Agriculture is an important part of our food system. Crops and livestock provide most of our calories and proteins while agriculture and related industries play a crucial role in the life of our economy. Nationally, the food and farming sector accounts for 8% of the Gross Domestic Product and one in eight jobs. Within the province of Ontario, food and farming compete with the auto industry as the largest sector of the economy. 1
On average, food travels 3,500 km to reach Thunder Bay and the storage, refrigeration, packaging and transportation involved generates waste and consumes a large amount of fossil fuel. 2 The food system’s high energy inputs, such as fossil fuels and fertilizers account for almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. 3 Localizing food production would go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, having a stronger farming sector would mean being less vulnerable to rising food costs associated with increasing energy prices, loss of agricultural land due to development and erosion, and the impacts of climate change—all of which threaten long-term access to imported food. 4
A strong local food system depends on a healthy, thriving community of local food producers. Yet for many farmers it is difficult to make a living from growing food. Between 1996 and 2006, for instance, the number of farmers in the Thunder Bay District seeking a second income increased from 33% to 47%. 5 One reason for this is the loss of local food infrastructure which means farmers have to incur higher costs to send their products further away to be processed. The rising cost of inputs (e.g. oil, fertilizers) and competition from foreign goods also make it harder to compete.
The viability of farming as a livelihood is particularly concerning if we consider that the farming population is aging (almost 50% of farmers in Canada are 55 or older) and many established farmers are retiring without successors. 6
A high dependence on imported goods results in a loss of food self-sufficiency as well as lost economic opportunities. Many regions in North America and Europe are therefore choosing to promote agriculture and food processing for local consumption as a way to enhance economic viability at the local and regional levels. In addition, equity of farm workers and sustainability is an essential component of the long-term survival of agricultural operations.
Agriculture is an important industry in Northwestern Ontario. The Thunder Bay District Agricultural Economic Impact Study (2009) found that farmers in the District reported a total of $32.3 million in gross farm receipts and directly supported 605 on-farm jobs, and many more in related industries. Employment in agriculture between 2001 and 2006 also remained relatively stable compared to other sectors of the economy, such as forestry and manufacturing, which experienced combined losses of over 2,500 jobs. 7 Producing more food in the area for sale in local markets would mean creating jobs, generating tax dollars, and having an impact on the wider economy through connections with other businesses, such as retail, manufacturing, construction, and transportation.
In addition to the economic benefits of agriculture, it is important to recognize the environmental and social benefits of local food systems. On the one hand, local food consumption tends to move consumers toward fresh foods and away from heavily processed foods that contain high amounts of sugar, salt, and fat. When managed in ecologically responsible ways, agricultural landscapes can provide a number of essential functions, including air and water purification, wetland and watershed protection, wildlife habitat, recreation, and open space. 8