Why Big Oil Doesn't Like Local Food (It's Not what You Think)

When I was a girl, my mother used to buy New Dundee butter from Zehrs. In the winter the butter was a pale yellow. In the summer it was a yellowy creamy colour. The taste was different too. I preferred the summer butter.  The butter looked and tasted different because in the summer, the local dairy cows ate grass instead of the feed of the winter. New Dundee Dairy with its beautiful tasting butter is long gone. All butter now tastes like winter butter as dairy cows live inside.

The Grand River  has a few dead spots where algae use up all the oxygen needed by plants and fish and there is a plume of algae coming out of the mouth of the river as it enters Lake Erie.

How do these two things even relate and what does it have to do with Big Oil? Glad you asked.

I am reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, that my daughter gave me for my birthday.

Pollan follows American food from corn in Iowa to a MacDonald’s eaten in a car driving in California.

The hybrid corn creates huge yields (Yet strangely, farmers are losing money, see the book). Part of that yield is caused by artificial fertilizers.  Nitrogen helps plants grow but until humans learned how to fix the nitrogen in the atmosphere to create artificial fertilizer, nitrogen was pretty much a closed system with some made by the bacteria growing with soybeans or already in the soil or manure or plants. All energy came originally from the sun through plants. Now that energy comes from oil (yes I know oil is from million year old plants but it can run out vs. the sun has a few billion years left)

Like the poem, “The House that Jack Built” (this is the cat that ate the mouse that ate the grain that lived in the house that Jack built), oil is at the beginning of a long food chain. Oil is used to make the nitrogen fertilizer that feeds the hybrid corn that feeds the cows (pigs and chickens) now in huge feedlots or factory farms (versus our local Waterloo county mixed farms with different crops and animals or smaller operations) that go to the slaughterhouses that make the hamburger from cows all over American that make the boxed patties and BBQ chickens that are eaten by us. This chain is heavily subsidized by the American Government but not in a good way.

In Canada, we still have egg and milk marketing boards and the wheat marketing board that protect the farmers from the ups and down of weather. Not so for beef and hogs as shown with the problems caused by the mad cow scares that crippled our beef industry. (Canadian steers end up in American feedlots)

Including cost of creating pesticides, driving tractors, cost of driving corn to terminals and feedlots, it costs more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of food. Before chemical fertilizer, one calorie of energy created two calories of food.

This food chain uses a tremendous amount of cheap oil to transport it all over North America and the world.

The artificial fertilizers are so good that the excess that runs into the Grand River feeds algae that create the dead zones. Nitrates from fertilizers are the biggest problem in the Grand, not sewage.


The sad Gulf of Mexico that is now being destroyed by the BP oil spill already had a large dead zone caused indirectly by oil. The excess artificial fertilizer from the corn farms in the US mid-west travels down the Mississippi and the nitrates and nitrites create a large dead zone in the gulf.

So eating local food is more than how far it travels from the slaughterhouse or fields of Mexico or Peru or the US. It is also about using our local smaller mixed farms and finding organic farms that don’t use artificial fertilizers to grow monoculture corn fields. This is a huge topic, for example,did you know that most of the small abattoirs  (slaughterhouses )in Ontario are gone. It’s not just the disappearance of local creameries.

And despite what the supporters of business as usual will tell you, local and organic food isn’t about any difference in taste or driving to the farmers’ market or whether there are spoiled peaches in the basket (The lady at the Martin’s stall was so offended by that. Mmm. Martin apples),it’s about whether we want to be dependent on oil that destroys the ocean or a monoculture agriculture based on cheap GMO or hybrid corn that creates an unhealthy diet and climate change. Organic isn’t about taste it’s about eliminating pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Yes the yield is reduced but the environment improves.

The good news? A visit to St. Jacobs market, internet search and a glance at www.foodlink.ca shows that local producers are popping up all over Waterloo Region and Perth County with organic or local veggies, fruit, meat, cheese and butter.  Go local.


9 responses to “Why Big Oil Doesn't Like Local Food (It's Not what You Think)

  1. Thank you for your blog post. (I came across your blog while searching for info on the quote in hex on the new regional museum).

    I now have more of an interest in local food since becoming a partner in Bailey’s Local Foods. There are so many issues,and so many ways to support our local farmers. Thank for discussing them.

    I wish I could go back in time and buy New Dundee butter…


    • I hope you found the museum quote. I will be going on an agriculture tour with federation of farmers in July and will blog on it. I believe we are stopping by Barries. Must take money!

  2. We all need to be more informed about our food sources.
    I just heard about this book by Canadian author Sarah Elton.

    Locavore: From Farmers’fields To Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing the way we eat

    here is the publisher’s link for more info

  3. Here ya go!

    Click to access 2006_waterquality_1.pdf

    The area is at Blair, low oxygen.
    Wastewater is also a contributer but you will note that the report does talk about nitrates from the Conestogo and Upper Grand. Phosporus is also a problem.
    As well as salt.
    I’m enjoying the Ominivore’s Dilemma (if you can call this stuff enjoyable!) Can hardly wait to read about him killing a pig. (I have relatives in rural Australia where wild pigs are an invasive species. My mother on one trip obtained a flowered straw hat they called her “pig killing hat” What can I say.)
    Also, thanks for the word on canned tomatoes. Another interesting point, yesterday at Doon Heritage Village the interpreter in the Martin house was pointing out that in 1914, the summer kitchen became a factory all summer for the processing and canning of fruit, veggies and meat. A hot, hard job I don’t care to do anymore. Just do some veggie freezing.

  4. Interesting post Jane. I agree that it is important that each of us take steps to reduce our negative impact on our environment. How we best do that is the question.

    Here’s another perspective on Pollan’s thinking you might find valuable: Can You Really Save the Planet at the Dinner Table? An economist’s critique of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    Also, when I was at UW many years ago I took a limnology course where it was taught lake ‘dead zones’ were a natural occurrence in deep freshwater lakes. We studied a lake in Algonquin Park that had an annual dead zone. Clearly added nitrogen/phosphorus _contribute_ to dead zones but they’d occur without such additions as in the Algonquin lake. Here’s a reasonable explanation which identifies the other factors involved. The Lake Erie Central Basin “Dead Zone”

    I’d also like to learn more of the reported ‘dead zones’ in the Grand if you’d like to send me that info.

  5. Yeah, arguing that the local climate doesn’t allow for producing all kinds of fruits and vegetables all year long is missing the point. That’s exactly what eating local is about: eating fresh local produce when it is available, and storing and preserving it for later when possible. There’s nothing new in that, but it sure is difficult to care what season it is when visiting a regular supermarket.

    I do believe Maidstone Canning still cans tomatoes under the Thomas’ Utopia brand. Ontario Natural Food Co-op cans Ontario tomatoes as well. (Both can be found at Eating Well Organically and maybe Vincenzo’s.)

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful replies. Our GRCA study here in Ontario does show that nitrates/nitrites do come mostly from farms, both artificial and natural amounts. We are working on such things as keeping cows out of streams (those free range cows, darn) and rebuilding manure storage. Though I am a city girl, I have been to farms and have worked on a livestock website, as well as going to the local livestock auctions, so I am aware that not all feedlots are up to their armpits in manure.
    I’m glad my local “freerange” turkeys and chickens are still allowed, though as the lady selling them says, “They are in barns in the winter!”
    I should clarify also, that our local fruit and veg produce like Minnesota, is of necessity seasonal. There are more hothouses some experimentally running on methane and also greenhouses.
    I was sad though when the last tomato canning factory in Ontario closed recently.

  7. Keep in mind that local, even here in Waterloo Region, by no means implies less use of fertilizers and pesticides. And we absolutely have factory farming — the same chickens packed into tiny cages and cows into barns as anywhere else. That’s what the current economics of farming compels people to do.

    Fortunately, local farms producing for the local market can be more transparent and are more responsive to the desire to reduce synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use. And we do have a growing number of CSA’s and buying clubs that focus on local, organic produce.

    Local abattoirs are not all gone yet, but Ontario is currently forcing many of the remaining ones out of business with regulations designed for industrial-scale slaughterhouses.

    The egg and milk marketing boards are a mixed blessing. While their higher prices help keep smaller farms afloat, the way they operate makes it very difficult to buy local and impossible to know which farm your food is coming from. The marketing boards can also be hostile to organic farming, e.g. organic turkey production was nearly made illegal by “safety” requirements for turkeys to be confined indoors.

    I also recommend checking out the excellent Deconstructing Dinner podcast, which covers food issues from a Canadian perspective: http://www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/

  8. Pollan’s book is more fiction than fact.
    Corn farmers are indeed making money. So you can check that off your list as false.
    University studies are showing that most of the nitrates from rural areas that make their way into our lakes and rivers are not coming from farm land and feed lots but is from swamps and forests. The most common source of the nitrates found in our rivers and lakes are not farms, but cities. Our cities storm sewers are the source of those dead zones.
    Fertilizer is too valuable and costly to be put on farm land in “excess” amounts. It is carefully applied in amounts sufficient for the years use and the crops needs. I apply nitrogen to my corn in small doses through out the crop year so that it arrives when the corn needs it.
    Check on your definition of monoculture. There are very few fields of only corn, after corn, after corn. We tend to rotate crops here in corn country. It’s the best way to take advantage of natural fertilizers. Monoculture is more commonly found in vineyards and orchards than farm fields.
    Yes, I agree we should eat locally. I like to support my local merchants. The problem is that up here in Minnesota the growing season does not allow for eating fresh food all year long with out transporting that food in.
    Then there is the congestion of cities. If everyone in the city had to eat locally, the region could not support the population of those cities. Food must be transported from other areas to feed the folks so far from gardens and farms. We’re stuck with what we have until everyone moves out of the city to their own farm plot.
    By all means read Omnivores Dilemma, but be aware that it is not all fact.

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