What will “normal” look like now that COVID-19 has become an inescapable part of our reality? Physical distancing will continue, people will wear masks, and seniors will remain isolated until a vaccine is created. But we must plan for the future now to prevent food insecurity due to climate change and pandemic-related supply disruptions. An even greater crisis awaits us.
The United Nations warns that, due to COVID-19, people facing severe food insecurity worldwide could double from 135 million in January 2020 to 265 million by 2021. Climate-related problems of floods, wildfires, drought, and locusts are rapidly getting worse. Columbia University researchers announced that California and the US southwest, which supply most of our food here in British Columbia, might be experiencing the second worst mega-drought in 1,200 years.
In 1972 I drafted a simple statement for NDP agriculture policy in a booklet, “A New Deal For People,” going into the provincial election. The suggestion to “establish a land-zoning program to set aside areas for agricultural production and to prevent such land being subdivided for industrial and residential areas” was adopted by the BC NDP Government on April 18, 1973, and the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) was created. In 1976 the concept was adopted at the third UN-Habitat “World Urban Forum” conference in Vancouver.
Over the years, hundreds of small parcels and several large blocks of farmland have been removed from the ALR.
The ALR not only preserved the province’s limited amount of farmland, but also shaped growth patterns over the next 45-50 years. Metro Vancouver adopted the ALR as an urban containment boundary creating more efficient and compact urban communities.
In 1973, BC was producing 86% of our vegetables and small fruit on the 1.1% of BC that is Class 1-3 agricultural land. We were losing 15,000 acres of farmland to development every year, much of it high-producing land in the Lower Fraser Valley.
The original concept of the ALR included a Land Bank to get young farmers back on the land. About 10,000 acres were sold or leased to young farmers in the first four years. It also included BC’s first major allotment gardens in Richmond to promote urban agriculture, and an Industrial Land Reserve to prevent erosion of farmland to industry.
In 1977, when the Barrett NDP Government was defeated, the Land Bank and the Industrial Land Reserve were taken out of the legislation. The allotment gardens were sold to create the “Fantasy Gardens” shopping centre in Richmond.
Over the years, hundreds of small parcels and several large blocks of farmland were removed from the ALR, like Terra Nova in Richmond, Spetifore Farm in Delta, Six Mile Ranch at Kamloops, and finally the Site C Dam on the Peace River. More recently, lax regulations have permitted an influx of mega-mansions and country estates. The BC Ministry of Agriculture recommended a maximum house size of 4,300-5,000 sq.ft. but the government refused to act until the government changed in 2018.
The government-appointed BC Food Security Task Force’s final report, The Future of BC’s Food System, wants 0.25% of the ALR (class 4-7 land) allocated for “a broader category of use essentially categorized as agricultural-industrial,” in order to “spur rapid establishment of agritech and agri-innovation enterprises [and] attract companies that align with agri-industrial vision to these new zones of opportunity.” That will fuel further speculation on farmland, and make it more difficult for farmers to buy farmland or negotiate long term leases. Agritech companies could instead be located on land outside the ALR in various sites around the province, such as the Inland Port at Ashcroft.
Farmland for truck parking
The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority already wants 2,600 acres of farmland for Port expansion instead of expanding to Ashcroft or other ports along the coast. The Port has purchased 218 acres in Richmond, and speculators with close ties to the Port own much of the desired 2,600 acres in Richmond, Delta, and Barnston Island. The Port refused to provide land for parking trucks. Class 4 land that should have been agricultural-industrial became truck parking and manufacturing along River Road and Westminster Highway in Richmond. The same is happening around Burns Bog in Delta. Ironically, Class 4 land is best suited for cranberries, one of the most valuable crops in Canada.
Now, BC is experiencing massive cost overruns at the Site C dam. This dam would flood 9,430 acres of prime farmland. On July 31, BC Hydro announced the cost is rising from $10.7 billion (previously $9 billion) to about $12 billion. Being built on shales, in the absence of bedrock, the dam may not even be stable. It’s time to develop solar, wind, and geothermal energy that doesn’t flood forest and prime farmland like the planned Site C dam. It isn’t too late to rethink the Site C dam.
84% of our food imports come across the US border. We will increase our food self-reliance and reduce our CO2 footprint dramatically if we grow food locally.
A 2013 report from the UBC Collaborative For Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP) recommended rooftop solar in Metro Vancouver that would produce electricity for 900,000 homes or heat up to 650,000 households. It praised the City of Richmond’s Alexandra District Energy Utility which is using geothermal systems to eliminate baseboard heating in downtown Richmond apartment buildings. There is no need to flood farmland for hydro.
It is time for the BC Government to stop the erosion of the ALR and put more emphasis on local food systems, urban agriculture and organic farming. During WWII, when food was rationed and sent overseas to support the soldiers, Canadians and Americans grew 40% of their vegetables and small fruit in their own backyard “victory” gardens.
The BC government needs to establish a Land Bank once again to get land into production and into the hands of young farmers.
At the 2006 World Urban Forum in Vancouver, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN) warned that cities need to provide more of their own food. At the same time, IESCO (The International Ecological Safety Collaborative Organization) asked Richmond and Kwantlen Polytechnic University to establish a municipal farm school and land bank to provide food for urban populations. KPU planted their first crop on 20 acres of the 136-acre Garden City Lands near downtown Richmond in 2018. Richmond is providing incubator farms for graduates to improve their skills and making unused, privately-owned farmland available. As the farm school develops, 300 allotment gardens will be provided for downtown apartment dwellers.
A 2006 study by the BC Ministry of Agriculture, BC’s Food Self-Reliance: Can BC’s Farmers Feed Our Growing Population? found that BC’s population had increased 82% between 1971 and 2001, and BC produced only 56% of its own food. It concluded that “to produce a healthy diet for British Columbians,” farmland with access to irrigation needs to increase by 230,000 acres or 49% over 2005 levels.
A Regional Food System Action Plan was adopted by Metro Vancouver in 2016, stressing a need for increased local food “storage, processing and distribution,” with more land under vegetable production to replace imported foods.
A more detailed study by Davies Transportation Consulting in April 2020, Food Flows in Metro Vancouver, studied food sources, imports, and exports in BC and found that only 35% of the BC food supply is sourced from within the province.
Approximately 14% of the food supply is sourced within the Metro Vancouver region, nowhere near the 40% recommended by the FAO today. Since 84% of our food imports come across the US border, we will increase our food self-reliance and reduce our CO2 footprint from trucking dramatically if we get more land into production and grow food locally.
Local agriculture can also reduce greenhouse gas production. Grassland, pasture, and plants are second only to trees for sequestering CO2 as long as the byproducts, manures, and compost are returned to the soil, and no fossil fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are used.
A solid urban containment boundary around the ALR is an urgent provincial responsibility.
Let’s all continue with the environmentally-positive changes we have made with COVID-19 like video conferencing, reduced air travel, e-commerce, working from home, and planting gardens. Cities should promote local agriculture with farmers’ markets and allotment gardens, and encourage farming of unused arable lands to reduce the need for shipping and dependence on other countries for our basic foods.
Farm schools and food hubs
More cities should innovate with enterprises like Richmond’s award-winning geothermal energy projects and Garden City Lands, where a 2.7 hectare farm school is maintained through KPU and more urban agriculture is planned.
The BC government needs to:
- Re-evaluate farm assessments, taxes, and the low farm income threshold that still encourages country estates,
- Help BC farmers expand local food production,
- Develop food hubs (including fisheries) and expand processing and distribution,
- establish local food procurement policies,
- Increase farm research and extension services to farmers,
- Take steps to reduce high-emissions inputs and transition back to crop rotations and regenerative agriculture,
- Assure a local BC seed supply in times of scarcity,
- Expand market access and health safety with provincially-inspected meats and abattoirs, and
- Establish a Land Bank once again to get land into production and into the hands of young farmers.
- A solid urban containment boundary around the ALR is an urgent provincial responsibility.
Corporations will urge politicians to return to the old ways to pay off pandemic costs. We must not let that happen. The cumulative effects of loss of farmland, rising population, and increasing dependence on sources of food beyond our borders are damning. Our “new normal” should be a sustainable future that values clean air, water, and food.
Harold Steves is an agroecologist, farmer, former MLA and a founder of the Agricultural Land Reserve. He has been a Richmond councillor for 49 years and is the Coastal Community Network South Coast Director on the Groundfish Development Authority.
This article appears in our October-November 2020 issue.