National Farmers Union in Ontario, says they’re supportive of some type of local food legislation “because we’d like to see more emphasis on supplying the domestic market.” The proposed bill has the potential to increase emphasis on Ontario food for the province’s residents and to support provincial farmers.
But details aren’t known yet and “I think we need to know that,” she says.
One of the ideas the Ontario NFU wants to see “is a focus on rebuilding the relationship between those who grow and harvest food and those who eat it,” Slater says. Another idea is for the province to redirect its overall agri-food policy to domestic food first instead of trade first.
Don Mills, president of Local Food Plus, notes the idea of a local food bill has been in the works since last spring and “I think it’s a great idea.”
If passed into legislation it would recognize that the domestic market is an important part of the future, he says. Focusing on the domestic market could benefit farmers by encouraging new entrants into the industry and enabling those with business plans to firm them up. “It’s also a signaling that the government recognizes from a business perspective local food is a good thing,” he notes.
A spokesperson for the grocery division of the Retail Council of Canada wasn’t available for comment today. BF