Demystifying Definitions: Local Food vs Organic Food vs Sustainable Food

Last week I attended Health Professionals Day at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.

One of the presenters, Dr. Amy Bowen, Research Program Leader of Consumer Insights at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, hit on the point that many Canadians are confused about some of the key food production terms bandied about in the industry and in the places we see, discover, learn about and buy food.

In particular, some Canadians feel that local food is synonymous with organic food and with sustainable food (and all are interchangeable).

Definitions of local organic and sustainable food sm

I remember how confusing it was when I first started learning more about where my food came from.

I thought organic meant no pesticides whatsoever, I thought local always meant within 100 miles of my house, and sustainable? Well I didn’t know what that meant at all!

So, if you’re struggling to properly define some or all of these terms and how they might affect the choices you make at your farmer’s market, local farm or grocery store, here is some hopefully helpful information to guide you.  

Local Food

Local, in a nutshell, refers to foods grown locally. It refers to where food is produced rather than how it is produced.

Unfortunately, there is no overarching definition of what local food is.

For some, it is food grown within 100 miles (or maybe 160 km for those of us using the metric system); for others, it is food grown within the province or within the country.

In the grocery store, produce and food products grown and/or produced within the province of Ontario, for example, may carry the Foodland Ontario label, which quickly differentiates them from imported products.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is currently conducting a labelling study on how to, among other things, define local food. It developed an interim policy that, although very broad, provides some guidance:

  • food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
  • food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory“. [source]

Foodland Ontario has a handy produce availability guide that is very helpful for determining whether your fruit or vegetable is in season and therefore, more likely to be grown locally.

Foodland Ontario also has specific guidelines for many of its commodities, from fruit to vegetables to maple syrup. You can check out the organization’s consumer- and industry-approved definitions on its website.

Organic Food

Organic, in a nutshell, refers to foods grown without synthetic pesticides. It refers to how food is produced.

There is an added layer of complication because foods may be labelled certified organic or simply organic (but not necessarily certified). Certification by an accredited body is a fairly lengthy, expensive process (from what I understand) and smaller local farms in particular may not be able to afford to achieve and maintain the certification.

This is true of some food sold via a farmer’s market or Community-Supported Agricultural (CSA) program.

On the other hand, food sold as “organic” at the grocery store is always, to my knowledge, certified organic and is mostly grown and sold by large farms in the U.S. and/or Canada.

If you are able to buy direct from farms via CSA programs or farmer’s markets, it’s well worth asking your farmer about the principles and practices they employ in growing and producing the food they sell. In this case, your food is more likely to be both organic AND local.

Sustainable Food

Sustainable food is another term that lacks a global overarching definition and it was difficult for me to even find a working definition of it.

I really like Ryerson University’s statement about food sustainability based on the following five principles:

  • Employ production systems that reduce or eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers;
  • Avoid the use of hormones, antibiotics, and genetic engineering; and conserve soil and water.
  • Provide safe and fair working conditions for on-farm labour.
  • Provide healthy and humane care for livestock.
  • Protect and enhance wildlife habitat and biodiversity on working farm landscapes.
  • Reduce on-farm energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.” [source]

They also define sustainability as:

“[…] growing, harvesting, packing, shipping, trading and consuming in a way that ensures that there is enough, for all, forever.” [source]

I like their approach and as a side note, I love that they are promoting “[…] fresh, wholesome, Ontario-sourced food for [their] campus community”. [source]

This post-secondary school appears to be a model to follow in many ways!  

I’ll be learning more about local foods, organic foods and I’m sure, sustainable foods at the Bring Food Home Conference in Sudbury this weekend.

If you’re a local food lover like me and interested in food and food issues, you might love to join me! Check out the full program here. 

But no matter how you define local, sustainable and organic foods, let’s aim to make sure more of it ends up on our plates!

Life is a plate… Eat up,


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