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Sustainable Food Systems takes aim at creating wealth for producers

October 9, 2012, London, ON - After eighteen months of demanding research and analysis, the Sustainable Food System team, along with collaborative input from multiple stakeholders, has prepared a tasty recipe for creating a sustainable food system in Southwestern Ontario.

What's on the menu? Project lead, Tom Schell, suggests that "there is no greater economic and social opportunity on the horizon, than the tens of thousands of permanent, rewarding jobs that can be created by replacing the billions of dollars of food we import into Ontario, with locally produced food". A staggering $18 billion dollars of food is imported into Ontario every year and while not all of it can be grown here, the research indicates that $500,000 in farm revenues equates to approximately 10,000 direct and indirect jobs for the taking.

We are living at a pivotal point in history. The world is experiencing dramatic economic, social and environmental challenges that have left us with global economic instability, job losses, mounting debt, rising health costs, increasing poverty, environmental degradation and the seeming inability to correct the situation with tried and true solutions.

It is expected that more food will be eaten over the next fifty years than has been consumed by human beings since the dawn of time. At the same time, the cost and availability of non-renewable resources for food production and transportation, and the nutritional value of "long distance" food is challenging the wisdom of globalization and making local food look much better. Clearly, this century requires a new approach to food. The question is, "how do we create a carbon-reduced, resilient, sustainable food system and what will that local food system look like"?

Enter Sustainable Food Systems, a project designed to answer these concise but complex questions. It's an action research project divided into three phases, Research, Planning and Implementation, created through a strategic partnership between the London Training Centre and the Southwest Economic Alliance, and supported by numerous organizations.

Predicated on the understanding that food systems are very complex, the research used a holistic, integrated systems approach, drilling down into trends and challenges facing agriculture and food systems, and a wide range of related subject areas.

To get things started, five "Interactive Conversation" workshops across Southwestern Ontario were held. A broad range of stakeholders explored the food system that existed in the past, mapped current value chains and "visioned" a desirable food system.

An analysis of extensive primary and secondary research, culminated in over 60 integrated recommendations. Central to the recommendations is an innovative, practical Sustainable Food Cluster/Network that makes it easy, convenient and cost effective for local grocery stores, restaurants, institutions and consumers to obtain locally branded, primary and processed food that meets safety and traceability, quality, consistent supply volumes and packaging requirements. David Corke, the Executive Director of the London Training Center, indicates that "the Cluster model leverages the existing food infrastructure and together with integrated, sustainable support recommendations, creates a balance of beneficial economic, social, environmental and nutritional outcomes that will move us incrementally towards a sustainable food system in Southwestern Ontario".

Some of the many novel and innovative supporting recommendations include a vertical business structure that promotes cooperation and provides a more equitable distribution of wealth; new economic models that are resilient to global shocks; an optimized local "Smart Food Distribution" system, that delivers the lowest energy (cost) per calorie of food and sustainable production methods.

Throughout the research phase many stakeholders, interested in creating a sustainable food system, have asked, "How do we get there"? Some have prepared food charters while others have operationalized individual food initiatives. To augment these efforts going forward, Sustainable Food Systems will play a supportive role in the development of comprehensive, actionable plans by providing knowledge, resources and common support systems that advantage all Clusters in the network.

Noting that research clearly shows agriculture is the region's top growth sector, Serge Lavoie, president of SWEA states that, "together, we need to seize this unprecedented economic opportunity to grow, process and consume nutritious food from local sources by upgrading and building new infrastructure so that we can expand our regional economy and create new jobs."