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Book reviews

Locavore, Sarah Elton, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2010, 240 pages

  • Julia Christensen

Corps de l’article

At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind.

Michael Pollan [1]

It all begins with a cookie. In Locavore, the food columnist and blogger Sarah Elton describes how her mission to become a “twenty-first-century urban hunter-gatherer” (5) began after learning that the baked confection in her daughter’s loot bag had travelled over 9,000 kilometres to get there. To make matters worse, the cookie was filled with preservatives so it could survive the long journey from factory to table. This small discovery proved transformative for Elton as she started to consider where all of her food originated before finding its way into her grocery basket in downtown Toronto. A locavore was born.

The local food movement today “advocates for food that is produced in a way that has the least impact on the environment” (15). Though this often means food that travels a minimal distance from production to consumption, Elton assures us that it also includes “imports that are produced and transported sustainably” (15). This is an important clarification, because many critics of local food reduce the movement to an obsession with minimizing food miles, something they argue is not feasible in today’s world. But Elton insists that the debate about food miles keeps us from addressing the more pertinent question: is industrial agriculture sustainable?

The premise of Locavore is that it is not, and that the many Canadians awake to this reality are building momentum towards a new local food system. The pages of Locavore are filled with inspiring accounts of growers and consumers from the East Coast to the West Coast, their stories vividly and beautifully detailed. I felt that I was there with Elton as she sat in the kitchen of the Gerrits’ farm in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, navigated her way through the hustle and bustle of the Ontario Food Terminal, and enjoyed mouth-watering local fare at the Sooke Harbour House in British Columbia.

The first part of the book is devoted to the farm and to farmers who abandoned industrial farming practices to go back to their roots, as well as to stressed-out urbanites who vacated their desk jobs and condo living for a much more rewarding kind of exhaustion on the farm. “To create a local food system,” Elton writes, “we must redefine the farm” (28). Farmers have found three keys to success as small operation farmers in an industrialized system. The first is to cut out the middlemen – the dealers, the grocery stores – and directly market to the customer through community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ markets. The second is to adopt organic farming techniques, which necessitate a close and careful relationship with the land. “It’s a relationship,” writes Elton, “where the farmer plays the role of doting caregiver, tending to the needs of the soil, offering everything required to make it stronger” (83). Not only does organic food command a higher price, but producing it means a farmer can avoid paying exorbitant fees for chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Lastly, many of the farmers Elton meets are pushing the boundaries of traditional farming and experimenting with hydroponics and “farming on the back side of the calendar” (104) by using rudimentary greenhouses to grow food outside, directly from the ground, in the coldest months of the year.

Part two of Locavore brings us into the city, where, following her visits to local farms, Elton picks up a head of lettuce at her local grocer and instantly knows “every single link in this food chain” (112) – the farm where it was grown, who grew it, and how it was transported to the city. Nevertheless, Elton dreams of “a city that helps to feed itself” (121). The beginnings of this dream are taking root not just through urban farms like those she explores in the book, but also through small-scale initiatives such as community gardens, food-producing green roofs, city greenhouses, and backyard chicken coops. Elton also responds to another critique of the local food movement: the higher price of local and organic food makes for a two-tiered food system where good quality food is accessible only to the wealthy few. A central part of the local food movement, according to Elton, is the commitment to create “a new food system for all incomes levels, both here in Canada and in the less developed countries in the global south” (159). She introduces the reader to several not-for-profit community organizations whose mandates are to bring good-quality, nutritious food to low-income neighbourhoods.

A persistent challenge that Elton confronts in Locavore is how to make people who don’t already care about a new local food system, care. She begins to scratch the surface of this dilemma when she explores food culture in Quebec – renowned for its “patrimoine gastronomique,” its celebration of “terroir.” We need a cultural shift, Elton suggests, towards “a gastronomy of place” (207). Perhaps Locavore itself is one important step towards fostering this spirit in a greater number of Canadians. However, despite Elton’s efforts, the question lingers as to what is required for this cultural shift to take place.

Another question arises from the division of the book itself into farm and city. I found myself wishing that Elton had travelled to rural and northern areas of the country and that her editors had given her one hundred more pages to paint a fuller picture of local food in Canada. For example, Elton only mentions the traditional food practices of Indigenous peoples at the very end of the book and seems to suggest that these practices have been largely lost and are only now being regained. While this is the challenging reality for some, subsistence hunting and gathering remains a hugely significant source of cultural, economic, environmental, and food security in many Indigenous communities across Canada. In the Northwest Territories, where I live, my kitchen is as likely to be stocked with moose meat, caribou, bison, Great Slave whitefish, and northern cranberries as it is with BC tomatoes and salad greens from California. Elton writes, “the answer to a sustainable food system lies in thousands of smaller answers” (138). While she describes many of these smaller answers in Locavore, I hope that she will soon bring us another book to compliment this one – a book that brings her beyond the city and beyond the farm to document the many other smaller answers that contribute to sustainable foodsheds in Canada. For now, Locavore has left me not only looking ahead to next summer’s garden, but also thinking of ways I can grow food this winter using full-spectrum lights and a bit of gumption. And maybe, just maybe, how I might one day organize a cooperative backyard chicken coop.

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