Fresh fruit, frozen fruit: the paradox
On the way back the apples slowly melt in my non-air-conditioned car. The thermometer reads 36 ºC. I’m thinking about the excuse that often serves to justify the lack of local fruits on our shelves and in our organic baskets: “The season is too short.” Fair enough — but how is it that even frozen fruit is so hard to find? Every year, I have to freeze rhubarb and berries harvested at the neighbouring farm in order to have enough provisions.
A quick glance in grocery store freezers takes us on an international trip: strawberries from Chile, raspberries from Peru. At the back of a shelf, a little bag of apples from the United States. Only the wild blueberries from Lac-Saint-Jean alter the picture.
“‘Eat local’ applies for fresh produce, but for frozen, you have to go international,” explains René Morissette, principal buyer for the Montréal company Nature’s Touch, which provides 80 per cent of all the frozen fruits and vegetables in Canada’s grocery stores. “We don’t reach the critical mass of production of strawberries or raspberries to justify the infrastructure for freezing fruits here,” he tells me. Québec is simply nowhere near the agricultural output of California, Mexico, or Chile, who freeze their surplus once the fruit market is saturated. Only cranberries and blueberries justify Québecois infrastructure for freezing. “No one does cranberries as well as we do,” he says.
Even for fresh fruit, there are several contradictions. A quick glance at our apple imports makes my eyebrows go up. If there’s one fruit we produce in large quantities, this is it. How is it that we import 29 million dollars’ worth of fresh apples and 50 million dollars’ worth of apple products every year?
Québec produces an enormous amount of apples — 115,000 tons annually. It could conserve them for 12 months in temperature-controlled warehouses.
Part of the answer is that our climate doesn’t allow us to cultivate Granny Smith and other popular varieties that grow in the sunny valleys of the United States. “They’re brands,” Sobkowiak explains. “People tend to return to what they knew in their childhood.” Are we ready to sacrifice green apples for a local option? “After having had access to such a wide variety of products, I’d be surprised,” says Sylvie Senay, co-owner of Avril, a chain of eight organic grocery stores across the province.
25 years ago, the available local organic crop at Avril came down to carrots alone. Today, 25% of the fruits and vegetables available in summertime are grown here — a percentage that falls to 10% in winter. “It’s not so much the variety but the volume that’s lacking in Quebec in terms of organics,” explains Maxime Lachapelle, Senior Category Manager for fresh and frozen products at Avril.
“Currently, farmers produce several varieties for organic baskets. Some offer me 12 cases of shallots every week. But 12 cases stretched over eight stores doesn’t go very far. When I meet small producers who don’t really know what to do, I tell them, ‘Produce three winners in large quantities, and then I’ll be able to do business with you.’ But the more variety you have, the less efficient you are, the higher your prices and the less you’re in the game,” he says.
As I leave Maxime and the air-conditioned aisles of Avril, I can’t help but wonder whether we might one day supply our grocery stores with local fruit — and aspire to a greater food autonomy — without resorting to intensive monoculture.