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Tomatoes and a survival mentality

We have such great farmers in Canada.  So why is it that food scares like salmonella in tomatoes from Texas or Mexico become such a huge issue?

July 28, 2008  By Ralph Pearce

We have such great farmers in Canada.  So why is it that food scares like salmonella in tomatoes from Texas or Mexico become such a huge issue?
I realize I’m a bit behind the times on this story and that others, especially those closer to the fruit and vegetable sector, have commented on it with more of an eye on the cause and effect.  But I believe there is a lesson imbedded within this event that applies to everyone involved in farming.

I was on a family vacation early in June when I encountered the ‘tainted tomato’ story. We had stopped at a fast food outlet outside of Toronto where a notice had been posted suspending the sale of tomatoes, a mention of salmonella, plus something about the FDA. My immediate response was, ‘Why should we care what the US Food and Drug Administration has to say about tomatoes in Canada?’

That’s when it hit me: this was not about food safety in Canada, it was about living with the risk of cheap food imports.  For years, our governments have parroted the assurances of primary producers, farm organizations and other agencies, in stating that once and for all, our food is safe and wondrous. It isn’t that the government has any idea about food safety: most politicians -like the vast majority of Canadians -trust the farm and food sectors and their proclamations, so elected officials often just go with the flow.


But Canadians are not very self-sufficient. As a country, we’re like a group of teenagers, thumping our chests about our independence and fearlessness, scowling at the thought of needing anyone.  Yet when their stomach growls or they spot those shoes they really want, they look to a parent with an open wallet. 

Of course, there are issues about climate and the lack of year-round opportunity for growing crops; that much is a given. Yet it’s surprising that our food outlets and grocery stores continue to apply ‘the lowest price is the law’ mentality when it comes to serving consumers.  The accepted belief is that Canadians would rather pay 99 cents per pound for ‘Product of Wherever Else’ tomatoes instead of yielding $1.29 for something grown on this side of the border.

But that’s our history.  We choose to look to government to save us from ourselves, instead of doing it by ourselves and for ourselves.
Whenever I think of farming in Canada, I’m reminded of a snippet of conversation from the story of the Andes survivors.  In 1972, a group of 16 young men survived a plane crash and lived on the bodies of those who didn’t.  A few days after the crash, radio reports announced that search and rescue flights over the Andes Mountains had been called off, that all hope for finding survivors was gone.  One of the boys, having heard the broadcast, went back to the others and said, “Folks, I have great news: They’ve called off the search!”
When asked why he considered that such great news, he replied -and this is the quote -“Because it means that we’re going to get out of here on our own!”
For some strange reason, this line came to mind as I was pondering the situation with the tomatoes. We have come to a point where our choices are made for us because we rely on others from other countries to produce our food.  And why?  Because we like things cheap. We grow succulent tomatoes, juicy apples and aromatic garlic that is a chef’s delight, yet we pander to the lowest cost economics and seem to care little about what is undeniably closer to home -and better. 
If I were growing produce in Canada -be it corn, beef, lentils or peaches -I might be insulted by these slights.
In the end, we continue to ignore opportunities and allow price to be the determining factor in our food trade. It seems that as a society, we’d rather spend money on heated lawn chairs or living room suites for our backyards than spend it on foods of better quality.
From my vantage point, we need to do a better sales job of Canadian agriculture, and waiting for others to do it likely means it won’t get done at all.  If we really want to make things better for agriculture, it’s likely we have to do more by ourselves, for ourselves.
Remember the quote: “We’re going to get out of here on our own!”


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