Friday, May 16, 2014

The ALR - (potential) Farmland, not Holy Land

Local agriculture cannot feed Southwest BC.  It can potentially provide a small, but significant, portion of it, but it will never support the population.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone; back in 2006 the government found BC as a whole was about 48% self-reliant for food. Feeding the densest corner of the province from local farms?  Ain’t gonna happen. 

This farm would feed those towers for about two minutes

First off, what is local food?  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines it as such  (it is noted this is an interim description and subject to a review).
  •  food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
  •  food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory
The problem with that definition is BC is big.  No seriously, BC is REALLY FREAKING BIG.  Like it would be the 32nd largest country in the world big (larger than Venezuela, Turkey or France).  Saying all food produced within BC (or parts of AB/Yukon) is local to Vancouver is insane.  Los Angeles is closer to Vancouver than the northwest corner of the province.

The previous definition was
  •  the food originated within a 50 km radius of the place where it was sold, or
  •  the food sold originated within the same local government unit (e.g. municipality) or adjacent government unit
That’s more local for sure.  CFIA says this is not representative of how things work today.  I don’t totally buy that, but I would say local food is somewhere in between those two definitions, somewhat closer to the old one.

So to pick a number out of nowhere, let’s say local food is food that originates from a 100 km radius.  Fits nicely with all those hipsters doing their 100 km (or is it mile?) diet.  Very, very VERY broadly speaking, someone on a North America needs about 1-1.2 acres of farmland to keep them fed.  If we take Southwest BC to include
  • Metro Vancouver
  • Fraser Valley Regional District
  • Squamish and Whistler
  • The Capital, Cowichan and Nanaimo Regional Districts
we need to feed roughly 3.35 million people, requiring (very) roughly 3.35 million acres of farmland.  How much farmland do we have within 100 km of those regions?

708,890 acres.  Sounds like a few of us are going hungry.  Now this is just the land in the Agricultural Land Reserve – I’m assuming all farmable land is captured in there.  Not true, but should be close enough for our purposes. 

It gets worse.  Of the 708,890 acres of ALR land near southwest BC, only 287,000 acres of it is Class 1-4 in ALR terms, which is land suitable to growing food crops (and it ain’t easy on class 4 land).  Now the one acre per person assumption does account for the fact that lower quality land can potentially be used for grazing animals, so we don’t need to evacuate everyone just yet, but numbers are clear.  There is nowhere near enough local farmland to support Southwest BC.  There are too many people. Assuming all 708,000 count to the one-acre-per-person, local agriculture can feed ~20% of southwest BC currently, down to ~15% in 2040.  

Even worse worse, farming is highly regionalized.  From the reliance report, “For example, grains and oilseeds are produced primarily in the north, beef ranching occurs mainly in the Interior, the majority of tree fruits are produced in the Okanagan, dairy is concentrated in the Fraser Valley and north Okanagan, and the major production area for small fruits and vegetables is in the Fraser Valley.”  We’re not getting grains, meat, or tree fruits locally in any real quantity. 

What if we expand our “local” radius to 500 km?  That gets us up to 1.1 million acres of Class 1-4, or 2.7 million acres of everything.  We also get another 350,000 mouths to feed, but it’s still a net gain, and we get those lovely Okanagan peaches.  However, it’s still nowhere near enough, especially when we project 30 years into the future where we’re probably looking at over five-million people in the area. 

So when we’re told local agriculture is necessary for our food security, it’s a false bill of goods.  No matter what, Southwest BC will be reliant on importing the vast majority of our food from out of our region, if not out of our country.  Increasing density will only worsen the problem. 

Should we go with the interim definition of local, where the whole province is considered local to itself?  That’s pretty dubious.  One of benefits of local food is short distance to market.  This is supposed to mean you get fresher food, less preservatives, and it’s less transportation intensive. 

In the debate I constantly hear a whine of “why are we buying our food from California, when we could be buying it locally.”  Well, our largest chunk of ALR land, including Class 1-4, is in the Peace Region, centred around Fort St. John.  How far away is Fort St. John?  A little over 1,200 km. Going the other direction, this takes us a little south of Redding, California, not too far from Sacramento.  That chunk of farmland near Fort Nelson?  Farther away than San Francisco.

Apparently, this is local agriculture
Worse worse worse.  This is the description of farmland near Fort St. John, BC from Integrated Land Management BC, “Cold winters, short growing seasons and low precipitation limit the vegetation, agricultural crops and forest ecosystems that can thrive here.”  Limited crops and short growing seasons.  The 1 acre per person was estimated based on New York State farmland, with growing seasons of 150-200 days.  While we get that in Southwest BC, the growing season in the Peace region is near, and often less than, 100 days.

In order to grow, plants need sun, soil, air, water and snow.  
In season food?  Sure, for three months of the year.  The rest of the time we’re eating preserves.  So much for that benefit.  California’s growing seasons?  250 days plus, depending on where you are.  Our choice is fresh, in-season produce from 1,200 km away 9+ months of the year from California, or fresh, in-season foods from 1,200 km away for 3 months of the year from BC.  And that’s not even getting into variety of foods. 

Would local preserved food be better than shipped in fresh?  Well, it takes as much energy to run your chest freezer for a year as it would to ship the 2,000 pounds of food you eat per year from San Francisco on a semi-truck (the least efficient form of transport), and then there are all the nutritional losses from preservation, so I’d say we’re better off with the latter.  Especially since for Southwest BC, it won’t be local either way – ship in fresh food, or ship in preserved food?  It’s a no brainer to me.  Particularly since the Peace region is generally focused on grains, so we’re getting some form of processed food from them regardless.

Furthermore, if ALR land is critical for food security, why are we using it for non-food purposes?  Over 10,000 acres of land in BC are devoted to vineyards and wineries.  I like a glass of nice wine as much as the next fellow, but for the purpose of food security that land may as well not be in the ALR.  Same story for horses and Christmas tree farms.  In 2001, non-food use of farmland totaled 370,000 acres

So what can we do to reduce the reliance on distant food? 
  • Eat less food.  It would do most of us some good.
  • Promote more home agriculture.  While we will never live primarily off it, we can supplant our diets with home gardens. 
  • Eat more meat.  This is ironic as I was taught growing meat is bad and wasteful and is much more land intensive than crops.  It is, but many kinds of animals can pasture on land and crops that aren’t suitable for humans. 
  • Annex northern Washington.  Seattle might complain, but they’ll all be too stoned to do anything about it. 
  • Irrigation.  We are blessed with tremendous water resources in BC.  Perhaps we can leverage that to expand the amount of high quality farmland we can use.  I know it’s never just that simple, but it’s worth asking have we taken advantage of this where we can?  The self-reliance report indicated we will need a significant increase in irrigated lands to just maintain the current level of reliance. 
But even if we did all that, we will never be anywhere close to supporting the local population with local food.  Taking away a few acres of Class 7 land in Fort Nelson is not going to alter the food situation in BC – Southwest or as a whole.  Heck, taking away all the ALR land in northern BC isn’t going to alter the fundamental equation for Southwest BC – we already must and forever will need to import most of our food to Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

Should we remove all the land then?  No, but we need to accept that once a piece of land is designated as part of the ALR, it is not deified and never touchable for anything else ever again.  Food is only one of humans’ key needs.  We need shelter, activity, and community among other things.  It may well be better for the city, the province and for the people for some land currently in the ALR to be used for something else. Non-farming usage make this the case for over 3% of the ALR already.  

We can't meet our needs locally, so we should be focused on how to maintain a secure, stable food supply in spite of that.  Food security is generally defined along the lines of “the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” Giving someone affordable shelter or a well-paying job may be the best way for some ALR land to provide food security.  

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