This week marks the beginning of something new—and exciting—with this Tidechange.ca column/blog. Though the column will continue under my name every week for awhile, many of the posts will have a banner Comox Valley Conversations alerting readers to the new format where the column will, actually, be a conversation between three of us; myself, Tony, and David.
We are putting out an active invitation for others to join in the conversations which will be more—conversational; represent a diversity of perspectives on topics of interest to Comox Valley residents. We don’t know how this will turn out—It’s and experiment! We’re going to make up the rules as we go and we thoroughly hope that others will want to join the conversations and contribute new ideas as to how the conversations can evolve.
If you are interested in being part of CV Conversations for one issue or for all posts or have some thoughts on how this conversational blog could be even more relevant/interesting send me a note at nreynolds at shaw.ca. We, the founding members of CV Conversations, see this as a natural progression for a participator centred local community website.
Norm, Tony, David
Beyond the ALR: next steps in moving toward food security for our valley/province
Thanks for inviting me to share my ideas on the role of the ALR in the Comox Valley.
Every day, large trucks running mainly on diesel deliver canned, packaged, and perishable foods to the supermarkets of the Comox Valley. Many of them come from the Lower Mainland. Others from further afield. Any military leader will tell you that having very long supply lines to feed your army is not an ideal situation. Long supply lines are subject to disruptions. If the ferries suddenly stopped running due to a natural disaster (earthquakes come to mind), our supermarkets would run out of stock in a few short days. A big earthquake is overdue, but it may not happen for another few hundred years. Unfortunately, we have another natural disaster that is already here, slowly unfolding in front of our very own eyes while we ignore its obvious signs and pretend that all is well.
As you know, I am talking about global warming. One needs to have spent the last few years living under a rock at the bottom of a deep mine shaft not to have noticed that our climate is changing. And the change is accelerating. Nothing new there. But the problem is that this change will severely impact the Comox Valley’s ability to feed itself. And without food, people get very cranky and start behaving in not very nice ways. A large proportion of our fresh perishables comes from California. And California’s agriculture is in trouble. They are running out of water. And the weather is getting too hot to grow certain crops. This will result in more expensive foodstuffs. And Californians will want to feed themselves first before they send fresh food north.
This means that the cheap food from our southern neighbours that we took for granted for decades will probably not be there at the price and in the volume that we expect. According to a New York Times article from June, 28th, 2021, “By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is projected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. That’s more than a tenth of the area farmed.” And the San Joaquin Valley is just one small area of California’s farming land. You can extrapolate to other farmland down south, and do the math to see where this is going.
According to a Land Use Inventory Report (Reference Number: 800.510-19.2014) issued in 2013 by the Comox Valley Regional District, the Comox Valley had 23,429 hectares classified as land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). I haven’t seen more recent estimates, but this figure is unlikely to have gone up and may have gone down a bit. When the report came out, 23% of this land was “actively farmed” and 62% was not actively farmed but had potential to be used for farming. The rest was unavailable due to factors such as topography, soil type and so on.
Let’s talk about food security. Wikipedia quotes the United Nations’ Committee on Food Security and their definition of the term. Food security is defined as meaning that “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”. This is an ideal situation. Let’s assume we are first trying to ensure everybody has enough to eat at a price they can afford. If the trends show that food from outside our area is going to become more expensive and harder to get, what can we do to become more self-sufficient?
We don’t seem to lack land to farm. What we lack is affordable access to that land for people who want to farm it and consumers who are willing to pay prices that make farming a viable lifestyle. In 2017 I summarized in a short article some work I had done earlier on the future of agriculture in the Comox Valley. I quote the relevant paragraph:
Making a living as a local farmer is tough work when competing against vast multinationals. Local buyers don’t always want to pay a bit more to buy something that is local and organic. Many people like convenience and would rather go to the local supermarket than swing by the Farmers’ Market. The price of local farmland is out of reach for many young farmers. Farmers who are retiring often find their kids do not want to go into farming, and real estate interests are quite keen to buy land being sold to turn it into non-farming properties. And given that often farmers at the local Farmers’ Market go back home at the end of the day with unsold products still in their trucks, encouraging growth on the farming side needs to be accompanied by an increased demand for local products. Here the local municipalities could do a lot more to encourage a “buy local” mindset through their regulatory framework.”
There are some efforts being made to encourage locals to buy Vancouver Island products. Island Good is one of them (islandgood.ca). But this is a branding exercise to help consumers identify local products. It does not solve the central problem, which is farming is hard, pays little at the present time, and farming land is available but very expensive, and often sitting idle.
Local Credit Unions and branches of large banks do not help much. They are often quite eager to help someone buy a piece of land and to build a block of apartments. But helping someone with the financing to grow tomatoes, lettuces and apples is not financially sexy and does not make the banks big profits. The profits are in property speculation and supporting oil, LNG and other polluting initiatives that make global warming progressively worse.
So, to sum up my initial overview of the ALR issue in the Comox Valley, food from outside will become, over coming decades, more expensive and harder to get. If we want to be self-sufficient and maintain reasonable prices, we need to support our local agriculture with practical measures. This can’t happen if our local municipalities do not get actively involved in making it easier to attract and retain young farmers.
Finally, I also think we need to support some type of purchasing co-op for small scale growers where they could jointly buy farm inputs in bulk and get discounts. I am talking about the cost of topsoil, fish compost, basic farming tools, seeds, water pumps, greenhouse materials, solar panels, wind generators, rain barrels, etc.
Well, Norm, over to you. What do you think can be done to encourage local agriculture to ensure self-sufficiency as global warming cuts us off from suppliers who will have enough trouble feeding themselves?
Well, Tony, great intro to agricultural issues generally in the Comox Valley. To paraphrase for clarity, I think you are saying that the Agricultural Land Reserve was a good idea, but on-it’s-own it doesn’t get us very far toward food security. Food just doesn’t pop out of the ground. To induce the expansion of land being actively farmed for food production we would need food prices that will induce would be farmers to till the land, plant and nurture the seed, beat back the weeds and cart these farm fresh vegetables/meat/eggs off to markets where they can be sold at a price that is affordable to consumers and profitable enough to the farmer that he/she will continue to produce the food we all need to survive and, hopefully, thrive.
Some of these issues are being addressed by groups like Lush Valley and the Comox Valley Food Policy Council (CVFPC). According to their website the goal of the CVFPC is to “provide a forum for advocacy and policy development that works towards the creation of a food system that is ecologically sustainable, economically viable and socially just to examine the operation of a local food system and provide ideas and policy recommendations for how it can be improved.”
It seems that to be effective in the near future the CVFPV has focused on more of a micro level of food security with programs like: Fruit Tree & Farm Gleaning, Mentoring people to learn to grow their own food, teaching people to cook healthy meals and appreciate local food as well as improving food distribution through programs like Hot Meals and Good Food Box programs.
It may be a small part of the solution but the CVFPC seems to believe in the Chinese adage that a 1000 km trek has to begin with a single step.
The ALR is not enough by itself, but it was a huge step forward . It is the reason that today we have the agricultural land that is still available to grow the food we need and, as you point out Tony, will increasingly need as more and more of the world’ s agricultural potential is lost to urban development, soil depreciation and climate change.
In fact my contribution to this conversation around the ALR is to point out the visionary thinking that went into the creation of the ALR. Today almost all our thinking/planning by governments is supply side economics: look after the big bucks and, with a few minor tweaks, the infinite wisdom of the market will take care of everything.
Ronald Reagan captured the essence of supply side economics when he told people at a press conference that “If you have seen one Redwood, you’re seen them all. “ He later refined his economic vision when asked directly about how we could continue to feed ourselves if we kept building over agricultural land. His answer was that the way the magic of the market works is that if food production is one day more profitable than apartment complexes, we’ll just tear down the apartments and plant carrots.
In bringing in the ALR the Dave Barrett government was brazenly defying supply side economics. Labeled a Marxist for his view that markets are great at mediating the exchange of goods but the role of government in a functioning democracy is to attend to the health and well being of citizens.
No government since the Barrett government, not even NDP ones, has so focused on the government’s role in ensuring healthy people on a healthy planet—in a healthy province. The economy was important to the Barrett government but only as it served the ultimate goal of healthy people on a healthy planet. The Barrett government passed an average of three bills a day between 1972 and 1975 for a total of 367 bills bringing a sense of civility to a vision of our province that, under Wacky Bennett’s Social Credit Party saw our province as still under the sway of a wild west mentality.
In its three years in office the Barrett government humanized the welfare system, established the province’s first Labour Relations Board, created the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) in order to provide people-centered public auto insurance at an affordable rate, created the visionary Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) to protect farmland in BC from land speculators. Barrett’s government brought in the air ambulance service to serve citizens who live a forbidding distance from hospitals, introduced question period and full Hansard transcripts of legislative proceeding to increase citizen awareness of what is happening in the legislature and hold the government accountable.
In keeping with its vision of protecting our citizens, especially our most vulnerable ones, corporal punishment was banished in all schools. Even pay toilets were banished in this massive humanizing of our social relations. The Barrett government seemed never to rest bringing in Pharmacare, increasing the minimum wage, preserving Cypress Bowl for recreation. Barrett’s government, not surprisingly, passed the Human Rights Code, consumer protection laws, and introduced French immersion in schools. Recognizing the right of citizens to benefit from the extraction of the province’s minerals Barrett brought in a mineral royalties tax.
I find it interesting to compare the Barrett government to our Justin Trudeau government that really has done very little to improve the quality of life for Canadians. In fact, almost all of what the Justin (Sinclair) Trudeau government has done is to fatten the pocket of vested interests while throwing a few peanuts to the masses.
You would think that, after making electoral reform one of the strongest themes of the last election, Trudeau would not call a new election until he had at least made some half hearted moves on reforming our democracy confounding first past the post electoral system. Then what really makes me shake my head at the gumption of Justin is that he has the gall to talk about a Liberal Plan to boldly address climate change AND AND AND he is going to address climate change by using taxpayer money to pay for a pipeline for dirty oil from central Alberta to the BC coast—a pipeline that is so unprofitable no business would finance it.
There simply is NO ALR thinking in the Trudeau government. For Trudeau everything is about protecting the interests the moneyed class—including (especially) the interests of crooked developers that bribe their way into public and private contracts.
For Trudeau being in office is like being a pig at the trough. Government money goes to “Charities” that line the pockets of family and friends. There is no money for pharmacare or essential reforms to the care of our senior citizens, or Canadian capacity to publicly respond to threats like the Covid virus because Trudeau has no interest in the kind of tax reform that would go after the absurd billions of taxable dollars that are being hidden in “off shore” accounts. Protecting the interests the wealthy few is the Trudeau government’s only pervasive goal.
So Tony, for me the path to meaningful agricultural reform has to begin with a new (renewed) vision of what government is for. Is it to look after the money of the few or is it to do little and see what happens or is it, like the Barrett government, to bring in innovative programs like the ALR to serve the long-term good of all our citizens?