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B.C. struggles to make sense of the food crisis

Keira McPhee traded her East Vancouver front lawn for a garden. Here, she plants strawberries.

Keira McPhee traded her East Vancouver front lawn for a garden. Here, she plants strawberries.

VANCOUVER – Keira McPhee’s response to the world food crisis is to pave over her front lawn. Not with asphalt, but with an initial application of “weed tea” to help fertilize the ground.

“No marijuana in it!” she says, standing in gumboots outside her blue stucco home on Adanac Street in east Vancouver. “Buttercups and stuff.”

Next came a layer of cardboard – a source of fibre and carbon – followed by at least 15 centimetres of organic matter that included grass clippings, leaves, even a neat score of bedding straw from the Stanley Park petting zoo.

Then she planted a border of herbs and flowers specially selected to provide esthetic beauty, attract beneficial insects, and serve as a source of alternative healing medicines.

Next came a layer of cardboard – a source of fibre and carbon – followed by at least 15 centimetres of organic matter that included grass clippings, leaves, even a neat score of bedding straw from the Stanley Park petting zoo.

Then she planted a border of herbs and flowers specially selected to provide esthetic beauty, attract beneficial insects, and serve as a source of alternative healing medicines.

Finally, came the nourishing heart of the organic operation, vegetables such as chard, lettuce, carrots, leeks, and Chinese produce – bok choy and gai lan.

McPhee’s little two-level Second World War home stands in an ethnic neighbourhood where Portuguese, Italians, and Chinese have long grown produce in their back yard – but where front-yard vegetable patches remain an oddity.

“It’s a way to stimulate conversation,” allows McPhee, whose five-year-old son, Harry, loves to gnaw on raw veggies. “I get lots of weird looks, too. People thinking stuff, but not saying it.”

Truth is, McPhee is at the cusp of a grassroots movement.

All over British Columbia, people are struggling to make sense of the world food crisis, wondering how it might affect their food supply, and seeking to make a difference in their own lives.

Climate change is forcing people to address their carbon footprint. Higher oil prices are encouraging a trend toward public transit and fuel-efficient vehicles.

And, now, the advent of world food shortages and fast-rising food prices is forcing us to think twice about the daily food we eat, the reliability of foreign imports, and the need to protect and enhance our province’s ability to produce food.

“It’s the silver lining in the cloud,” says Devorah Kahn, the City of Vancouver’s food policy coordinator. “It’s unfortunate, but maybe some good will come out of it.”

Around the world, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia have banned rice exports.

Economically depressed countries such as Haiti, Egypt, Somalia, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso have been hit by riots over rising food costs.

Soaring fuel prices, weather-related crop problems, market greed, increased demand from the burgeoning middle classes in India and China, and the push to grow corn and wheat for ethanol fuels are among the factors cited as contributing to the crisis.

Whether or not the current situation subsides and market forces correct themselves, the crisis has alerted people to the global food issue and is forcing nations to consider their own food security.

B.C. farmers are already struggling in the face of rising fuel, feed and fertilizer costs, export issues related to the strong Canadian loonie, and the vagaries of climate change.

The rising cost of farmland poses a formidable challenge to newcomers in the industry, while some of our best farmland continues to be removed from the agricultural land reserve for development.

Development of a policy on food self-reliance may run up against Canada’s international trade obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement and with the World Trade Organization, but some say that is exactly the sort of debate that is needed.

Bill Rees, a professor in the school of community and regional planning at the University of B.C., says conditions cry out for a national food policy, one that recognizes the modern reality of unstable world food supplies in a finite world under increasing human pressure.

“We’re in a different world now,” he said, noting that advances in technology have failed to prevent the world food crisis. “The earth is full.”

Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, said there’s been increasing awareness over the past couple of years of the need to fight obesity, especially to wean children off junk food in schools, and to support local farmers producing healthier home-grown foods.

He supports a policy that at least “encourages food security and local food production.”

Farmers across Canada are also seriously debating the issue, if from different perspectives.

Producers who sell mostly within Canada – including those in the milk, egg, chicken, and turkey sectors, operating as marketing boards – are more likely to support a policy of self-sufficiency.

Those dependent on exports stand to lose in a protectionist war.

Garnet Etsell is an Abbotsford turkey farmer and chair of the B.C. Agriculture Council who realizes that the world food crisis is having an impact on B.C., but cautions against panic.

Supplies of certain food items might become tight, but he dismisses the notion of Canadians running out of food. He sees Canada as a big country with abundant resources – including water – that is well positioned to produce food into the future.

Of rice shortages, he says: “You know, we grow a lot of potatoes in this country.”

In urban areas, proximity to markets means that locally grown produce stands a good chance of being consumed close to home. Community gardens are a popular way to allow citizens to grow their own food and farmers’ markets allow small growers in particular to sell directly to consumers.

To support that sort of activity, Metro Vancouver’s agriculture committee is planning to host a special conference for municipal politicians and non-profit organizations early this summer to discuss the role of urban farming in addressing issues of regional food self-reliance.

Harold Steves, a farmer and veteran Richmond councillor who chairs the committee, says there is a powerful grassroots movement in urban agriculture, and encourages politicians to assist rather than stymie the trend. “Public awareness is so great that if we allow it to happen, it will.”

He also urged innovative ways of enhancing food production, perhaps even more cattle grazing on grass popping up beneath Interior forests killed by the mountain pine beetle.

“Ranchers are going broke in B.C. because the price of grain has gone up,” Steves said. “Maybe we have to convert to grass-fed beef.”

Vancouver city council passed a motion in 2006 to create 2,010 new food-producing garden plots in the city by 2010 as an Olympic legacy. Since then, 955 have been produced.

Kahn said local food may not be cheaper, but at least it is accessible as markets for foreign food become increasingly shaky. She encourages stronger protection of the land reserve and the need for farmland to be actively worked, while denouncing the use of food crops such as corn for corn syrup and for production of ethanol fuels.

“We need food for our bellies, not our gas habitat,” she said.

British Columbia is especially vulnerable, with just three per cent of its total provincial land area considered arable or potentially arable to meet the food needs of its 4.3 million residents.

The province had 19,844 farm holdings in 2006 covering 2.8 million hectares with an average size of 143 hectares, producing just 48 per cent of all foods consumed in the province.

Only fruit production exceeded provincial consumption levels, at 159 per cent. In other categories, the province was 57 per cent self-sufficient in dairy products, 64 per cent in meat and alternatives, 43 per cent in vegetables, and 14 per cent in grains.

Much of the best agricultural land in B.C. has nothing to do with producing food for humans.

B.C.’s 2006 food self-reliance report noted that in 2001 such operations consumed more than 150,000 hectares, including 100,000 hectares for horses, 42,077 for nursery stock, 6,018 for Christmas trees, 3,000 for floriculture, and 837 for sod.

There are also concerns over investors purchasing farmland in the hope of getting it removed from the land reserve, and increasingly over wealthy buyers scooping up tracts of farmland for their residential properties and doing little or nothing with the food production potential.

Both activities drive up the price of farmland to the point new farmers struggle to get into the business.

The provincial government sought to address the future of farming in February with a report entitled, The British Columbia Agriculture Plan: Growing a Healthy Future for B.C. Families.

The plan outlined 23 strategies that included: the promotion of B.C. agriculture and food products; the reduction of climate change and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from food production and processing; establishment of an industry-led, self-sustaining agri-food and bioproducts innovation centre; and the preservation of agricultural land.

But the report was written prior to the advent of the latest world food problems, and stops short of making food self-reliance or self-sufficiency a goal.

Critics say the report amounts to a series of platitudes that lack the specifics necessary to achieve the stated outcomes, and complain that the agricultural land reserve continues to bleed good farmland for urban and industrial development.

The Lower Mainland contains the best farmland in Canada, with rich soils supporting the longest growing season and the widest diversity of crops.

Yet the Fraser Valley has lost 5,389 hectares of farmland since 1974 and Greater Vancouver 6,158 hectares. Another 7,207 hectares have been excluded in the Central Okanagan, a region famous for its orchards and vineyards.

Dave Sands is a professional agrologist and retired regional director for the B.C. Agriculture Ministry who is now a member of the ALR Protection and Enhancement Committee.

The farmland advocacy group urges restructuring the land commission to ensure that applications for exclusions are heard by a provincial body rather than regional panels vulnerable to local pressures.

It also is pushing for soil conservation legislation, laws to prohibit foreign and absentee ownership of farmland, and regional land-use planning to secure farmland boundaries and establish industrial areas that would share the taxes with all local governments.

“It seems to take chaos before government reacts,” Sands laments from his Abbotsford home.

Pat Bell, minister of agriculture and lands, said in response that the government’s first priority under the B.C. Agriculture Plan is to make farming profitable for those already in the industry.

That’s best accomplished by producing food to meet local demands, Bell figures, giving credit to the book, The Hundred Mile Diet, for bringing its “local eating for global change” message to the public consciousness.

“It’s time to focus on producing for our own food needs rather than those of the international marketplace,” he said. “That’s a big shift.”

Bell added the government is firmly committed to the land reserve, noting exclusions have slowed to a trickle in recent years. The Fraser Valley lost a net 52 hectares of farmland in 2007, up from five hectares in 2006, 186 in 2005, and 88 in 2004.

“We don’t want people speculating on agricultural land,” he said. “We want to send a strong message that agricultural land is for growing food. It’s not for houses or industrial uses.”

Farmers take the position they support the agricultural land reserve as long as it allows them to make a living.

But farm profitability can be a relative concept, with the vagaries of markets forever causing farmers to second-guess consumer trends that can guarantee success.

Statistics Canada figures show the amount of land under cultivation for apples in B.C. dropped significantly to 4,000 hectares in 2007 from 7,360 in 1997, while pears dropped to 200 hectares from 510, and strawberries to 356 acres from 720.

During the same period, land cultivated for blueberries increased to 6,400 hectares from 2,200 and grapes to 2,986 hectares from 988, consistent with the booming demand for B.C. wines.

More change is inevitable in future as farmers – and, increasingly, individuals – sow their seeds against the winds of an uncertain food climate.

As for McPhee, she won’t save the world with her little vegetable patch on Adanac Street, but she is spreading the word to others who might follow her.

The former manager of web strategy at the University of B.C. now works with the Sustainable Living Arts School ( ) and Langara College ( ) providing courses for local residents keen on producing their own foods.

Topics include winter gardening, herbal medicines, long-term storage of foods, seed saving, plant propagation, beekeeping, and mushroom cultivation – pretty much anything but lawn-growing.

“We live in a state of false abundance supported by the world’s poor,” says McPhee, warning of an inevitable reckoning.

“I’m not totally against grass. But maintaining the green carpet at the expense of a vegetable garden seems insane.”

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