Fresh fruit, frozen fruit: the paradox
On the way back the apples slowly melt in my non-air-conditioned car. The thermometer reads 36 ÂșC. Iâm thinking about the excuse that often serves to justify the lack of local fruits on our shelves and in our organic baskets: âThe season is too short.â Fair enough â 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.
ââEat localâ applies for fresh produce, but for frozen, you have to go international,â explains RenĂ© Morissette, principal buyer for the MontrĂ©al company Natureâs Touch, which provides 80 per cent of all the frozen fruits and vegetables in Canadaâs grocery stores. âWe donât reach the critical mass of production of strawberries or raspberries to justify the infrastructure for freezing fruits here,â he tells me. QuĂ©bec 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 QuĂ©becois infrastructure for freezing. âNo one does cranberries as well as we do,â he says.
Even for fresh fruit, there are several contradictions. A quick glance at our apple imports makes my eyebrows go up. If thereâs one fruit we produce in large quantities, this is it. How is it that we import 29 million dollarsâ worth of fresh apples and 50 million dollarsâ worth of apple products every year?
QuĂ©bec produces an enormous amount of apples â 115,000 tons annually. It could conserve them for 12 months in temperature-controlled warehouses.
Part of the answer is that our climate doesnât allow us to cultivate Granny Smith and other popular varieties that grow in the sunny valleys of the United States. âTheyâre brands,â Sobkowiak explains. âPeople tend to return to what they knew in their childhood.â Are we ready to sacrifice green apples for a local option? âAfter having had access to such a wide variety of products, Iâd be surprised,â 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 â a percentage that falls to 10% in winter. âItâs not so much the variety but the volume thatâs lacking in Quebec in terms of organics,â explains Maxime Lachapelle, Senior Category Manager for fresh and frozen products at Avril.
âCurrently, farmers produce several varieties for organic baskets. Some offer me 12 cases of shallots every week. But 12 cases stretched over eight stores doesnât go very far. When I meet small producers who donât really know what to do, I tell them, âProduce three winners in large quantities, and then Iâll be able to do business with you.â But the more variety you have, the less efficient you are, the higher your prices and the less youâre in the game,â he says.
As I leave Maxime and the air-conditioned aisles of Avril, I canât help but wonder whether we might one day supply our grocery stores with local fruit â and aspire to a greater food autonomy â without resorting to intensive monoculture.