May 19, 2016

Food security in BC? Don’t count on it.


If California’s farmers ever run out of the water needed to irrigate their crops, we’ll be in for a rude awakening.

With 70 per cent of British Columbia’s imported fruits and vegetables coming from the sunny US state, any climatic disaster there would almost certainly result in dramatic run-ups in food prices here.

Our elected leaders know that such a scenario may be close at hand. But they’re not talking much about it. Perhaps because to do so would be to admit that many of the government’s policy choices are at direct odds with the very idea of promoting domestic food security.

Thanks to a persistent drought that continues creeping northward, much of the US southwest is plagued by water shortfalls. At Lake Mead, the giant reservoir created by the iconic Hoover Dam, the current lake level is about 37 metres below what it was 15 years ago. The drop, equivalent to an 11-storey building, has residents in the nearby city of Las Vegas more than a little worried.

With less and less water available from natural surface water sources like rivers and lakes, or from artificial water bodies such as canals and reservoirs, California’s farmers are relying on water pumped from wells drilled deeper and deeper into the earth to nurture their crops. The pumping, which now accounts for 60 per cent or more of all of California’s water use, has been so intense that some farmer’s fields have sunk or subsided 18 inches in a single year.

None of this bodes well if you live in a jurisdiction that doesn’t grow enough food to feed its own populace and that relies instead on others to do the job.

Yet when it comes to questions of food security, Premier Christy Clark, Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick and others in our provincial government put a much different spin on what climate change portends for our province.

While acknowledging in this year’s Speech from the Throne how “climate change and increasing demands on water are challenging global agricultural production,” the government makes BC out to be an agricultural powerhouse in the making.

“One of the products BC is known around the world for is agriculture,” the government says in a sentence for which it should be awarded an A for audacity and an F for grammar.  

The Throne Speech then goes on to say that 2015 was “the highest ever sales of BC food and beverage products” in provincial history with sales topping $3 billion, and that “abundant and sustainable” sources of seafood from our coast represent BC’s “most significant opportunity to address world hunger.”

Hmmm. So beverages, including craft beers and wines, and farmed salmon are among the products that our government proposes to help feed a hungry world.

Yes, our government admits, climate change threatens food production in the US and Mexico “where much of our fresh produce is grown,” thus putting upward pressure on food prices. And yes, the current low Canadian dollar is further “putting a strain on BC families”.

But no worry. The government “has grown the size” of the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve – which was introduced more than 40 years ago to prevent BC’s farmlands from being bulldozed to make way for subdivisions, commercial and industrial developments. It has also “modernized” the operations of the Agricultural Land Commission to ensure that the ALR is protected. And soon such “successes” will be replicated elsewhere. There will be tax credits for farmers that donate food to non-profits, and in November an “agrifoods conference” will be held in the Premier’s riding of Kelowna “focusing on food security for BC.”

British Columbians recognize the value of our agricultural sector in ensuring our food supply security, and this is supported through the Buy Local program.

Your government will expand on these efforts by piloting work with industry, local governments, and community organizations to encourage British Columbians to Buy Local, Grow Local. This work will get more British Columbians engaged in growing food at home and in their communities. It will provide another source of fresh fruits and vegetables, and further strengthen the connections between British Columbians, our communities, and our agricultural sector.

With that, the government drops the topic of food security about as quickly as a hot potato, and an imported potato at that. The speech then moves on to our government’s ongoing efforts to cut “red tape” and the “needless rules” that impede growth in this great province of ours.

Rules that might, for example, get in the way of, say, the proposed 10-lane, $3.5 billion bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel or the Site C dam now under construction in BC’s Peace River valley. The latter of which represents the single-largest assault on our province’s Agricultural Land Reserve since its inception in 1973, and the former of which isn’t that far behind.

If you listen to Bill Bennett, BC’s Minister of Energy, building the $9 billion Site C dam will have virtually no impact on BC’s food security.

The valley to be flooded, he says, amounts to little more than marginal land for grazing cows and is infrequently used at that. “The current annual value of the crops from the portion of the valley that would be inundated is but $220,000,” Bennett said during a debate in the provincial legislature last fall.

But Bennett knows better than that. Not only is the quality of farmland that is at risk of being flooded among the most fertile in the province, but the amount of farmland that would be permanently destroyed by the Site C reservoir and related infrastructure is far greater than that commonly reported – a fact that neither the provincial government or BC Hydro does anything to correct.

Media reports have referred to the potential loss of roughly 3,000 hectares of farmland. But that is not what is spelled out in documents filed by BC Hydro with a joint federal-provincial panel that reviewed the environmental impacts of the dam. As revealed by investigative reporter Sarah Cox, those documents show that up to 12,000 hectares of farmland could be at risk from the Site C hydroelectric project.

A true accounting of the farmlands that will be lost due to the dam includes not just those lands that will immediately be flooded by the reservoir, but lands that subsequently erode or destabilize and collapse into the manmade lake, lands that are paved over when portions of the existing highway that will be flooded by the reservoir are rerouted, and other lands used to complete dam construction.

Soil scientists say that just a fifth of the lands that could be wiped away by the dam are capable of growing enough fruits and vegetables to feed one million people.

If the remaining four-fifths of those lands (which are less fertile, but still productive) are factored in, the benefits to British Columbians and neighbouring Albertans are markedly greater.

All of this is to be sacrificed on the altar of more made-in-BC “clean energy.” Not mentioned by the province or BC Hydro, however, is the embedded energy costs of the foods we eat and how those costs could rise once Site C is built.

Every container of mixed organic greens, every bunch of asparagus, every flat of strawberries, every cantaloupe imported from California to Vancouver travels roughly 2,000 kilometres. All of these fruits and vegetables and much more can be grown in the Peace River valley, which at 1,200 kilometres distance from Vancouver is far closer to the province’s biggest market than anything grown in the Golden State.

“This land is our green grocer. This land is our Plan B for the province in terms of nutrition and health,” Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist, resource economist and former president of the BC Institute of Agrologists says of the Peace River valley. “To cover these soils with water for a dam . . . is criminal on a public policy level.”

What concerns Holm and others is that significant and permanent deletions of prime agricultural land appear close at hand in the Lower Mainland as well. Ironically, the deletions will set the stage for increased greenhouse gas emissions as more cars are encouraged to move into and out of Vancouver over the proposed $3.5 billion toll bridge that would replace the Massey Tunnel. Emissions would further increase as more diesel-burning ships move up and down the south arm of the Fraser River.

Long-time Richmond councillor Harold Steves says the provincial government’s surprise decision of a few years ago to scrap expanding the Massey Tunnel and opt to build a bridge instead is intimately tied to proposals by Port Metro Vancouver to expand operations on the river. The net effect of both projects will be a further and significant loss of prime farmland.

“Any environmental assessment of the George Massey Tunnel replacement bridge must consider the intended consequences of constructing the bridge,” Steves said in a written submission to B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, which is reviewing the proposed bridge. Steves, who as an NDP MLA in the early 1970s helped to draft the original recommendations to create the ALR, went on to say that the proposed bridge “will have a dramatic impact” on accelerating port developments on the Fraser River, which in turn will have devastating consequences for local farmlands.

“The loss of 3,000 acres of farmland the Port will use as backup lands is irreplaceable and will have a major effect on food prices and food security for metro Vancouver residents. An environmental assessment is entirely inadequate if it is primarily confined to the transit corridor.”

Steves might have added that any environmental assessment that fails to address climate change, and in particular how climate change may exacerbate food security in the region, is flawed further still.

In December 2014 a document published by the BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative noted that farmlands in Fraser Delta are among the most important agricultural assets in the province. This is due both to the richness of the lands in question and their proximity to major markets.

So fertile are the delta’s lands that in Richmond, Delta and Surrey alone 14 per cent of all farm sales in the province are generated on just 2.2 per cent of BC’s farmland. It is lands like these and the people who farm them – lands that are a shining beacon of what we can do here at home to better prepare ourselves for a more food-secure world – that are directly at risk in the face of bridge developments and port expansions.

But the province’s transportation policy choices aren’t the only risk such lands face. There is mounting concern that climate change itself may pose the biggest mid-term to long-term risk to such lands. It comes as no surprise that this troubling fact is mentioned nowhere in the Speech from the Throne because to do so would once again raise questions about what, exactly, the province is doing when it comes to ensuring our food security.

The biggest climate change-related threat to the Fraser delta’s lands is, of course, floods and sea level rise. We have dikes along the seashore and the banks of the Fraser River for just such reasons.

The December 2014 Climate Action Initiative Report, which received funding from both the federal and provincial governments, noted that since 1899, global sea levels have risen roughly 20 cm. In the Fraser River delta projections are that by the end of this century a combination of rising sea levels and subsiding delta lands could result in a further overall increase of 1.2 metres.

“The rise in sea level means that there will be an increasing risk of coastal flooding during high tide and storm surge events, particularly if the diking systems are not upgraded to protect against higher water levels,” the report concludes.

The report goes on to warn that the sizeable costs of raising the dikes to protect against such an eventuality is to be borne by affected municipalities. That’s because in 2004 the provincial government offloaded such responsibilities onto local governments, a move that could cost Metro Vancouver alone $9.5 billion.

In an irony that will escape no one concerned about food security, if the funding is eventually found to raise the dikes it will actually result in increased farmland losses. You cannot more than double the height of the existing 3-metre high dikes, which is what the province has told the municipalities to do by the end of the century, without widening them considerably. And widening them means eating away at any farmlands adjacent to the existing dikes.

In the Throne Speech’s sunny prognostications about food security there is simply no room for such doom and gloom.  

The result is an embarrassment, a speech that makes light of one of the most pressing challenges all societies on earth face in light of climate change: Where do we safely and reliably get the food we need to feed present and future generations? Surely that question ought to inform where we put finite public dollars when it comes to infrastructure projects. Where do we make investments that both solve pressing problems such public transportation and low or zero carbon energy needs while simultaneously boosting food security?

Six years ago, the CCPA’s BC office as part of its multi-year Climate Justice Project with the University of B.C. released Every Bite Counts: Climate Justice and BC’s Food System. The report offered an 11-point roadmap for creating a more robust, socially just food network in the province, the first recommendation of which was to:

Develop a provincial climate and food planning framework. A top priority is a rethink of BC’s food system to be more just, resilient to climate impacts, and sustainable in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The framework should build on food planning initiatives underway in Metro Vancouver and other parts of BC, and should set targets and timelines for self-reliance, food system GHG emissions, hunger and nutrition.

The report also called for protecting and expanding the Agricultural Land Reserve and immediately ceasing any further “removals” from the ALR.

If anything, the report’s recommendations are even more germane today than they were six years ago.

Since its publication, our government has promoted policies that threaten to increase greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously undercutting our ability to feed ourselves.

Judge for yourself whether such public policy choices border on criminality.

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