Food safety and security: “Will this make me sick?”
By Raili Lakanen
For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about local food and food security issues. Local food security is about ensuring that the community has enough healthy, safe and culturally-appropriate food to meet the needs of its residents, especially in the case of economic or environmental shocks which may interrupt food supplies shipped in from elsewhere.
Personally, I became interested in food security after hearing about the concept of food deserts – neighbourhoods that do not contain fresh, healthy food options within a reasonable walking distance – during my undergraduate degree. Since, I’ve had the opportunity to be hands-on with a youth farming program in Sudbury, Ontario and more recently, I’ve been researching the potential of developing urban agriculture sites in Toronto, Ontario – an urban region with a large population to feed.
For all this experience, I thought I was familiar with the concepts of local food and food security, but as with everything else concerning the COP 16 experience, I’m learning something new all the time.
Staying in downtown Cancun has brought a new perspective to my opinion on food security and safety, because I don’t know where my food is coming from. I’m a bit of a worrier by nature (friends, family and the CYD will concur) and nearly every time I start to eat something, I think, “Will this make me sick?” With respect to what I drink, I’m a big proponent of municipal water supplies in Canada, so it’s been a challenge to remember to fill up my water bottle from a water cooler rather than from the tap. This makes me consider larger issues and the interconnectedness of environmental and food issues, as contaminated water and soils can endanger food safety. I’m only in Cancun for a short time, but residents who remain will always struggle with contaminated water issues. This made me wonder: how do residents of Mexico, and other regions with contaminated public water supplies, manage to gain access to safe food? Do they worry about food safety? How will these communities be further impacted by climate change and loss of crop biodiversity?
Most Canadians are fortunate to have access to fresh foods and clean drinking water. However, the reality of contaminated water and food deserts do exist in many parts of our country, too. Though I’ve noticed a stark contrast between the food here and what I usually consume at home, every day there are Canadians who also wonder if their food or water will make them sick. We need to start protecting our natural systems, including water, agriculture and food production. We need to support community gardens and urban farms on a broader scale. They are becoming popular in many cities, but regulatory planning and zoning issues continue to plague some community-based organizations who wish to plant gardens.
Supporting local food initiatives can have positive social development impacts for communities beyond simply the provision of healthy, fresh, accessible and affordable food – often local farms and community gardens may provide employment or volunteer opportunities, particularly for youth populations. From a climate change perspective, local food is less carbon-intensive, because it’s not transported long distances to reach consumers. From a health and wellness perspective, local food is more nutritious because it’s fresher. Plus, I think it’s great to know where your food is coming from!
I encourage all Canadians to take a new approach to local food this coming spring. Check out a seed exchange, or purchase some organic seeds from a local supplier. Pick up some seedlings or tomato plants. Try out a windowsill herb garden. Enjoy food you’ve grown yourself, and you just might agree with me: locally-produced, safe, culturally-appropriate and nutritious food is delicious.