Shopping for Food: Local or Global?

By Echo

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Image source: Flickr

It is no secret that North America and other industrialized countries are facing several health and environmental issues. To solve these problems, a major shift in perceptions is necessary to create awareness. How can one solve a problem if it is not well understood?  One individual cannot change the fate of the world but can make a significant contribution by effecting change within his or her own personal boundaries. Montreal's abundance of farmers markets, small bakeries and butchers makes it a good city to study the food conundrum: buy local or buy global. This essay will compare and contrast the options for completing the mundane task of grocery shopping. The criteria used to evaluate these options will be based on cost, time consumption, health benefits, environmental benefits and economical impact. 



My work has also motivated me to put a lot of time into seeking out good food and to spend more money on it. Michael Pollan


Pollan, a journalist and "foodie activist", best represents a common misconception that local foods are always more expensive. The logic behind this misconception is that supermarkets have the industrial advantage of economies of scale. This term highlights the supermarket's buyer power. In simple terms, for each additional unit purchased, the buyer's cost per unit decreases. Consequently, supermarkets can sell their products at a lower cost. This buyer power can also apply to production costs: the mass agricultural operations supplying the global food market have much lower production costs per unit then the local farmers. In fact, this reasoning is logical but does not represent the reality of the food industry as many variables determine costs. To illustrate this reality, we will use bread.

The prices of the global food market have risen due to an increase in the cost of raw materials such as wheat, sugar and oil (Ryan Charkow, CBC News- SEE FIGURE 1). Bread has been greatly affected because some of its fundamental ingredients experienced the highest fluctuations. As a field experiment, the price of basic sliced white bread from Montreal's famous bakery Première Moisson were compared to the classic sliced white bread from IGA.   IGA's brand and no-brand bread price varies between $2.39 and $3.99. Première Moisson's basic white bread is priced at $2.50.

How did Première Moisson maintain a low price?  Its main wheat and flour suppliers are Quebec-based and partly owned by Première Moisson. This provides Première Moisson with control over some of the raw material costs. For example, the consumption of oil necessary for the basic bread ingredient to travel to the Première Moisson stores. To conclude, the determinants of cost are numerous and so, the advantage truly lies within which entity can devise the best strategic formula to bring value to their customers. Local markets (specialist) have the advantage of flexibility within the range of costs for the product they offer whereas supermarkets (generalist) have the advantage of flexibility in the range of products they offer.


The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.  Albert Einstein   


One week consist of 168 hours. The average person works 37.5 hours a week and sleeps an average of 84 hours (7 hours per day). This leaves a remainder of 46.5 hours for disposable time.  With this in mind, major grocers such as Loblaws and Provigo offer the "one-stop shopping experience" by combining key services like a bakery, a butcher shop, a pharmacy and even banking services. The all-in-one shopping trip is alluring in a society where time is money and money is time. The difference between what local farmers' markets offer and the many services provided by large supermarkets is often quite large. Therefore, shopping at a local farmer's market requires more time and effort to achieve the same result as shopping at a supermarket.


Of course, time use is a subjective matter measured by an individual's perception. One individual may find pleasure from cycling with family members to the farmer's market, the local bakery and butcher for two hours. On the other hand, another individual may prefer to spend an hour doing grocery shopping and the other hour watching the hockey game.



Man is what he eats (German Proverb).


It is common knowledge that global grocers use preservatives and chemicals in their products to ensure longer shelf life. Furthermore, it has been proven that many of these chemicals remain in the human body long after the digestive process. Local products, in contrast, have a shorter shelf life but have less contact with chemicals. In continuance with the bread example, Première Moisson has control over the majority of the ingredients in their products. Although it must be consumed faster than supermarket bread, it is a much healthier alternative. The same can be said about dairy products, meat products and produce.


Supermarkets offer a wider selection of "healthy products" but offer as many "non-healthy" products. Simply visualize the general layout of the local supermarket: the "fresh" products are located on the two first walls of the perimeter while the frozen foods are on the third wall; the pharmacy products, processed foods, deserts, snacks, canned goods and dry foods consist of the core of the surface area outlining the fact that the majority of the store promotes "non-healthy food" or "non-foods". Local markets, on the other hand, are usually limited to fresh seasonal goods. Consequently, the percentage of nutritional products is greater in local markets.

Finally, there is the issue of health by-products created by shopping locally. The obvious by-product is the exercise required to physically go from one market to another. A less obvious but much more important by-product are the cooking skills required to use the seasonal produce, cuts of meats or other products found in local markets but not supermarkets. The skills can be passed down, allowing the future generations of our society to be equipped with nutritional and cooking knowledge (SEE JAMIE OLIVER'S TED TALK IN PREVIOUS BLOG). Many of the health problems today can be attributed to the massive influx of processed and frozen foods readily available to families. Ensuring a succession of nutritional knowledge can help combat these problems first hand, at home. Of course, the same result can be achieved by purchasing the same products at the supermarket but temptation to buy ready-made meals is much higher when they are made available in every aisle of the store.



Shipping is a terrible thing to do to vegetables.  They probably get jet-lagged, just like people.  Elizabeth Berry


What Elizabeth Berry is referring to is "Food miles": the current buzz word for environmentalists. It refers to the carbon emission released from food production and the distance it travels to end up in the consumer's plate. It is used to measure the effect of the food industry on global warming. Supermarket products travel much further than products from local markets since many of their productions sites are outsourced to other countries. A Canadian study on food miles based on a Southern Ontario region has yielded this conclusion:


This study demonstrated that imports to Waterloo Region of 58 commonly-eaten food items travel 4,497 km on average, and account for 51,709 tonnes of GHG emissions annually. Since all of the studied food items could be grown or raised in Waterloo Region, a significant opportunity exists to reduce our contribution to global climate change and air pollution by replacing imports of the studied food items with food items sourced from Waterloo Region or South-western Ontario. Replacing all the studied food items with products of South-western Ontario would produce an annual reduction in GHG emissions of 49,485 tonnes, equivalent to taking 16,191 cars off our roads.(Marc Xuereb, Public Health Planner Region of Waterloo Public Health, November 2005)


However, a product grown locally and out of season may leave a proportionate if not equal carbon foot print by using high-energy greenhouses.


 The contracting argument for food mile are "Fair Miles": the current buzzword for economists. It refers to the ethical consequences behind the decision of buying local or global. The economic benefits of local markets are very convincing: buying local supports local jobs and agricultural industries. The global markets, however, have benefits as well.  The majority of countries involved in the food supply chain are developing countries. By investing in the production technologies and processes, supermarkets are in turn investing in the development of the national economies and the farming communities whose livelihood depends on their success. It also provides opportunities for these countries to learn agricultural methods of which could not have been learnt otherwise for lack of resources. Some will argue that the intentions of the corporations who make these investments cause more harm than good - the common argument being that the local farmers in these countries remain poor while the rich get richer.


Only one conclusion can be drawn: the choice lies within the individual's preferences and knowledge. It is important to retain that something as simple as grocery shopping can have an immense effect on the local and global community as well as on the personal lives of the consumer. Awareness that each action has a reaction will help consumers understand the impact of their choices.  So, the question isn't necessarily, "Do you shop locally or globally?" but rather, "Do you understand the impact of your decision?"







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