UBC agricultural programs offer food for thought

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      What would you do if you went to the store and discovered it was clean out of imported vegetables? And not just for that day or that week, but for the foreseeable future?

      “It could literally happen next week,” Chris Thoreau, a fourth-year agroecology undergraduate student at UBC, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “It really could.”

      Thoreau, who is 34, lives near Commercial Drive and recently became a father. He and his partner use chunks of their yard to grow vegetables—the kind of urban gardening that would need to happen on a large scale if imported staples were to become unavailable. In addition to growing vegetables, Thoreau has a 200-square-foot sunflower-sprouting project at the 24-hectare UBC Farm. He delivers these sunflowers, worth about $10,000 this season alone, to local farmers markets with the help of his bicycle and a bike trailer.

      As Thoreau explains, he was an organic farmer on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula for six years before deciding to widen his skill set in the UBC faculty of land and food systems, where he specializes in soils. “Well, farming is notoriously hard work for little pay,” he said. “And part of going back to school was diversifying what I could do in the agricultural field—so maybe doing more research or consulting.”¦As well, maybe looking at different ways of growing food that pay a little better.”

      The empty-store scenario isn’t idle speculation to Thoreau; it informs a lot of what he does. He’s one of many who have enrolled in UBC agricultural programs to take on issues related to global oil supplies, climate change, and food security. Though he chose this area of study primarily because he enjoys it, Thoreau said he understands peak oil—the idea that global oil production has peaked and is in decline—but does not lie awake at night worrying about its implications. However, he acknowledged that peak oil does have ramifications for the current oil-reliant process of food production and distribution.

      “What’s going to happen one day is, either oil is going to go way up [in price], or there’s going to be these huge shortages,” he said. “All of a sudden, the food’s going to stop coming up from California. So this is where the whole urban agriculture concept really comes from—the modern version of it, anyway—as kind of a revolt against the bigger food system.”

      Thoreau said that while he can’t do anything about looming global oil shortages, he can teach people how to grow food in their back yards. As far as career opportunities go, he noted, things are a little “trickier” for him now, in that raising his eight-month-old son means he has less flexibility than he did a year ago.

      “I’m looking for unique opportunities, I guess, while I’m in the city,” he said. “I’m here because I’m going to UBC, but I would prefer to live rurally. Since I’m here, I’m doing a lot of urban-agricultural work.”

      On a recent busy Friday at the UBC Farm, two of Thoreau’s colleagues, Andrea Morgan and Gemma McNeill, both 22, talked to the Straight following a staff lunch made from vegetables grown on the property—well within 100-mile-diet range. At a wooden table next to a small corn patch, Morgan sat peeling a pile of tomatillos, the primary ingredient in Mexican salsa verde. Meanwhile, recent graduate and UBC Farm staffer McNeill outlined her reasons for choosing the faculty’s program in global resource systems.

      “It’s an interdisciplinary program where students come from different faculties across the university, drawn to the program because it offers them the ability to take courses from a wide variety of disciplines,” McNeill said. “And the program is set up so that students study resources. In my case, I studied agricultural sciences or sustainable agriculture. And then you pair that with a region in the world; I did Central America. You are expected to do an exchange, which can either be a direct university exchange, an internship, or some other directed studies. You are also expected to take language classes.”

      The faculty of land and food systems offers bachelor’s degrees in global resource systems, agroecology, and food nutrition and health. Morgan, president of the group Friends of the UBC Farm (which protested the recently proposed redevelopment of the site), is in her final year in the GRS program.

      Studying GRS gives students the ability to “connect the dots”, Morgan said, by focusing not just on agriculture and food production, but on the “politics that go into it, and the social aspects that go into it”.

      “You really get a big, global picture of the systems of trade and production and health, and all of the things that relate, really, to what we are eating,” she said. “This is why we [students] are based in agriculture, we are founded in agriculture. But GRS gives you the ability to really explore what agriculture means for humanity.”

      For students wanting to follow their lead at UBC, Morgan said there are a wide variety of employment opportunities in such areas as community gardens, food kitchens, and food banks, as well as in “the marketing aspects of agriculture”, nurseries and horticulture, farming, public health administration, dietetics and nutrition, and the nonprofit sector.

      “A lot of these professions, as we can call them, are also about lifestyle and living what you are doing, and really enjoying it,” Morgan added. “So not just having work and life be two separate things, but make it be the same thing.”

      The issue of peak oil is central to Scott Bell, a 28-year-old U.S. immigrant who’s in his fifth year of agroecology at UBC. Speaking to the Straight at the UBC Farm, Bell said he wants to make money as a farmer—and is “banking on people wanting good, locally grown food and locally brewed organic beer”. He said he ideally wants to run a hop yard with a brewery attached.

      “I’m trying to organize pretty much everything I do with my life assuming that we’re not going to have an unlimited [oil-based] energy source like we feel we do now,” Bell said. “So the brewery that I hope to have running someday will hopefully be able to run on wood or something similar in addition to fossil fuels, until we don’t have that as an option. It’s always in the plan, always in the mind.”

      For Art Bomke, an associate professor in the land and food systems faculty and a self-described “aggie”, peak oil is a hot topic. Bomke told the Straight he had just read Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, the recent book by former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin. He said it left an impression on him.

      “So the message [from Rubin] is, we need to look at any parts of our economy that include energy as an input, which is just about everything nowadays, and certainly agriculture,” Bomke said by phone. “What Rubin says is, this will likely shift the competitive advantage from areas that are far removed from the marketplace. And it should give an advantage to more local producers, even if their labour costs and land costs are a bit higher. If their supply lines are shorter, then they may be back in the game.”

      While this may turn out to be the case, Bomke said the recent push for localization has not translated into increased enrollment in the faculty—at least not in all areas.

      “It’s kind of a mixed bag,” he said. “Our strongest program is the food nutrition and health area, which includes dietetics, human nutrition, and food science.”¦Enrollment at the food end, the postfarm end, has been very strong, as has been the global resource systems program.”¦The area where we’ve been struggling a bit has been in the agroecology area, for a number of reasons.”

      First, Bomke said, traditional job opportunities haven’t been as abundant recently because there have been fewer industrial positions. A lot of employment has been related to biotechnology, he added, in part because the federal department Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, like other institutional employers, has become focused on genetics and laboratory work. “So [for] people like ourselves, who deal with agronomy and agroecology and so on, it’s been a bit of a struggle,” he said.

      Bomke agreed with Thoreau that having a foot in the soil sciences can diversify the skill sets of agriculture students. He said that the faculty has focused on creating a learning environment that emphasizes critical thinking. “We still have exams and we still have some lectures, but we’ve gone way more towards a more active learning environment,” he said. “And I think that attracts a certain kind of student, and it rewards a certain kind of student, like Gemma and Andrea.”

      That creative energy will be needed, Bomke noted, because “it’s going to be time for all hands on deck here before long, in order to feed ourselves and the world.

      “That means using local resources is going to be an important part of it,” he said. “I hope that our students are ready to participate in that in a big way. It’s not shutting the door and saying that we’re only going to eat within 100 miles. The lesson from The 100-Mile Diet is to look at what we have available locally, and how do we sustain that and improve that and make that more economically and socially viable.”

      In 2007, the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Lands released “B.C.’s Food Self-Reliance”, a report claiming that by 2025, farmers will need a total of 281,000 hectares of irrigated food-producing land to ensure a healthy diet for British Columbians. That’s an increase of 49 percent over what was available in 2005.

      We already know who can help fill the breach. They just need the resources to make local food our biggest growth industry.