From the dry history textbooks inflicted on children in India, one iconic image remains ingrained in my mind. It was the image of a frail, nearly-naked old man standing defiantly before a towering bonfire. The old man was Mahatma Gandhi and the bonfire was a pile of British-made goods. Most had been made with Indian raw materials, produced by exploited labour, shipped to England, processed in Manchester mills and dumped back in India to stifle native Indian industry.
Gandhi had the gumption to defy this madness and propose a saner economic model that would see local industry and craftsmanship thrive. It is a pity that Gandhi’s country paid little heed to his prescient ideas back then. It is an even greater pity that that image remains resonant more than eighty years later. We still live in a world where shellfish caught in Britain (by illegal Chinese migrant labourers paid as little as a pound a day) are shipped to China for processing before they are shipped back to Britain for packaging and sale in British supermarkets.
Mahatma Gandhi’s response to the economic rape of his country was to call for the boycott of foreign-made goods and promote the consumption of swadeshi (local) goods. This simple idea has guided conscientious consumers for years. Buying local as often as possible is not only better for one’s local economy, but also more ecologically sound. Goods that have travelled thousands of miles in the production process leave tons of CO2 emissions in their wake. So if you are in India, buy Indian. If you live in Canada, buy Canadian. Simple.
Unfortunately, even simple options are rarely available to those who bother reflecting on what they consume. Currently, a ‘Made in Canada’ or ‘Product of Canada’ label did not mean what any Canadian might rationally infer it to mean. All such a label meant was that at least 51% percent of the production costs of the item were spent in Canada. So even items like exotic foods that are impossible to grow in Canada’s frigid climes could masquerade as being made in Canada. This scandalous state of affairs is about to change.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a sweeping set of changes to food labelling regulations. Candidly admitting that "The truth is foods marked product of Canada or made in Canada actually may not be very Canadian at all”, the PM went on to declare, "Under our new rules, if something in the grocery store is marked product of Canada, it must mean all or virtually all the contents are Canadian" (see CBC report). While it remains to be seen how much leeway the ‘virtually all’ caveat will allow manufacturers, this is a certainly a step in the right direction. Now, Canadian consumers will have the privilege of correctly assuming that the labels on their food mean what they say!
This is a significant victory in the battle for greater transparency in food labelling. This battle is one that is not restricted to Canada alone. But it is in Canada that what ought to have been a basic given has been finally won as a right. Governments need to stand up to pressure from food industry pressure (and an industry it is) and enable their citizens to make ethical choices. The Canadian example is one that citizens the world over can cite to their legislators when lobbying for stricter food regulations.
Hooray Mr Harper for doing the right thing. And, sir, while you are in the mood for change, could you show similar spine on the matter of labelling genetically modified food? That would truly make Canada a shining example.