Onions. (Pikrepo)

Onions. (Pikrepo)

B.C. imports 99 million kilos of American onions. Why?

About four per cent of the onions consumed in B.C. are grown in the province

  • Aug. 18, 2020 11:15 a.m.

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

Paul Stewart cooks a thousand meals a day. None use California onions.

It’s a sourcing decision the head chef for Victoria’s Cool Aid Society, an organization that provides housing and meals to those in need, doesn’t regret. Onions from a processing plant and farm in the Golden State, Thompson International Inc., were recalled across Canada earlier this month because of a salmonella outbreak that has left 339 people ill, including 78 in B.C.

“We were pretty safe right from the get-go,” he said. “But if I hadn’t been buying local right now, maybe it would have been a different ballgame.”

About four per cent of the onions consumed in B.C. are grown in the province. The remainder — 99 million kilograms — are imported, primarily from the United States.

California accounted for 5.3 million kilograms, with the remainder coming mostly from farms in Washington state, one of the world’s largest onion producers.

That dependence makes British Columbians more vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

READ MORE: Onions may be in short supply as U.S. grower expands recall: expert

For instance, over the past four years, California has seen reduced production and increased prices due to drought — a situation that’s anticipated to get worse as a result of climate change.

COVID-19 has also slammed farm workers in the Western U.S., with hundreds of cases reported in Washington, Oregon and California. In Monterey Country, one of the region’s most productive agricultural hubs, farm workersaccounted for nearly 36 per cent of cases.

For Stewart, the pandemic has only increased his efforts to source locally — when he can. Cool Aid offers free meals and relies on grants and donations, meaning he doesn’t have the same flexibility as restaurants when it comes to sourcing his supplies.

And while the pandemic has made buying local easier — more funds are available and B.C. farmers have surplus crops — that money isn’t guaranteed long-term. Nor does it solve the deeper forces that are pushing U.S. produce onto British Columbians’ plates.

“An unfortunate reality is that when you buy California produce, it’s usually inexpensive because of how they subsidize it or because of the inexpensive labour they have,” he said.

Hannah Wittman, a professor of land and food systems at the University of British Columbia, agreed.

California also has the benefit of economies of scale, with massive, industrial farms that can produce year-round dominating the Central and Salinas valleys.

It’s a pattern that goes back to 1989, she explained, when Canada and the U.S. implemented the Canada—United States Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA), the precursor to NAFTA, and continues today with the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement that came into force last month.

The CUSFTA made it easy for American produce to be trucked into Canada and sold. Most of these sales went through one of the country’s four major grocery chains, which account for 65 per cent of Canadian retail food sales combined.

Buying produce from a few big farms lets those grocers increase the fees they charge for shelf space, pricing out the smaller Canadian farmers and processors (processors are essential to making local produce available out of season) who couldn’t compete.

Unable to access their old markets, many farmers quit — the number of Canadian farmers dropped almost 25 per centbetween 1991 and 2011 — and smaller processors went out of business.

Many of those who remained started growing blueberries at an industrial scale and exporting them into the U.S.

The result?

Produce that’s grown more cheaply in the U.S. is prevalent in B.C. Meanwhile, blueberries occupy about a quarter more arable land as other field-grown crops in the province.

That’s not great news for British Columbians, Yee said.

“You get something imported — you have no idea how it was made, where it was from, what the ingredients are in it,” she said.

As of Monday, more than 30 products had been affected and recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

For Stewart, the recalls are only further encouragement to feed his clients at the Cool Aid Society more local food — even as the days get shorter.

“I’m just buying everything that’s in season, because I can process and freeze stuff and just put it away for fall and winter,” he said.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

AgricultureFarmingsalmonella

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Administering naloxone to a person experiencing a benzo-related overdose event won’t help. Naloxone is used to neutralize opioids. (Jenna Hauck/The Progress file photo)
Northern Health warning drug users of potential benzo contamination

The drug does not respond to naloxone, and is being included in street drugs

(BC Hydro photo)
BC Hydro planned power outages to darken downtown Smithers for most of day Sunday, Jan 17

Replacement of poles will affect approximately 250 customers in downtown core from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Smithers Local Health Area reported 25 new cases of COVID-19 Jan. 3 - 9. (BC CDC graphic)
Weekly new cases of COVID-19 rise to 25 in Smithers LHA Jan. 3 – 9

Northern Health reported 49 new daily cases for 497 active, 44 hospitalized, 13 in critical care

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

Chilliwack ER doctor Marc Greidanus is featured in a video, published Jan. 18, 2021, where he demonstrates and describes effectiveness of various styles of masks. (Youtube)
VIDEO: Emergency room doctor runs through pros and cons of various masks

‘We’ve been asked to wear a mask and it’s not that hard,’ Greidanus says.

(Pixabay photo)
VIDEO: Tip to Metro Vancouver transit police helps woman 4,000 km away in Ohio

Sgt. Clint Hampton says transit police were alerted to a YouTube video of the woman in mental distress

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A woman types on her laptop in Miami in a Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
British Columbia government lax on cybersecurity practices, auditor reports

The audit did not highlight a specific threat, but it found breaches in cybersecurity are increasing globally

Cranbrook Food Bank coordinator Deanna Kemperman, Potluck Cafe Society executive director Naved Noorani and Sunshine Coast Community Services Society executive director Catherine Leach join B.C.’s new Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne on a video call about B.C. gaming grants, Jan. 19, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. gaming grants reorganized for COVID-19 priorities

Minister highlights community kitchens, food banks

(Pixabay photo)
‘Cocaine bananas’ arrive at Kelowna grocery stores after mix up from Colombia: RCMP

Kelowna RCMP recently concluded an international drug investigation after finding cocaine in local grocers’ banana shipments in 2019

A new video from NCCIH and BC Northern Health titled ‘Healing in Pandemic Times: Indigenous Peoples, Stigma and COVID-19’ was animated by Joanne Gervais. (Photo Provided By: NCCIH Archives)
VIDEO: Stigma against Indigenous people is a ‘social sickness’

A new short animated video is aiming to educate the public on the stigmatization

A pinniped was attacked by an unseen predator off the shores of Dallas Road Monday night. (Courtesy of Steffani Cameron)
VIDEO: Seal hunting, not being hunted in video shot off Victoria waterfront

Victoria woman captures footage of pinniped activity off Dallas Road

Most Read