When it comes to panic buying, vegetable seeds are up there with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Pandemic gardens are trending. Through March and April, seed suppliers across North America were so overwhelmed with orders that many had to temporarily close down their online platforms, or stop selling to home gardeners.
Reared in the economic orthodoxy that worships efficiency and scale, we may be tempted to scoff at such naïve attempts at self-sufficiency. Yet the pandemic is showing us the frightening vulnerability of our food systems. Becoming more resilient – as communities, provinces and as a nation – will require us to re-learn some measure of self-sufficiency when it comes to food and other essential services.
The conversations we’re beginning to have now – in the media, in the legislatures – show that we’re taking the first steps in grappling with some of the vulnerabilities of our current food system. Canada has always worked to enact policies that support sustainable family farms – the problem by and large is post farm-gate. COVID-19 has awakened us to the fact that large-scale food processing concentrated in a handful of plants can cause continent-wide disruption, compared, for example, with regional hubs processing produce grown in the region. We are also beginning to connect the dots between underpaid foreign labour, our dependence on food imports, and the very real possibility of shortages of some food items.
To achieve food security in the post-COVID era we will have to go against the grain of much of the economic thinking that has increasingly dominated the discussion since the mid-1980s and the emergence of globalization. We will have to reverse decades of policy-makers’ efforts to steer the economy toward profitability on paper and away from meeting basic needs. We will have to grapple with the fact that the supply of farmland is limited and that some of the losses will be irreversible. Others may still be reclaimed, if we act swiftly. But make no mistake, Canada’s farmland is on the international auction block.
To achieve food security in the post-COVID era, we will have to reverse decades of policy-makers’ efforts to steer the economy toward profitability on paper and away from meeting basic needs.
BC has a very small percentage of first class agricultural land, which is why BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve was created in 1973. Since then, the ALR has been both weakened and reduced in size. Both the Liberal and the NDP governments have allowed the “death by a thousand cuts” to proceed apace whenever it suited them. Over the years, urbanization and sprawl have been allowed to gobble up prime acreage in Richmond/Delta and on Vancouver Island (and even more may be lost if the planned Deltaport expansion goes ahead).
But nowhere has the loss been so devastating as in the northern part of our province. The fracking boom has decimated food production in a region that was already by far the most food-insecure in the province – and the pandemic makes everything much worse. The uniquely productive Peace River Valley, “the valley of the southern North,” is close to being sacrificed for the destructive and unnecessary Site C dam project. Yet it is not lost, and in the new normal of a global pandemic it is even more worth fighting for.
A unique food oasis
Born from the confluence of the Parsnip and Finlay rivers (now submerged by the Williston Reservoir formed by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam), the Peace River flows east past Hudson’s Hope and Fort St John before crossing the border into Alberta and wending its way north, joining the Athabasca, Slave, and MacKenzie river systems before entering the Arctic.
Blessed with a warm inflow of air from the Pacific, the alluvial soils and class one climate for agriculture of the Peace River Valley give it the same cropping capacity as BC’s Fraser Valley, with higher yields due to longer hours of sunshine in the summer months.
It is not too late. BC Hydro’s works to date can be easily removed, the flood reserve lifted, and the valley allowed to heal.
The farmland to be flooded by the Site C Dam has the potential – cropped to its highest and best use, which is fresh vegetables – to meet the nutritional needs of over one million people a year, forever.
The prime agricultural land at Site C is not only closer to Vancouver than California and Mexico (suppliers of over 60% of the imported fruits and vegetables BC could grow in this province) – it is on the doorstep of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, both of which are critically food insecure and said by Ottawa to be a federal food security priority.
Food security in the post-COVID era
COVID-19 puts food security on the front burner. The Peace Valley land to be flooded by the Site C Dam is critical to Canadian food security – both in BC and northern Alberta, and also in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
It is not too late. According to BC Hydro’s own reports, the diversion tunnels are seriously behind schedule. BC Hydro’s works to date can be easily removed, the flood reserve lifted, and the valley allowed to heal. Farmers who lost land to the dam project should be offered incentives to return. BC’s universities should be invited to form a learning cooperative and acquire the land to establish a Centre of Excellence on Sustainable Agriculture that would offer practicums for students to study cutting-edge methods, and then homestead them in the valley as part of a growing food security cooperative.
We have highly productive land, a unique microclimate and unprecedented public need. With good public policy, growing the new young farmers to make it all happen would be the easy part!
Wendy Holm is an award-winning Canadian Professional Agrologist (Ret’d), economist, and journalist. She is the editor of Damming the Peace: the Hidden Costs of the Site C Dam (2018, Lorimer, Toronto).
Ana Simeon is a food security advocate who grows year-round vegetable crops on rented and share-cropped land in Victoria. A journalist by background, she also works for RAVEN Trust (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) as a campaigns director.
Read the open letter from prominent British Columbians (including David Suzuki, Grand Chief Stewart Philip, and former BC Hydro boss Marc Eliesen) to John Horgan, demanding the government stop construction on the controversial Site C dam project immediately.
This article appears in our October-November 2020 issue.