We’ve all seen the signs in our local produce departments proclaiming support for local growers. Consumers say they want their food produced locally, wholesalers say they want to distribute it and retailers say they want to sell local produce. Are these just sentiments to make us feel good that we’re doing the right thing?
Producing and supplying food is a complicated challenge. We have climate change, trade agreements, politics, supply chain networks, retailer consolidation, consumer demand and so much more impacting where and how our food gets into our homes. It’s so disappointing when we continue to import items we can produce locally and some local seemingly smaller items just don’t get the support they deserve.
Garlic is one of those items. We’re able to produce it in Canada so there’s supply and as Canadians consume approximately 21,000 tonnes a year, there’s demand. However, we continue to import more than 90 percent of that garlic and we’re not talking about California or Mexico. Why?
The simple answers are in established supply networks and money. China now produces more than 80 percent of the world’s garlic. Chinese exporters always have it in any format such as whole or minced any time Canadian wholesalers need it. China’s yield per acre is 11 times greater than Canadian farmers; China pays considerably less for labour and food safety requirements that are significantly more costly for our farmers. All of this adds up to a price discrepancy at the shelf – which for true cooks, is a relatively minor one.
In a recent price check at our local store, I found Canadian garlic selling for the equivalent of $14.00 per kg and Chinese garlic selling for $2.39 per kg. We know many consumers will just opt for the cheaper product; how can we blame them? But if consumers knew the whole story, the purchase decision might change. The average Canadian household consumes 1.3 kg of garlic per year, which means the premium for Canadian garlic would only be $15.09 per year or .29 cents per week per household. It’s likely half of that consumption is at restaurants and institutions, so the average household grocery bill would only be $7.55 higher per year – at .15 cents per week.
One pioneer in this country’s garlic industry is Jackie Rowe from The Garlic Box in Bluewater, Ontario. They’ve been committed to building a Canadian garlic industry for more than 20 years. “We know China will dump inferior product that can be up to a year old so there will always be a price difference,” she said. “Finding partners throughout the value chain who are willing to help educate consumers is proven to work. We’re dedicated to get there but it has been an uphill battle.”
The solution is more complicated than just convincing consumers, we need local garlic on the shelf and available for sale. In other words, we need change throughout the value chain.
We need wholesalers and retailers to make the commitment to growers that they’ll support them as they learn how to grow and store garlic. At the shelf, retailers need to commit to selling Canadian garlic exclusively and stop forcing Canadian growers to add more costs with packaging to differentiate it from the cheap imported product.
Farmers need to increase production and find opportunities to reduce costs per kilogram as volume grows. This includes finding the right and more varieties and adding mechanization where it will work.
We all need to do a better job telling the story and selling the product to consumers and consumers certainly need more information about marketplace dumping such as the Canadian International Trade Tribunal case that determined a review was not warranted. Consumers also need to know how Chinese garlic is bleached, lax organic standards, question the carbon footprint to ship it here and the benefits of good taste.
One of the great things about the food industry is the power consumers have every week when they buy their groceries. We’ve seen examples such as French’s Ketchup where consumer opinion affected moving product off the shelves – and we need it in garlic.
Politics, Chinese bans on Canadian products such as canola, pork and meat, questionable agricultural practices – and bleach aside – why would we want to depend on another continent for something we can produce here for only .15 more per household per week?
A viable, safe, sustainable Canadian food industry will only be there to feed us when we support it.
Peter Chapman is the author of á la carte: A Supplier’s Guide to Retailers’ Priorities and the President of SKUFood.