07/27/2011 10:43 EDT | Updated 09/26/2011 05:12 EDT

Local Food System Needs Leadership, Not Penny-Pinching

The mayor of Canada's largest city is in cost-cutting mode and a local food policy, originally passed in 2008, has just escaped the chopping block.

Well, almost. The Toronto Environment Office (TEO), responsible for the implementation of this policy was recently identified for possible cuts. Torontonians will have to wait to hear about the status of the TEO until September, when council will vote on its future.

Following this, the province of Ontario will head into a provincial election and the policy that protects Ontario's Greenbelt, 7,000 farms and the future of Canada's prime farmland could also be at risk. Food and farming activity in the region generates an economic impact of $35 billion each year. Critics of the Greenbelt say it stands in the way of growth and prosperity.

Even in the midst of a global food crisis, elected officials are playing pocketbook politics instead of securing Ontario's local food economy.

There will be much bigger costs to pay if politicians do not capitalize on the opportunity to fix our broken food system now, rather than later.

Large food purchasers, including governments, still see "buy local" initiatives as a value-added measure, something warm and fuzzy for fad-following consumers, rather than something necessary to core business operations. Once upon a time, a carbon footprint was seen as an externality of business, that's until it was demonstrated that there are real brand risks, lost revenue and hard costs associated with not addressing the causes and impacts of climate change. Now, we see the private sector taking stronger leadership on emission reductions while some governments carry on with business as usual.

Cheap food is cheap because it involves externalities not calculated in the face value of the product. As many locavores will tell you, there is the price on the grocery receipt and there are the costs that we pay elsewhere -- the hospital bills, the environmental debt and the money farmers pay out of their own pockets to stay afloat.

A system where local farmers are exporting apples and onions, and where the same food imported from further distances arrives to us cheaper and more processed, is broken. And now it's all crumbling under rising fuel prices.

Then there's the waste. According to The Foresight Report on Food and Farming Futures, a report compiled by 400 scientists worldwide that calls for political action and major reform of the global food system, between 30 and 50 per cent of all food grown is wasted, either before or after it reaches the consumer. How's that for a gravy train?

As handlers of the public purse strings, policy makers must lead the way to fixing our broken food system, particularly as Ontario's population grows rapidly over the next 10-15 years. However, transforming our food system cannot be left entirely in the hands of consumers alone.

Governments at all levels need to see the 1.8 million acres of protected Greenbelt as a local, living organism, worthy of both expansion and investment in its farming communities through ambitious local food procurement policies, large-scale contracts and tax incentives.

Food security needs the political power of large cities like Toronto and it needs continued leadership from whoever forms our government in October. Much leadership has been shown to date. Now is not the time to take backward steps in the name of penny-pinching. A healthy and prosperous Ontario cannot afford it.