Local Food and Northern Ontario
Ontario Nature understands that forest foods provide a wealth of benefits to many northern communities: Local food sources underpin traditional economies that permit economic self-reliance; they provide health benefits through improved nutrition and promotion of active lifestyles; and they reduce the environmental costs of food grown with intensive inputs elsewhere and transported large distances to reach northern communities. The local economic benefit of reducing transportation of food is an emerging consideration in northern Ontario as fuel prices continue to rise globally.
Herbicide concerns mount
Each summer, thousands of Ontario foragers join the birds, bears and other forest-dwelling species in taking advantage of the bounty of edible wild plants. The interest in forest foods has increased significantly in the past decade, along with the growing appeal of pesticide-free local food.
This interest has re-ignited debate about the use of glyphosate-based herbicide spraying in public forests. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of recently logged stands are sprayed every year to suppress the growth of plants that would curb the regeneration of conifer trees. While the Ontario government banned glyphosate-based pesticide sprays for lawns and gardens back in 2008, it has not followed Quebec’s ban on spraying the herbicide in forests.
Visit the Ontario Electronic Forest Management Plan site to see where spraying is planned to occur.
The federal government first approved the use of glyphosate in forestry in 1984, calling it a “reasonable alternative” to more toxic chemicals that had preceded it. Recently, Health Canada conducted a re-evaluation of glyphosate and maintained its approval. However, critics challenged the integrity of the assessment, pointing out that of 118 studies reviewed, only seven came from sources other than companies seeking to register the chemicals. Additionally, while most of the science conducted over the past three decades suggests glyphosate spraying, when used as directed, should not have a significant impact on human health, some research has shown harmful effects even at low doses.
Proponents of glyphosate spraying argue that it is a federally regulated substance used within designated safe limits. As with all assessments of chemical toxicity, dose and exposure determine risk. Canadians are already exposed to high amounts of glyphosate, largely through industrial agriculture.
Last year, thousands of people across the province signed local petitions against glyphosate spraying. Aside from being concerned about pollution, critics worry about the timing of the spraying – usually done during peak blueberry-picking season in August – and its impact on the availability of edible wild plants and the overall food chain in forest ecosystems. They point out that alternative approaches, such as manually removing unwanted vegetation, could create jobs for local communities.
A number of communities and companies are trying to reduce the use of herbicides in forests. For example, First Nations in northeastern Ontario are collaborating with forestry company Tembec, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Mushkegowuk Environmental Research Centre in the Herbicide Alternatives Program, seeking solutions with a goal of eliminating spraying.
Ontario Nature will continue to advocate for the development and implementation of alternatives to spraying, while still ensuring that logged forests are properly regenerated.
For many, the forests of northern Ontario are synonymous with timber. This video unearths the under appreciated value of forest foods – wild mushrooms, fiddleheads, blueberries, boreal teas, and boreal birch syrup. Follow Ontario Nature, the True North Community Coop, and Environment North as they grow the forest food movement in the north. Northerners are enjoying delicious and nutritious foods, the region is more self-sufficient, and the environment is better off.
Mark Bell of Aroland First Nation tells the story of the blueberry initiative, where community youth have developed economic opportunities from non-timber forest values. Joe Baxter and other professional foragers make the case for taking food from the forest to the plate.
With generous support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Mountain Equipment Co-op, we are researching how the health of forest food systems can serve as a good indicator of the ecological integrity of the ecosystem as a whole and how forest food planning can support northern communities. Instability in game populations, loss of water filtering via wild rice beds, and other changes to forest food systems can predict stress on natural food webs and ecosystems.
Read about Ontario Nature's work to strengthen the local food movement in northern communities in the Summer issue of ON Nature magazine here.