General

In a hungry world

In a hungry world

By: Dr. Lenore Newman

Will farmland loss come home to roost?

The recent debate over the future of BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve might seem to be only an issue of local importance. But there is a larger conversation of global land loss that is beginning to emerge. At a time when it is suggested that we need to double world food production, every meeting I attend paints the same picture of prime production lands disappearing to urban development. At a recent conference, we shared information about housing encroaching on The Netherland’s “green heart” zone, on the failure of Toronto’s green belt to prevent sprawl, and on the liquidation of Seoul, South Korea’s vibrant suburban farm zones. Each of these pieces can be dismissed as unimportant, but we have little information on the larger picture; just how much of the world’s best farmland is being lost?

In this context it would be wise to avoid rash choices in British Columbia. In particular, the farmland of the lower mainland is incredibly valuable; it is only 0.2 percent of Canada’s arable land, but returns 4.5 percent of Canada’s total farm gate receipts. The lucky overlap of excellent soil, mild climate, and abundant water give us perfect conditions to grow food for the expanding Vancouver population, and also to boost trade through exports. Our limited land base also makes us innovative; we are experts in farming intensively as well as adopting technologies such as greenhouse production.

However, we also know that farming in our region could be improved. The land base is becoming fragmented through subdivision, and studies elsewhere have shown that when plots become too small they are no longer economically viable. Also, we must maintain a critical mass of farming in our prime growing areas in order to maintain the infrastructure of suppliers and distributers needed to support our farmers. There is also a strong need to connect young farmers with available land; too much prime land, particularly near Vancouver, is sitting idle while young farmers struggle to find a place to farm.

In my opinion, the time has come to freeze exclusions from the ALR in high production zones, and shift urban development into the mountain valleys surrounding our region. Though some people have agreed with me and some people have disagreed strongly, we need to start having the discussion now. The Lower Mainland in particular is going to get very crowded, very fast. The very geography that makes the region beautiful also greatly constrains it. The Canadian portion of what is known as the Fraser Valley Lowlands has only about 2500 square kilometers of non-mountainous land available for development, which is only about as third as much land as greater Toronto, and about two and a half times the area of Hong Kong. The paving of the entire Valley from Hope to the ocean is inevitable unless we start planning now to maintain open green space; my opinion is that strengthening our farming industry is an excellent start.

Agriculture feeds the lower mainland, provides thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars to the region. In the last 40 years the region has lost roughly 7% of its farmland; if land loss had continued at the rates present before the formation of the ALR, it is very likely that 80% would be gone. For an individual working in a very difficult industry, selling farmland to a developer offers a considerable one-time payoff; the problem is this decision is being made all over the world, one farm at a time, every day. We don’t know what is being lost globally, or whether we are approaching a point where production won’t meet demand. It is a good time to be cautious.

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