We live in a time of unprecedented food diversity — fruit and vegetables are always in season and produce sections teem with variety. This all comes at a cost, but scientists, including researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, see a way forward.
Produce is grown and transported in a way that harms the environment. Currently, Saskatchewan imports a significant portion of its wintertime produce from agricultural areas further south, where year-round growing seasons are made possible through intensive irrigation.
These practices fell under international scrutiny in 2015, when California almond producers’ water usage in the face of drought became the topic of internet uproar. Groundwater is now seen as a less renewable resource than it was once understood to be, and irrigation in what is effectively a desert may not be possible in the future.
Salinas, California — the childhood home of renowned author John Steinbeck — produces a vast amount of North America’s wintertime produce. It also happens to be around 2,800 kilometers away from Saskatoon. Imported produce is put on a truck, a boat or even an airplane, pumping large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
I ate apples from New Zealand for much of the summer, and I got them from a grocery store. Produce consumption makes up a large portion of your carbon footprint. For those who are not concerned about their emissions, cost can be a concern. Fresh produce in the wintertime is already expensive, and with the introduction of the Liberal party’s carbon tax in 2018, things are going to get even more so.
For over a decade now, there has been a strong movement amongst the white middle class to eat more locally sourced foods. A locally produced carrot has a substantially smaller carbon footprint than an imported one. In Saskatchewan now, however, access to local foods is often behind both cost and accessibility barriers, which keeps lower-income households from participating. Local produce is treated and priced accordingly, as a luxury rather than a right.
Saskatoon, like many cities, has a food-desert problem. Many of our inner-city neighbourhoods have no reasonable access to grocery stores, leaving many of our most vulnerable without access to even the current imported-produce situation.
The same can be said about rural Saskatchewan, particularly in the north. This issue disproportionately affects Saskatchewan’s Indigenous people. Stemming from this situation are both a health crisis and a grassroots demand for food sovereignty.
Food Sovereignty is defined as the right to healthy food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, as well as the right to define one’s own food and agriculture systems.
The term, coined in 1996 by La Via Campesina, an organization representing the worldwide peasant movement, food sovereignty brings a component of justice to the imperative for a move to more localized crop production.
How can this happen here, though? Saskatchewan’s climate is not conducive to the production of many of the fruits and vegetables that we have grown to love.
Environmentally sound produce does not necessitate sacrificing diversity. The plant sciences department here at the U of S invests a great deal of resources into developing horticultural crops for northern production. They have developed climate-tolerant plants like plum and sour cherry.
Additionally, a Saskatoon company called Low Light Tolerant Plants has developed a variety of windowsill-grown lemons. Innovations like these, in combination with grassroots efforts by non-profits and Indigenous groups — and likely government intervention — can provide both the vision and the mechanisms for moving towards a more sustainable, more secure and more just future for produce in Saskatchewan.
Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor