Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Changing the Way We Eat and Drink

Environmentally sustainable food production and consumption

It’s not easy being green – and there are no black and white rules for operating an environmentally-sustainable business. So it’s interesting to look at some of the factors that influence culinary entrepreneurs and to consider some of our own food choices.

Certified organic vs. sustainable
For Mistaken Identity, a Salt Spring Island winery, there is no choice. Their wine is certified organic because they believe that care for the land is the first step in product delivery.

Erika Heyrman, the owner of Wild Fire Bakery in Victoria, used to be of the same opinion, but the focus is shifting as Erika places increasing weight on sustainable farming practices rather than simply organic products. “It’s a little more flexible, based on where and what you grow,” she explains. “I used to buy organic wheat from Saskatchewan and was paying $2,500 to transport it by truck. Now I’m buying my wheat and rye from two farmers in Metchosin. It’s about a 15-kilometre drive from their place, and they deliver every couple of weeks.”

I’ve also spoken to several small-scale farmers and winemakers who say they cannot afford to complete the organic certification process.

Establishing a relationship
Trent Loewen, the owner of Earth Bound Bakery in Saskatoon, buys almost all his ingredients from just two Saskatchewan farmers. “There is nobody in between,” says Trent. “I like to maintain that conversation with the local producers and support them.”

Cliff Leir, the owner of Fol Epi Bakery in Victoria, is working with a Vancouver Island farmer in order to develop a local source of organic Red Fife wheat. “It takes time to secure land,” says Cliff. “It’s a big commitment from the farmer, especially when land prices are so high.”

Erika agrees and develops mutually satisfactory agreements with her grain farmers. She guarantees to buy their crop at a reasonable price, and they agree to farm as organically as possible.

I love to chat with local people at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market as I purchase their products. Unfortunately, many of them are buying their ingredients at Costco, so in reality the products are neither organic nor local.

Hands-on, artisan products
Raw Canvas, in Vancouver, combines a social space with an art studio. The owner, Steve Merkley, tries to strike a balance between organic, local and handmade. But it’s particularly important that the products are made by hand and not mass produced by machine. “The key for us is knowing that not a lot of machines have touched it,” he says. “It’s made by people like my parents who have farmed their land for generations.”

Fol Epi Bakery grinds its own grain. Cliff feels that this gives him more control over the quality of the grain; it is more sustainable as there is less packaging; and it increases the slim profit margins of bakers and farmers. In addition, he believes it’s more interesting for the baker to be involved in that part of the process.

Fol Epi was built using as many recycled products as possible – from the bricks used to build the bread oven to the wooden beams that now serve as counters.

Raw Canvas is furnished with mismatched wooden chairs, and they buy high-quality paint from a small Granville Island business, even though it costs four times as much as paint from China.

Victoria’s Black Stilt Coffee Lounge has developed an extremely comprehensive approach to running an environmentally-friendly business. Here are just a few examples:

• Maintain their own compost pile and use compostable paper towels and cutlery;

• Purchase recycled and post-consumer paper products;

• Unplug equipment at night to reduce phantom loads;

• Use a low-flow dishwashing wand and the sanitizing dishwasher is only run when full; and

• Increase storage and reorganize deliveries to reduce the number of trips to the Black Stilt.

Black Stilt purchases its coffee directly from two particular farms in Costa Rica. They work directly with the farmers to ensure that the coffee has been grown organically, is bird friendly, grown in the shade, and that the rights and welfare of farm employees are a priority.

Principled flexibility
Plenty Epicurean Pantry in Victoria is an enchanting store full of astonishing array of different products. There are finger puppets from Peru, spices in handwoven grass boxes from Asia and pickles produced by high school students in Powell River.

There is tremendous variety, but the owner, Trevor Walker, has a set of principles that guide his purchases. He looks for products that are organic, biodegradable, clean, diverse, efficient, handcrafted, local, recycled, renewable, repurposed, social and timeless. There’s a lot of flexibility because no one product can meet all the principles, but it’s a set of values that shows respect for the producer, the consumer and the earth.

Many of the bakers and restaurateurs that I have met would agree. They are passionate about producing a quality product and equally passionate about acting responsibly. They fill me with hope for the future.

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