When walking through the produce aisles at the local grocery store, you can’t help but notice products from our province. The Foodland Ontario logo is unmistakable, signifying that the fruits and vegetables being sold were fully grown in Ontario. Even young children know the undeniably superior taste of fresh, locally-grown strawberries, tomatoes and peaches. However, seeing the Foodland Ontario logo can prompt questions about where produce comes from. How far does produce travel to reach us, whether from within Ontario or outside? How local is it? Does that mean it comes from within our community, region or province? Does local mean there is no environmental impact?

These are complex questions to answer. A recent Food Waste Flow study, completed by Metabolic on behalf of Our Food Future, is a great starting point to help us understand the environmental impacts of our regional food system. Intended to specifically track food waste, this study does an incredible job of visualizing how our food moves into and through Guelph-Wellington, and where we experience loss and wastage through spoilage or sorting.

The environmental footprint of a food item is determined by considering several factors, such as how the food was produced and prepared, how far it has travelled, and how much of it gets wasted. We see from the Food Waste Flow study that Wellington-Guelph is not sustained on food grown only within its boundaries and we do not have sufficient facilities to process and package all our food locally. This means some of the footprint of our food is beyond our control.

So what about the food produced in Guelph-Wellington? This is where we need to know the story behind the data. Typically, when we talk about the environmental impacts and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of our food system, we are using global averages. There simply isn’t enough region-specific data on farming impact to measure what is typical in Guelph-Wellington. Painting the picture from global averages, though, means that we might be mixing Brazilian deforestation with local practices when we discuss the environmental impact of the food in our region. To understand our true footprint, we need local data based on local practices.

We know meat and dairy have high embedded greenhouse gases, but we also know that animal fertilizers are an important part of the lifecycle of healthy soil. This means that understanding which farms use carefully-managed animal fertilizers is a critical piece of information when gathering data. Building soil health through plant and animal activity cycles – as opposed to relying only on excessive chemical inputs – can mean the difference between farmland as an emitter of GHGs or farmland as a carbon sequestration tool.

With support from the Rural Water Quality Programme, over 1000 farmers in Wellington County have already taken steps to reduce GHG emissions by improving manure management, nutrient management and cover-cropping. Others are going even further and transitioning to deeper and more innovative climate-friendly practices. Implementing these practices will assist in understanding and lessening the environmental impact of farming.

The Our Food Future project and Wellington County’s Future Focused climate change mitigation plan are aligned in their efforts to collect accurate local data so we have the details to see the true impact and opportunities. With the Food Waste Flow study in hand and a more accurate picture of our local food production footprint on the way, we’ll have the blueprint for creating waste interventions and climate-friendly farming supports where they are most needed. How delicious!

Contributed by

  • Karen Chisholme, Climate Change and Sustainability Manager, County of Wellington
  • Justine Dainard, Smart Cities Project Manager, County of Wellington

Photo credit: @scottwarman