Photo by Simone from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Yesterday morning the City’s Government Management Committee debated a proposal to purchase more of its food supplies locally [PDF]. The City is quite a large supplier of food (providing meals in many daycare centres and nursing homes, for instance); both by making a practical commitment and by serving as an example to other large purchasers in the region, the hope is that Toronto could become a leader in implementing progressive food policies. Among the many advantages of buying food locally, yesterday’s discussion highlighted the environmental benefits (by cutting the distance food travels dramatically, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced), improving urban-rural relations, and enhancing our food security by limiting our reliance on imports.
The plan under review yesterday was a much diluted version of an earlier proposal [PDF], originally scheduled for debate in May. That discussion was postponed when the Committee asked city staffers to conduct more research into the costs and logistics of implementing the plan. The gist of the old proposal: adopt a policy of progressively increasing the proportion of food the City purchases from local and sustainable sources, including an allocation of up to $100,000 to cover any increased costs this might entail in the first year, and a further commitment to provide ongoing budgetary support for local and sustainable food procurement. The gist of the new proposal: adopt a policy of progressively increasing the proportion of food the City purchases from local (but not sustainable) sources, including an allocation of up to $15,000 to cover any increased costs this might entail in the first year, and a further commitment to consider budgetary support after a review of the first year’s implementation.
File under: failing to put your money where your mouth is?
The majority of councillors present were in favour of the budgetary increase, and supportive of the notion of local food procurement in general; the motion ended up passing easily and will go to the full City Council later this month for approval. However, a great many concerns were raised about the concept of “sustainability” (many pronounced it so you could hear the scare-quotes in their voices), and the new, pared-down proposal reflects that suspicion. Sustainability is, no doubt, something of a vexed term: dozens if not hundreds of definitions have been offered. There is no scientific consensus on precisely what it means. That said, there are—as several of the deputants and councillors pointed out—some basic principles which underlie all plausible definitions. The most important of these is that sustainability means doing no harm: not compromising future generations’ ability to use a plot of land for agriculture by depleting it now. It can be hard to decide on the criteria by which this is established, but for the City to have given up the attempt to even try, especially when there are existing standards (like organic or Local Food Plus certification) which could substantially ease the challenge of doing so, is an unjustifiable failure of courage.
Elbert van Donkersgoed, Executive Director of the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee, and a deputant at yesterday’s meeting, said that “urban credibility in the countryside will benefit” should a local food procurement policy be adopted. With 3,700 farmers in the GTA, and a constantly growing perception that urban politicians and urban sensibilities are cut off from the concerns of farmers, this is no small advantage. In addition to the very real environmental benefits such a policy will bring, this makes the case for increasing local food procurement undeniable. There are several North American cities that have already implemented similar plans: Seattle has been a leader in this area, and the town of Markham unanimously committed to buying more local food a few months ago. Given the richness of the agricultural land in the GTA and the general direction of the policy debate, Toronto’s eventual adoption of a full-fledged and robust plan seems inevitable. The question now is just how incremental City Hall feels the need to be in getting us there.
Bottom photo by DGriebeling from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.