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From Local Food to COOL Food

Posted by Theresa Schumilas Oct 17, 2015

I’ve got an exciting new project, and I need your help. This winter I’m launching a new on-line food market that moves us beyond ‘local’ food systems to truly sustainable food systems. The new ‘COOL’ or 'CO2L' market, is a bottom-up solution to help cool the planet. Rather than wait on experts to reach agreements about climate change and come up with plans, these new markets will link consumers with the small-scaled producers around the world who are already cooling the planet through their knowledge and skills.

Buying local is a great thing to do, but as I've described before, it's not enough. While it's good to buy locally grown food for many reasons, 'food miles' (the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer) actually make up a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon footprint of food — approximately 11% on average. In comparison, how our food is grown makes up a much larger percentage — roughly 83% of the food’s footprint. The impacts of food on climate depend less on distant travelled and more on the agronomic decisions the farmer makes. But, with the possible exception of certified organic branding, these climate critical on-farm decisions are seldom highlighted in markets selling ‘local’ foods. Consumers need a way to make clear choices about the carbon consequences of the foods they buy, but so far there is no clear marketplace identity for foods that are produced with climate mitigating methods in Canada. That's where the new 'COOL' (or CO2L) comes in.

Open Food Networks dear supermarket adThis new COOL market is built on a new open source platform called “Open Food Networks”. This platform will be initiated in Canada by December, as part of my work to launch Farm 2.0. To do this, we need to establish SIMPLE criteria for what it means for a food to be COOL. Then, we recruit new or existing ‘food hubs’ to set up on-line farmer’s markets that aggregate and trade these products. (This could involve deliveries or central pick-up spots – like worksites.) We can also recruit individual farms and/or food artisans who produce products meeting the criteria who want to set up storefronts. (This could involve deliveries or on-farm pick-ups.) After we have a group of vendors, we create buzz and get the word out to potential buyers. (I really need a social media power user or two to help me with this.) We set a date. We launch. We shop. We eat. We observe. We revise. We have fun. We are REALLY COOL!

OK - I hear all your (very uncool) “yeah, but…” comments and questions coming at me through cyber space. Sure, there are some things to sort out. I get that. But besides being COOL, we are very smart people, and we can figure it out. Problems are gifts. They are the things that bring us together. Problems should not be the things that make us say it can’t be done and retreat to the TV set. Problems motivate us do DO SOMETHING!

The first step is determining what makes a food “COOL”. Not so easy. It turns out there are major debates about that. Academics are saying that the carbon footprint of food depends on so many things. To have a perfect assessment, we would have to calculate it separately for each different food (like beef versus carrots versus frozen juice), for different types of farming systems (like systems that use synthetic fertilizers versus ‘no till’ systems versus systems that use organic manure), for different soil types (like silt-loam versus clay soils), for different ways the product is shipped (like by a freight train or a small truck), for different types of processing (like canning versus freezing), for different types of storage conditions (like a cooler that uses electricity versus an ice house) etc. etc. But if we wait on experts to sort all this out, the polar ice caps will have melted. And, most of these issues are loaded with philosophical debate – so I don’t think agreement is very likely anyway.

Second, even if the unbelievable happened, and we did get widespread expert agreement on what makes a product “COOL”, then we would need a way to standardize those practices, and a system to verify that what producers and processors say is indeed true. I’ve been down a road like this before with the development of the Canadian Organic Standard. I can tell you it is a long, time consuming, expensive and frustrating process to develop a national standard and a verification system. And, in the end, someone has to pay for that. The cost might fall on producers and processors who want to sell in the market. But this ends up excluding smaller scaled farmers, who might be producing really COOL products, but can’t afford the system that verifies that. These farmers might be able to verify each other’s practices in a peer-to-peer system, but that takes an enormous amount of their time away from the farm. If you talk to small scaled farmers, you know that time is exactly what they don’t have. (Which is why they really like on-line markets by the way.) Or, the cost of ‘COOL’ verification can be passed on to the buyer. But that results in premium pricing and excludes people who have low or marginal incomes. That’s not the solution either. I’m interested in a fair food system as well as a green one.

But throwing our hands in the air and doing nothing while waiting on the experts is devastating the planet and our health. It is also cruel and unfair because the poorest of the poor are hurt the most from climate change. Aside from that, doing nothing meansprices of many staple crops are going to rise, and in some cases double, because of climate change. So whether you are worried about the environment, your health, justice, or your wallet, we don’t have time to wait on experts. We need to take matters into hand and try something.

But if agriculture and climate change is so complicated, how can we possibly figure it out on our own? Well, it is only very recently that our food system has started to have large GHG emissions. While we’ve been looking and waiting for experts to give us top-down solutions, small scaled farmers around the world have been cooling the planet for centuries.

(You have to watch this new COOL video)

Together, we can cool the planet! from GRAIN on Vimeo.



As an aside, I used one of the many new on-line emissions calculators to check out the GHG emissions from my own farm. I chose my greenhouse as the target because I thought it was likely to have the highest emissions. It turns out that my emissions are negative!! I’m cooling the planet too!! I sop up more carbon through my ecological practices than I emit. In fact, my greenhouse production alone (a small part of my farm) saves more CO2 emissions than the average household does by recycling newspapers. Plus I feed people doing it.  The point is, we already know what the so called ‘climate smart’ practices are. The solution to the climate crisis is in the hands of small scaled farmers and the consumers who align with them. We need to build our ‘COOL’ markets, and make our food purchases based on their agro-ecological knowledge and practices.

So I’ve come up with 5 key questions that can be used to determine what foods are the COOL foods.

COOL Questions:

1. Do you use synthetic fertilizer? (Consider that the use of chemical fertilisers this year will  generate more GHG emissions than the total emissions from all of the cars and trucks driven in the US. Very uncool.)

2. Do you use synthetic pesticides? (Read how regenerative organic agriculture can sequester carbon and reverse climate change. Very cool.)

3. Do you build soil through cover cropping practices? (Read Soil not Oil!)

4. Are you a small-scale mixed farm or a large farm that specializes in a few products? (Small scale farmers are experts at planet cooling, let's support them.)

5. Do you sell primarily in proximity to where you produce? (No brainer for most of us - but the really COOL thing is to go beyond local.)

Of course these questions need some re-wording for processors. We would expect processors to find out the answers from their suppliers. Also, we need greater clarity on few issues, like what do we mean by ‘small scale’, and how close is ‘in proximity’. But these issues just need some of us to talk it through.

They key point is that we know what the main agricultural causes of climate change are, and we know what we need to do to reduce our emissions. We need to think beyond local. We need to learn from, and support small scale farmers around the world. Together we can COOL the planet.


If you are interested in getting involved in this -  contact me:  tschumilas (at) rogers.com

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