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

Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue launched a website earlier this month. (Screenshot/KHSAR)
Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue launches website

KHSAR’s website features helpful links, ways to help

The Abbotsford Police Department is investigating a shooting on Adair Avenue on Saturday night. (File photo by Dale Klippenstein)
Drive-by shooting in Abbotsford targeted home with young children, police say

Investigators believe home was mistakenly targeted by assailants

Morning mist clears over the Hope Slough at Camp River Road on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (Jessica Peters/ Chilliwack Progress)
WEATHER: Sunny skies in the forecast for Chilliwack and Abbotsford

Rain and wind expected Sunday night through Monday morning, then clear skies

Email news@ahobserver.com
LETTER: A thank you from the local Legion

Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 32 thanks the community

LEFT: Krista Macinnis, with a red handprint across her face that symbolizes the silencing of First Nations people, displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
RIGHT: Abbotsford School District Kevin Godden says the district takes responsibility for the harm the assignment caused.
Abbotsford school district must make amends for harmful residential school assignment: superintendent

‘The first step is to unreservedly apologize for the harm … caused to our community’: Kevin Godden

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

A pedestrian makes their way through the snow in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

In British Columbia and the Prairies, forecasters are calling for above-average snowfall levels

NDP Leader John Horgan, left, speaks as local candidate Ravi Kahlon listens during a campaign stop at Kahlon’s home in North Delta, B.C., on April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

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 Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Most Read