As summer draws to a close, so does peak season for fresh fruits and vegetables in B.C.
Although agricultural experts agree that we will face double crises of peak oil and global food shortages over the next half-century, we seem to be losing more and more farmland throughout the province.
Surrey is no exception. In fact, Mayor Dianne Watts’s Surrey First team campaigned last year to exclude land from the Agricultural Land Reserve in this city by means of what they called ALR land swaps.
The idea is as simple as it sounds.
A developer approaches the city to rezone its plum and very valuable piece of land that is currently designated as part of the ALR to a residential, commercial, or industrial use that will fetch huge profits for them and higher taxes for the city.
For example, one takes a parcel of land on the fringe of the ALR, adjacent to other non-farm uses, that is arguably a logical extension of an urban area.
The city then approves the rezoning of this land on the premise that another parcel of farmed land in Surrey, which is not officially designated as part of the ALR but is greater or equal in size to the land being excluded, is added to the ALR.
When all is said and done, the city hasn’t lost any ALR land. At least on paper.
Agricultural land owners and developers often argue their land isn’t farmable. The Agricultural Land Commission rates soil quality on a scale with seven steps. Typically, when the soil on a piece of farmland falls between classes 5 and 7, it is deemed unfarmable.
At Class 5, you can grow food for horses and cattle, and specially adapted crops. At Class 6, land is limited to serving as grazing land for animals. At Class 7, the land is not appropriate for soil-bound agriculture, but presumably it could be used for other agriculture-related activities, like agribusiness and greenhouses.
The problem here is twofold. First, British Columbians cannot grow nearly enough food within our own borders to feed ourselves. Second, the conversion of agricultural land goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of suburban sprawl.
Our vulnerability to food insecurity becomes a problem if we run into peak oil and food becomes extremely expensive to transport over long distances, or if an international crisis sparks the closure of borders, making it difficult to import food.
Even with all of the land that could potentially be farmed in B.C., we probably won’t have enough space to produce enough food to feed everyone. If we get rid of some of the most arable land in Surrey and the Fraser Valley, we are only worsening our situation.
When you whittle away land that is currently being farmed, whether it’s within the ALR or not, you increase the negative impacts on surrounding agricultural land, you increase traffic for commercial uses on rural farm roads, and you increase pressure to exclude land from the ALR. Meanwhile, the cost of providing municipal services to these rural areas can be significant.
In time, speculative pressures from those owning farmland and wishing to make a profit drive up the price of surrounding land, making it nearly impossible for other farmers to justify keeping their land as it is.
And despite all of this, the arguments aren’t all about food.
We are unique in B.C. that our Agricultural Land Reserve acts as a de facto urban containment boundary.
Because many municipalities are prohibited from touching ALR land, smart growth sometimes happens as an indirect result. We see higher-density, walkable communities centred around frequent transit networks when land is scarce and developers are confined to redevelopment or infill.
Where land is not scarce, we often see large sprawling single-family homes far away from urban centres, accessible neither by foot nor public transit. Typically, these areas are accompanied by the occasional strip mall which requires large amounts of car parking.
Surrey ought to look at creating its own urban containment boundary which goes above and beyond what is legally required. It would be great to see a boundary that excluded not only ALR land but other farmable land, sensitive watersheds, parkland, and natural habitats from development.
In one fell swoop, we could instantly protect those places in the city that we want to remain untouched, and focus our efforts on smart and sustainable growth within our existing town centres.
We need to value agricultural land, whether in the ALR or not, as it is. We should be investing in agriculture to make it a vibrant and healthy economic sector, and we ought to support those who choose to produce food for others.
Given the potential for a crisis of food insecurity, we also need to do more to encourage urban agriculture. As our population grows and our growth becomes more compact as people live in smaller and smaller spaces, Surrey should provide many more opportunities for people to produce their own food.
Surrey could start by encouraging neighbourhoods to build community gardens where they live. And we could follow the lead of Vancouver and study the potential for urban chicken coops in residential backyards.
Our ability to feed ourselves, and to feed future generations, is simply too important to be treated lightly.
One can only hope that Surrey’s current mayor and Surrey First team will realize poor land use decisions made today jeopardize the region’s ability to provide its own food in the future.
Stephanie Ryan is the president of the Surrey Civic Coalition.