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

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

A cow moose wanders around the Silver Star Elementary School neighbourhood Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Contributed)
Moose chases two people near Vernon school

Conservation and dog control attending to the situation

Responding to recent cases of COVID-19 confirmed at Shuswap schools, School District 83 Superintendent Peter Jory has asked staff and the public to be vigilant when it comes to the practice of good behaviours that help prevent the virus’ spread. (File photo)
COVID-19: North Okanagan-Shuswap school communities asked be vigilant

Superintendent Peter Jory responds to increasing COVID-19 numbers at schools.

A preliminary layout concept of Vernon’s new city centre park. Bidding opportunities are open until Feb. 5, 2021. (City of Vernon photo)
Bidding open for design of Vernon’s city centre park

City requests proposals for design services after more than 1,000 residents submit feedback

This dog is going to the SPCA if its owner isn't found. (RDNO Dog Control photo)
Several ‘owners’ claim lost Vernon dog as theirs

‘Dumped’ dog being kept in foster care until rightful owner can provide evidence of ownership

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

(Big White Ski Resort)
28 more cases of COVID-19 linked to Big White cluster

More than 200 cases have been identified since the cluster was announced

Police are seeking further witnesses after an elderly woman who was struck by a vehicle in Salmon Arm succumbed to her injuries. (File Photo)
Salmon Arm pedestrian dies after being hit by truck along Highway 1

Collision took place on Jan. 15 in downtown Salmon Arm, police looking for witnesses

The sale of the Kirschner Mountain Development for $22M marks the largest in Realtor history, in the Okanagan. (Contributed)
Kelowna mountain development sold for $22M

The sale of the 640-acre Kirschner Mountain development has made the history books

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

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

Penticton paramedics took about 70 per cent more calls for drug overdoses in 2020 compared to 2019, Interior Health representatives told Penticton council Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. ((Jesse Day - Western News)
Penticton seeks $300K grant to help address opioid crisis

The grant would provide $100K a year over three years to a Community Action Team

Kevin Lee Barrett is charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. (Facebook)
‘Just a blood bath’: Woman recounts finding victim during West Kelowna attempted murder trial

Kevin Barrett is charged with attempting to kill his mother, leaving her on a forest service road in April 2019

Most Read