Every time I hear the phrase “Select Nova Scotia”, I cringe. It isn’t that I have an abhorrence for Nova Scotia products or a general dislike of catchy phrases and glitzy marketing. It is that I have a hard won distrust of the well-intentioned policy initiative. There is always a catch. I also can’t help but wonder whether “buying local” isn’t setting our sights just a little too low and setting ourselves up for an unpleasant surprise.
Let’s consider what the buy local campaign is attempting to achieve. Basically, it assumes we can change buying behaviour through a combination of guilt, peer pressure, patriotism and old fashioned marketing guile. The policymakers have seen the trend towards greater purchases of “healthy” or “organic” foods (foods which generally come at a higher price) and are betting that they can create a similar trend towards Nova Scotian foods here at home. There are several challenges such a strategy must overcome.
First, many people have a set amount of money with which to buy food for their families. Their objective in making buying decisions is to get the maximum amount of food at the lowest possible cost. This means that, where Nova Scotia foods are more expensive, Select Nova Scotia’s job just got a lot harder. With a dollar at or above par with the US greenback those cheap imports just became cheaper and our local cost crunch a bit tighter.
I have every confidence that my fellow Nova Scotian consumers will answer the call to support Nova Scotian producers so long as it does no obvious harm to those consumers and their families. Loyalty, the base emotion of the buy local campaign, starts at home.
Of course the designers of the Select Nova Scotia campaign are not stupid. They know the odds are very long that a purely free choice consumer driven campaign will make a meaningful difference. So part of the answer is to not give consumers a choice. This is where institutional, i.e. government bulk purchases, come into play. Institutional purchases are made from Nova Scotian suppliers wherever possible. Hospitals and prisons (our big institutional buyers) are facing higher food bills and we, the taxpayers, get to foot those bills. So, congratulations, feel good about yourself, you have already contributed to the Select Nova Scotia campaign.
But, voluntary or not, will these choices make any positive difference? If we build our agricultural industries on a model tied even partially to the size of local demand we have accepted an artificial limit on how big those industries can be. And, based on current demographic trends, that means we have accepted that those industries will continue in decline as our local consumption declines in line with population. We are setting ourselves up to fail.
This restriction becomes even worse if we push our consumers to buy local, and it works. The logical response for our export markets is to launch the same kind of “successful” campaign, urging their consumers to buy local. The result is then fewer markets for our excess goods, further downward pressure on the required supply because of this slipping demand and ultimately fewer Nova Scotian farmers – a brutal application of this basic principle of economics.
Rather than buy into buy local I suggest we follow the example of our neighbours. Shrimp fisherman in New Brunswick and pork producers in PEI are facing similar challenges to Nova Scotian farmers. Heavy regulation, high taxes, high costs for inputs, significant distances to market and relatively small economies of scale. What is their response? Turn weakness into strength – if you have a high cost product, sell it in a high price marketplace.
New Brunswick shrimp fishermen are working with their government to secure international designation as an environmentally sustainable fishery. PEI is taking the brand PEI Pork to the shelves of US grocers as a high end Omega 3 fortified healthy choice. This will allow both groups to access the very market that inspired the Select Nova Scotia campaign, the $40 billion and growing “organic” food marketplace. A market of that size, as opposed to a market of our size, will not only sustain our local producers but allow them to grow, and growth is a goal we should all strive for.
Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,
www.aims.ca, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.