At 72 years of age, Harold Steves spent the morning of December 23 shovelling steer dung out of his barn near Steveston. He didn't mind. After 20 years of selling grain-fed, local beef from his farm, he now sells out six months in advance.
But Steves noted that his six-hectare farm is surrounded on three sides by new housing, and development pressures are bearing down on the Lower Mainland's agricultural land.
"People are getting more concerned about what they eat," the Richmond city councillor told the Georgia Straight by phone. "The public is way ahead of the politicians on this."
Steves is also a former NDP MLA who was an early proponent of B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve system. In 1973, the B.C. government set aside about 4.7 million hectares of arable land, or about four percent of the province.
Premier Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals took office in 2001. According to the Agricultural Land Commission, 215.9 hectares of Greater Vancouver and another 412.9 hectares of the Fraser Valley Regional District were sucked out of the ALR between 2002 and 2007. In total, that's about the size of one-and-a-half Stanley Parks—or 105 farms the size of Steves's.
Meanwhile, 2008 gave this region a series of resounding environmental wake-up calls: wacky weather in December, gas prices that spiked to $1.49 per litre, and the 10 Fossil of the Day awards given to Canada at December's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland. Meanwhile, construction began on the South Fraser Perimeter Road, part of the province's Gateway highway-expansion project, on land formerly designated agricultural.
All this hammers Vancouver's future ability to feed itself, according to Chris Wood, the Vancouver Island–based author of Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America (Raincoast Books, 2008). Within 20 years, he said, B.C. will see more rain, fewer frost-free days, and rising sea levels. That could help agriculture in the north and the Interior, according to Wood, but could devastate it in the Lower Mainland.
Plus, the swift desertification of California—which supplies almost all of North America's winter vegetables—means trade will falter, he said.
"The shortest distance to sustainability is collapse," Wood told the Straight. "We may take that route if we don't take any other one."
In 2008, the ALR was under attack, and 2009 isn't looking any better.
In 2007–08, the ALC received 666 applications for "exclusions". In part, these represent developers who want to pave over farmland. In 2007 alone, Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley lost 62.9 hectares from the ALR, or 10 of Steves's farms, according to the ALC.
Philip Hochstein, president of the Burnaby-based Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, is campaigning on behalf of the construction and development industries to open farmland for housing.
"The ALR was established when disco was king," Hochstein told the Straight. He pointed out that, if B.C. is serious about producing food locally, the province should outlaw the winery vineyards in the Okanagan and make those farms grow food instead.
The construction advocate bases his argument on the claim that 60,000 hectares in the ALR are not being used for agriculture. However, Kim Sutherland, a regional agrologist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, said that over 80 percent of the ALR in the Lower Mainland is being farmed. As for the rest of the ALR, she said that figure is unknown.
This spring Tsur Somerville, an associate professor at UBC's Sauder School of Business, will complete a study on the relationship between affordable housing, density, and the ALR.
"The ALR is not all equally fertile," Somerville said. "Perhaps the less fertile land should be able to develop.”¦It's not clear to me that we need every area supporting itself entirely [foodwise]."
Both the David Suzuki Foundation and Smart Growth B.C. have slammed the province for allowing fertile southern land to be removed from the ALR and replaced with land in remote, less arable regions. But ironically, Wood believes that with climate change, B.C.'s Interior and north could be Canada's new breadbasket—until the next ecological collapse.
Agricultural Land Reserve by the numbers
> The Agricultural Land Reserve was originally 4,716,516 hectares.
> The ALR covered 4,759,682 hectares as of March 31, 2008.
> Since 1974, 90 percent of land added to the ALR has been in B.C.'s less arable north.
> Seventy-two percent of land removed has been in the rich-soiled south.
> As of March 31, Greater Vancouver had lost 6,158 hectares from the ALR since 1974.
> As of March 31, the Fraser Valley had lost 5,389 hectares from the ALR.
> Five percent of B.C.'s land is arable.
> Agriculture in B.C. is worth over $2.4 billion per year.
> Over 36,300 people in B.C. are directly employed in primary agriculture.
> B.C. farms supply less than 50 percent of the province's food.
Sources: Agricultural Land Commission, David Suzuki Foundation, and Smart Growth B.C.