There’s general agreement amongst agrologists and soil scientists that only about five per cent of B.C.’s land area is suitable for farming.
Despite this, in the years before creation of the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), 6,000 hectares of good farmland were taken up for “development” and lost to food production each year.
In response to losses, the ALC was formed in 1973 and tasked with “preserving agricultural land as defined by the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), causing land use within the ALR to remain compatible with agriculture and encouraging bylaws, plans and policies that support farm use at all levels of government.”
So far, the ALC has focused on preservation.
At its inception, the ALR totalled 4,716,891 ha of farmland; today the area is 4,759,829 ha.
During the last decade, 56,436 ha were added to the reserved area, but these numbers are misleading: in the fertile Fraser Valley there was a net loss of about seven per cent and in the Cowichan Valley nearly 20 per cent; the increases in area in the north, approximately 20 per cent in Bulkley/Nechako and four per cent in Kitimat/Stikine for examples, do not represent comparable productive capacity because of lower yields due to less favourable soils and climates.
World population is approaching seven billion, all of whom need to eat and, as they become better paid, look to enjoy an enhanced diet.
Meat consumption is slowly increasing and is estimated to grow at almost two per cent each year through the next decade. Meat production has increased by 20 per cent since 2000 but, because of rising feed costs, output is falling in the U.S., currently the biggest producer.
Demand for oil increases with growing affluence outpacing production, and so prices rise and, with them, costs of petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and operating farm machinery. The net result is dearer food.
Availability of water, so essential for crop irrigation in arid lands, is threatened by over-consumption and inefficient use with the possibility of demand exceeding supply, yet another cause of increasing cost.
The controversial shift to biofuel cultivation instead of food is another factor reducing supply and contributing to increasing food costs.
While B.C. cannot hope to become self-sufficient in food production and insulate itself from world markets, it should strive to maximize local supplies and minimize import needs.
To achieve this, what’s left in the ALR must be protected and preserved.
B.C. farmers are already efficient producers, but further improvements should be encouraged. At the same time, buyers must be willing to pay prices which ensure efficient farmers are able, and are encouraged to, stay on the land.
An additional benefit of buying local produce is known quality standards. Several diseases can move from domestic stock to humans – avian influenza (H5N1), swine flu (H1N1), foot-and-mouth disease which is quite widespread in China, bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease, and Rift Valley fever which can be transmitted by mosquitoes or by contact with diseased organs – all call for vigilance and awareness of the sources.
Use of antibiotics in industrial farming is creditably linked to antibiotic resistance in humans: food crops such as corn or potatoes grown in fields fertilized with farm manure are a potential source of disease transfer; many pigs are known to carry methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureos (MRSA); and drug-resistant strains of Escherichia coli found in humans resemble those found in beef and poultry.
These are warning signals which enhance the merits of buying local produce where quality control and health standards are high.
Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. email@example.com