The local food access puzzle

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

The conclusion of another fast-paced year approaches, one in which I have been immersed in discussions about food security issues and also witnessed many inspiring initiatives to jumpstart a local food revolution. It’s no wonder so many British Columbians are concerned about food security; you only have to read the daily papers to realize that the situation has sunk to an all time low. Below are some key facts I gleaned from newspapers recently, which shed further light on the current puzzle about access to local food.

Fifty years ago, Vancouver Island farmers produced 85 percent of the Island’s food. Today, Island producers provide only about five percent of the food consumed; the rest is imported at economic and ecological expense to us all. The cost to produce local food is much higher than that of foods imported from countries that are unfairly subsidized and/or where labour and environmental standards range from questionable to non-existent. In many communities around the world, local economies have been decimated, as local food production supply chains have withered – the people who grow our food cannot feed themselves.

According to a 2010 study conducted by the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, on average, Prairie farmers receive about 27 percent of every dollar spent on food, but for grain products, such as bread, farmers keep only about four percent, a figure that has not changed in two years. The middleman gets more of the food basket price while the farmer stays at 2008 levels.


Now a proposed trade agreement between Canada and the European Union could make it harder for public institutions like schools, hospitals and universities to buy local food. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) would allow Canadian companies to export to the EU without meeting EU standards and regulations and vice- versa. The National Farmers’ Union has launched a campaign against CETA, warning it will make it even harder for Canadian farms to stay viable. “CETA would mean many changes, but none more negative than its effect to extinguish farmers’ rights to save and re-use seeds,” stated NFU president Terry Boehm. “With powers such as those proposed in the CETA, seed companies will gain significant power over who farms and how.”

According to the report Growing Up in BC, released on October 18, in 2008 the BC child poverty rate was 10.4 percent, 1.3 percent above the national average. (It has exceeded the national average since 2000). The poor continue to experience the impact of food with low nutritional value as well as rising food costs. We need to rebuild the social safety net with a fair minimum wage and a proper old-age pension so that people can afford to buy healthy food. We should also provide cooking classes on how to use fresh produce.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the weight of citizens of the world’s richest countries. Canadians rated the sixth fattest people on the planet, behind Americans, Mexicans, the British, Australians and New Zealanders. Nearly one in three Canadians is overweight and about one in four is obese. The reason? Food is cheaper than in the past, especially unhealthy fast food, and people eat out more because they devote less time to preparing meals at home.

BC’s Auditor General John Doyle warned that the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) must make changes so it does a better job of protecting farmland. Vancouver Island has seen shrinkage of 13 percent in land covered by the ALR in the past 36 years. In BC, as a whole, there was a six percent increase; this pertains to land situated up north, which is hardly prime land for farming and there is no fair trade-off for losses in the south. The ALC is swamped with proposals from developers and it needs more support to do its job, which includes land mapping and enforcement. The ALC also needs adequate funding. Doyle notes the ALC’s budget this year was 30 percent below funding in 2002.

In August of this year, BC Statistics released its PEOPLE 35 (Population Extrapolation for Organizational Planning with Less Error) population projection. By 2036, BC’s population will be almost 6.1 million and almost one-quarter of BC residents will be aged 65 or older. As a result of the dramatic increase in the proportion of seniors in the population, the ratio of elderly dependents on working-age people (18 to 64) will double to four dependents for every 10 potential workers by 2036.The growth in the senior population will place heavy demands on societal institutions, not the least of which are healthcare and housing. In 2009, seniors 80+ accounted for four percent of the population; by 2036 this age group will account for more than seven percent.

It does not take a crystal ball to realize that we need to invest in small-scale, diversified local food production, both on organic farms and in dense urban areas. The next question is how to provide the next generation of farmers access to land to grow the food to meet the demands of the future.

Carolyn Herriot is the author of The Zero Mile Diet – A Year-round Guide to Growing Great Organic Food. (Harbour Publishing)

Harvest photo by Peter Sircom Bromley

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