Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, Dr. Newman has been a sought-after speaker recently on the Agricultural Land Reserve. It’s on people’s minds now that the B.C. government has been reviewing the ALR and its governing Agricultural Land Commission.
Dr. Newman has strong scientific and intellectual arguments for preserving ALR farmland for food production, and against suburban sprawl, no matter how strong the development pressure. But she also has an emotional message that rings true. “We love food, but we don’t love land,” she says. “That’s a disconnect.”
In some jurisdictions around the world there are laws and customs forbidding speculation and development on agricultural land. France, for example, won’t allow just anyone to buy farmland, and citizens there strongly support local farmers and local food. Yet in North America, we stand by while agricultural land is paved over. Specifically in B.C., we stand by while developers pressure the ALC to exclude lands from the ALR. We need to develop a passion for rural landscapes and farming, says Dr. Newman, not for romantic visions of “haybales and fiddles” but because we need food and because local food is better.
“Speculators are counting on the fact that we don’t care,” she said. “But we have to care. We have to tell politicians that if they or others come after our land, we will come after them.” At one event, it prompted audience members to give her a standing ovation.
When I first heard Dr. Newman, I was informed but also inspired. So I made a point of attending a second of her lectures, then had coffee with her on Commercial Drive at the cool Café Calabria, where she expanded on her ideas. Here is an introduction to some of Dr. Newman’s arguments.
1. Fraser Valley agricultural land is among the best in world – and we’re going to need it as other sources dry up. With only 0.2 per cent of Canada’s arable land, the Lower Mainland nevertheless generates 4.5 % of Canada’s farm gate receipts. Meanwhile, California is drought-stricken and extreme weather threatens food production all over the world. “People think food will just magically come from somewhere. But one day we’ll wake up and discover that’s not so.” Unfortunately, the just-announced changes to the ALR are likely to weaken farmland protection. Hear it in her own words from her blog: http://sandandfeathers.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/changes-to-the-alr-an-exercise-in-bad-timing/
2. The ALR does indeed protect farmland. Since its implementation in the 1970s, the loss of agricultural land in the Lower Mainland has dropped 90%. “Without the ALR our land would soon be completely filled with development, all the way to Hope. This is what keeps me up at night.” The ALR has also acted as a check on urban sprawl, encouraging the kind of judicious densification, balanced with green space for liveability, that is ‘Vancouverism.’ Dr. Newman contrasts our region with that of Los Angeles, where former expanses of orange groves have disappeared to highways and suburban development.
3. To work effectively, the ALC needs political support and resources to counteract galloping development pressure. There are more than 900 exclusion applications now on the desk of the ALC – mostly for land purchased in the last five years. That suggests speculation, especially considering that Fraser Valley farmland is worth about $100,000 an acre, but once taken out of the ALR it can be worth $1.5 million an acre, she said.
4. Now is a terrible time to be getting rid of farmland. People, organizations and nations everywhere are scooping up global agricultural land, as populations rise and environmental problems undermine food production. Despite the demand, however, selling it off is a bad idea. As realtors say about land, ‘they’re not making any more of it.’
5. There’s a myth that Lower Mainland agricultural land is sitting idle, but in Abbotsford, more than 90 % of farmland is actively worked. Closer to the city the percentage is lower but that is partly due to the kind of land speculation that shouldn’t be allowed, she believes. Where farmland is idle, that’s not due to lack of demand; there are many young people who want to farm and who need access to dirt, which contributes to the tragic nature of the speculation. “There’s a return to agrarianism. Farming is coming back,” she said. “But is it coming back in time?”
6. Urban agriculture is a positive trend, but it won’t feed us. City farming is useful for educating people to care more about their food. But at this northern latitude, we can’t grow more than small amounts of food on rooftops and backyards.
7. Industrial farming is not the enemy. “People think local food has to be small-scale, with a farmer in overalls.” But some crops need large-scale production. We need to encourage a combination of methods.
8. Solutions exist. Dr. Newman suggests that we:
- halt all ALR exclusions for at least 1-2 decades, to stop the land speculation.
- strongly encourage farming on farmland.
- enact farm-friendly housing policies, e.g. building on hillsides, controlling unoccupied housing, and encouraging small lot sizes and high density.
- prosecute damage, such as illegal dumping, to agricultural lands.
For this, citizens need to care. We need to love the land. In another post soon, I’ll explore specific ways that you can demonstrate you love the land. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.
Dr. Newman’s post on peak food: http://sandandfeathers.wordpress.com/2014/04/07/peak-food-and-what-it-means-for-british-columbians/
Nov 13/13 op-ed piece on the need to freeze ALR exclusions: http://www.vancouversun.com/business/time+freeze+exclusions+Agricultural+Land+Reserve/9144549/story.html
Post on a recent university by Dr. Newman: http://blogs.ufv.ca/blog/2014/01/lenore-newman-to-speak-on-impact-of-alr-over-past-40-years/
Brendan Hurley and Lenore Newman on ALR and the city: http://www.straight.com/news/615871/agricultural-land-reserve-changes-could-impact-bc-cities
Background on ‘Vancouverism” : http://urbanland.uli.org/development-business/how-vancouver-invented-itself/
Background on Lenore Newman: http://www.ufv.ca/geography/faculty-and-staff/peoplelenore-newmans-home-page/ http://www.sandandfeathers.com/