A burgeoning relocalization movement has the potential to revolutionize the way we eat, shop, work, and vacation
By now, many people have heard of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, which is the best-selling 2007 book written by Vancouver authors Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon. The couple gave sustenance to a growing movement toward eating locally. The concept of the 100-mile diet has also given birth to something Vancouver fashion designer Kim Cathers likes to call the “100-mile rule”, which encourages people to buy only things, including food, produced within 100 miles of where they live.
Cathers is best known as a contestant on the reality-television show Project Runway Canada. She says that her generation has seen what corporations have done to the environment, and they’re trying to counter that as consumers.
“Especially being on the West Coast, people are very conscious about where they buy their products,” Cathers told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview. “They like the idea of going to shop locally for a design—and hearing the story behind it.”
Cathers, who created the kdon line of clothing, loves playing with vintage pieces. Sometimes she’ll combine a long blouse with a short skirt to add a surprising twist. Recently, she’s been reworking army shorts. For her, it’s about creating wearable art that’s good for the planet. “I definitely follow the 100-mile rule, whenever I can,” she declared, noting that she also applies this to her diet.
This isn’t just happening in the world of fashion. Live local music has made a roaring comeback in such rooms as the Biltmore, the Commodore, the Media Club, and the recently renovated Venue. Polls by Harris/Decima and Ipsos Descarie have shown people are far more likely to vacation at local destinations this year. Meanwhile, farmers markets and community gardens, which promote local agriculture, are thriving across Vancouver.
Proponents of “relocalization”, such as former Vancouver resident and Post Carbon Institute founder Julian Darley, argue that it’s an essential response to climate change and peak oil, which both threaten to transform agriculture around the world. University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver told Chris Wood, author of Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America (Raincoast Books, 2008), that precipitation will increase by up to 40 percent in Canada by 2050; drier areas in the United States could lose up to a third of their precipitation over the same period. That could have a profound impact on food production on both sides of the border.
It’s also important to recognize that modern agriculture relies heavily on fossil fuels, not only for transporting goods to markets but also in the creation of fertilizers. If energy prices rise, this could hamper faraway industrial agricultural operations and jack up food prices.
Former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin believes that rising energy prices will make relocalization inevitable, and not just with regard to agriculture. In his new, best-selling book, Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization (Random House Canada, $29.95), Rubin makes a strong case that a peak in global oil production and rising consumption in oil-producing countries will cause a sharp drop in transoceanic trade from Asia. Rubin has predicted this will eventually lead to far more local manufacturing, local food production, and regional trade.
“I know there is a whole back-to-local movement for other reasons, but we’re going local whether we want to or not,” Rubin told the Straight in a recent interview in Vancouver to promote his book.
Sitting in the Waterfront Centre food court, Rubin spoke with such high energy and passion that he came across at times like a mad scientist. He said the return to local economies will take us back to a simpler time, when we repaired appliances rather than discarding them at the first sign of trouble. He said the coming economic transformation could offer the benefit of lower carbon emissions, but he emphasized that rising energy prices will be the driving force.
Recent trade figures from Statistics Canada indicate that imports from China were down 12 percent (not seasonally adjusted) in May compared with the same month a year ago. It’s too early to say if this is a sign of a long-term decline in transoceanic trade, but it supports the position of those, like Rubin, who believe we’re on the cusp of an economic transformation.
Cathers is one of several local designers who’ve been involved in the Portobello West fashion market, which is held at the Rocky Mountaineer train station. The next one will be on Sunday (July 26).
The regional manager, Stephanie Anderson, told the Straight by phone that she thinks these shows have had a “massive effect” since they began three years ago in promoting local fashion designers. “There is a real sense of community now where people feel a lot less isolated in their studios,” she said. “They’re all getting together and creating a scene—a fashion scene—that never existed in Vancouver before.”
Anderson noted that many of the Vancouver designers use sustainable fabrics, including some vegans who refuse to use any animal products. Anderson’s sister Carlie Smith started the market three years ago, and her father came up with the name, which is a play on fashion-conscious Portobello Road in London. Now the family puts on markets for local designers in Calgary and Toronto.
“You can’t buy everything at the Gap,” Anderson said. “You need to support your local people, especially in a recession. Keep the money in the country and in your local businesses.”
Sustainable-food advocates have created their own “Get Local” project spearheaded by Leisa Yee of the FarmFolk/CityFolk Society. It is building bridges between farmers and businesses to spur more consumption of locally produced food. Yee told the Straight by phone that it began in 2007 with seven local businesses. Now there are more than 60 members.
“I would like to hear from the farmers, the producers, the growers, and the processors,” Yee said. “I would like them to contact us.”
Yee, a founder of a farmers market in Steveston, has shrunk her ecological footprint in recent years by making conscious consumer choices. She estimated that about 70 percent of her diet is locally produced food, and she sometimes gets her groceries delivered.
When asked if climate change and peak oil have influenced her thinking, Yee replied: “It’s always in the back of my mind. I’m aware of how far I’m driving to go buy something. If I can get it closer, I’ll do that if I can.”
Relocalizing is also taking place in neighbourhood shopping areas across the city. In recent years, local business-improvement associations have enhanced the appeal of their areas by emphasizing their local histories and avoiding homogeneity. Kerrisdale Village’s brick-lined streetscape, lush plant life, and Saturday-afternoon concerts sometimes hark back to a simpler era out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Merchants along Kitsilano’s West 4th Avenue like to play up the neighbourhood’s past as the epicentre of 1960s hippie culture and environmentalism. Main Street has become indie central, whereas Commercial Drive emphasizes its “expressive edge” with an international feel. Cambie Village and Dunbar’s shopping areas have a small-town ambiance with their local movie theatres, affordable restaurants, and gentle pace. Chinatown, on the other hand, is aggressively trying to refurbish historical buildings to become an international destination.
It’s not easy for local merchants to compete against the multinational chains based out of the province. They are benefiting, however, from rising consciousness among consumers that going local is often better for the planet.
Roberta LaQuaglia, operations manager of Vancouver Farmers Markets, told the Straight in a recent phone interview that eating organic food has now entered the mainstream, thanks in part to coverage by celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. She also said that the new film Food Inc., which highlights the downside of factory farming, and best-selling books by food writer Michael Pollan have given the movement some momentum. “The concept of a farmers market is much more clear to people,” she said. “Folks like Michael Pollan and movies like Food Inc. really help to break down these misconceptions that only people who are wealthy can shop at farmers markets, or it’s only for luxury goods.”
According to LaQuaglia, sales at Vancouver farmers markets went from $2.8 million in 2007 to $4 million in 2008. Approximately $150,000 is spent on the average weekend at markets operating at Trout Lake, in the West End, and in Kitsilano. In 2009, she expects a 10-percent increase over last year’s figures. “Certain farmers or certain products may see some ups and downs,” she said. “People might be adjusting where they’re spending their money, but overall the market sales are staying high.”
Steve van der Leest, the president of Overwaitea Food Group, one of the province’s biggest food retailers, says he has also noticed increasing interest in local produce. At the July 15 opening of a new Save-On Foods store in the uptown business district of New Westminster, van der Leest told the Straight that his B.C.–based company is one of the biggest buyers of locally produced food in the province.
“It’s definitely front and centre to people nowadays, but for most grocers, it always has been,” van der Leest said.
With a brass band playing in the background on opening day, he took the Straight on a tour of the new store, pointing to signs indicating locally grown fruits and vegetables. “We’ve always done it that way because we’re a B.C. company,” he noted, adding that other large grocery companies with head offices in Toronto or the United States have more difficulty responding to the local marketplace. “Now, all of them are good in their own way, except we are very local. When the melons are ready in Creston, we get the melons.”
The growing public interest in food production has also attracted the attention of some federal politicians. Earlier this month, NDP MPs Libby Davies, Bill Siksay, and Alex Atamanenko held a packed public forum on Main Street to discuss food security. “I’m going across Canada to listen to what people have to say on the whole issue of food sovereignty and food security,” Atamanenko told the Straight by phone. He said he plans to complete a report by the end of the year, which he hopes will lead to a national NDP food policy.
Meanwhile, Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray is helping her party develop a “comprehensive national food policy”. The Straight caught up with Murray on July 19 at a farmers market in Kitsilano. She said she is so passionate about this issue because it brings together the environmental concerns around food—growing, transfer, exporting, processing, and consumption—as well as health concerns. She added that she met twice with Pollan to discuss food policy. He told her that half of the $2 trillion that Americans spend on disease management each year is attributable to unhealthy food.
“I think that statistic speaks for itself,” Murray said. “What can we do? We have to start having a vision around our food policy and working in a coordinated way”¦.But there is no federal leadership.”
Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray, seen at a
farmers market, wants her party to adopt a food policy
to improve public health and the environment.
In recent years, transnational corporations have come under withering scrutiny. In his book The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (Viking Canada, 2005), author and philosopher John Ralston Saul suggested that globalization is now slipping away.
“Prophets of Globalization who said ”˜Privatize, privatize, privatize’ now say they were wrong, because the national rule of law is more important,” Saul wrote. “Increasingly strong nation-states, like India and Brazil, are challenging the received wisdom of global economics. Pharmaceutical transnationals find themselves ducking and weaving to avoid citizen movements.”
More recently, Naomi Klein engaged in a full frontal attack on globalization in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007), which demonstrated how devotees of free-market economist Milton Friedman have seized upon crises to impose their laissez-faire ideology on unsuspecting people around the world. In the United States, there has recently been a blowback against globalization, with buy-local provisions included as part of a massive government stimulus package. This has prompted some Canadian municipal leaders to talk about a tit-for-tat response.
But to Rubin, the biggest threat to the global trading system is energy prices, not simply disdain for the corporations. His new book details a surprisingly strong impact that rising oil prices have on shipping costs.
“If triple-digit oil prices suddenly render the cost of shipping what I produce across an ocean untenable, then I am not going to worry about supplying Asian or European markets,” Rubin writes in his book. “I am going to refocus on local markets, where soaring freight costs work to my advantage, not my detriment, by keeping overseas competition from selling in my neighbourhood’s stores. I may have to withdraw from my competitors’ markets, but then my competitors are about to withdraw from mine, driven by exactly the same economics.”
Rubin also contributed a chapter to another recent book, Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future (Random House Canada, $34.95). He explained how demand for oil has shifted from western industrialized countries to oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, ensuring prices will remain high even as the West curtails consumption.
In the same book, however, SFU resource economist Mark Jaccard wrote a chapter suggesting that “there is no reason to think the sky is going to fall because of peak oil.” Jaccard based his arguments on the existence of extensive resources of alternatives—such as coal, oil shale, tar sands, and natural gas—that can, thanks to technology, be converted into liquid fuels for less than $100 per barrel.
“The rising price of oil, caused by a tightening market for conventional oil, will drive profit-seeking investments into these alternatives, all of which have already been exploited to some extent in commercial-scale operations for a diversity of market and non-market reasons,” Jaccard writes.
If Jaccard is correct, then this could put the brakes on relocalization. If Rubin is right, relocalization is likely to accelerate. B.C.’s best-known businessman, Jimmy Pattison, was at the opening of the Save-On Foods store in New Westminster. He’s also the owner of Overwaitea Food Group.
The Straight asked Pattison what effect volatile energy prices are having on his corporate business planning. “If oil is $35 a barrel and it goes to $135 a barrel, obviously it’s going to have an impact on how people behave,” Pattison replied. “You have to be more flexible, I think, and a little bit more quick to adjust.”
When asked if he knew who Jeff Rubin is, Pattison replied that he’s the guy from CIBC. Then the Straight asked Pattison if he thinks Rubin is correct in his prediction that rising oil prices will lead to more local buying, increased regional trade, and a reduction in transoceanic trade. “His guess is as good as anybody’s—heh, heh, heh,” Pattison said with a smile.
B.C.’s wealthiest man wouldn’t give away whether or not his company’s recent move into New Westminster is a sign that the Jim Pattison Group is ready to embrace relocalization.