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Food, Climate, and the Agri-Cultural Revolution

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Not to sound alarmist, but the number of challenges facing the provincial food system has been growing for a while. The pressures of population growth, the consolidation of farms, and the loss of biodiversity (think pollinator insects, like bees) mean that the food chain is stretched and less resilient.

“The main way that most people will experience climate change is through the impact on food: the food they eat, the price they pay for it, and the availability and choice that they have,’ said Tim Gore, head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam” (The Guardian, 2014).

During the pandemic, one of the ways in which our lives have shifted is our connection to food. Families have been doing more grocery shopping on the island and making fewer trips to the mainland. People are growing vegetables in addition to ornamental plants. The pandemic has made us a bit more conscious about how we get our food.

When we begin to realize how dependent we are on imported food - from the mainland via ferry transport and from other countries where most of the fruits and vegetables we consume are grown[1] –then we can see that our local food supply is vulnerable.

Although Metro Vancouver has 35,717 hectares (88,256 acres) of productive agricultural land (2011),[2] regional authorities are concerned about the loss of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) property to development and the impacts of our climate emergency on food production.

When Bowen’s Agricultural Land Reserve was last surveyed in 2016, the report revealed a 26% decrease in actively farmed land over five years. “Of the entire 917 hectares surveyed (inside and outside of the ALR), 27 hectares are now actively farmed, as opposed to 34 hectares in 2011”[3] This is just one more indication of the urgent need for us to step up and support food production on the island. Another survey is due in 2021, and it will be interesting to see the results.

According to the 2011 Report “Farming in Metro Vancouver,” Municipal governments are at the “forefront of farmland protection and enhancing agricultural viability. Official Community Plans (OCPs) and land use bylaws address a wide range of issues that can impact agriculture production. In all circumstances, these local government policies must adhere to the Agricultural Land Commission Act as well as the Farm Practices Protection (Right to Farm) Act.”[4]

The need to protect agricultural land and farming practices on Bowen, as well as the threat of an unpredictable climate, are what prompted the formation of Bowen Island Food Resilience Society (BIFS, formerly BI Food Sovereignty) in 2017. BIFS is one of several groups and many individuals that are concerned about food, climate, and community resilience on Bowen Island. BIFS’ mandate, “to create a healthy, resilient, community-based food system that addresses the climate emergency and social justice issues,” is inspired by food sovereignty and regenerative agriculture groups working worldwide.

In 2019, Members of BIFS, led by agroecologist Julie P. Sage, M.Sc., A. Ag, published two research reports, the Communication and Engagement Groundwork Report[5], a study that explores Bowen Islanders’ experiences and attitudes about food, farming and climate, and the Agrarian Analysis[6], a compendium of data documenting the island’s physical characteristics, land use, and potential for agricultural activity.

"...[these] are two of the best reports I have seen from agrologists anywhere, because they cover the wide spread of everything you could think about to resolve this problem."

-- Harold Steves, 5th generation farmer, Richmond City Councillor

Beginning with a short history of Bowen’s agricultural past, The Agrarian Analysis includes an extensive glossary and references, making it a useful resource for planning and policy action related to land use, biodiversity, and natural resources. The report also offers a set of “food system resilience indicators” specific to Bowen Island that were formulated using the Food Action Plan Framework developed for Metro Vancouver municipalities in 2016. [7]

Until recently, conversations about the climate emergency were framed in terms of disaster preparedness, mitigation, and adaptation. Climate action plans have prioritized infrastructure and transportation measures for meeting mitigation and adaptation goals. But, by focusing on regenerative agriculture and localizing our food system, we can address the climate emergency while stimulating a healthier local food economy.[8]

Regenerative agriculture is a climate mitigation strategy that is gaining momentum regionally and nationally. The Federal government is funding research and collaboration that will help determine how the agricultural sector can scale the amount of carbon sequestered in soil. In March, the Canadian Department of Agriculture released $185 million in funding for a new “Agricultural Climate Solutions” project. Phase one launched April 1st with an announcement of regional grants of $100,000 each for the establishment of “Living Labs.”

In practical terms, these regional research hubs will “centre on farms, where farmers and researchers can co-develop best practices, including cover crops, intercropping, conversion of marginal land to permanent cover, shelterbelts, nutrient management, and inclusion of pulses in rotations.” BIFS is hopeful that Kwantlen Poly Tech University’s (KPU) Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program in Surrey will be selected as a hub.

Regenerative agriculture advocates “no till” methods, supporting the “soil food web” as popularized by Dr. Elaine Ingram.[9] A Vancouver company, RootShootSoil, provides soil biology consultation and testing services as well as a liquid extract that can be used to improve the soil’s microbial life.[10] Stimulating the natural, biological components in soil reduces the need for chemical additives or pesticides by supporting the natural cycling of nutrients and bacterial regulation.

BIFS manages a demonstration garden using regenerative principles at Grafton Agricultural Commons. Rather than focusing on the plants, they emphasize building healthy soil and working “with nature” to support biodiversity using crop rotation, pollinator plants, and compost, and by keeping the soil covered with mulch or cover crops. Many principles of regenerative agriculture have been practiced by Indigenous peoples throughout the world for millennia.

Food connects us to one another and to nature. It is a measure of health and wellbeing and often reflects our family history and cultural roots. The production and distribution of food twines macro issues, like trade and world economies, with the personal issues of access, affordability, and equity. Linking both the micro and macro is the biosphere, our biological home. Not only is food essential to life, but the ways in which food is produced for human consumption can either acknowledge human rights and restore planetary health or jeopardize our species’ chances for survival.

What happens when disaster strikes, and ferry service is interrupted? Will there be fresh food on the island? How can we ensure that our local food supply is not unduly dependent on imports?

On Bowen Island, where farm culture is at risk of fading into history, there are about a dozen market gardeners and animal raisers trying to survive with seasonal sales at the farmers’ market, farm stands, CSA boxes, and by selling produce to local restaurants and grocery stores. Revitalizing our agricultural economy so that it can endure climate challenges and other emergencies starts with supporting local farmers.

The Islands Trust and Bowen Island Municipality have each declared that we are living in a “Climate Emergency.” Now is the time to update the OCP to strengthen and expand the island’s agricultural activity inside and out of the ALR. And perhaps it is time to think about creating a municipal position that advocates and tracks progress toward climate mitigation goals.

The “agricultural revolution” in Canada is supported by Regeneration Canada[11] a nonprofit organization dedicated to “promoting soil regeneration as a means to mitigate climate change, restore biodiversity, improve water cycles, and support a healthy food system.” Along with Metro Vancouver’s Regional Food Action Plan, KPU’s various studies and reports, and BIFS comprehensive Agrarian Analysis, we have all the evidence and direction needed to make a difference.

Maybe the word “revolution” sounds violent, or perhaps it summons the radical hope of youth and a sense that real change is possible. Whatever your associations with the word, there is great potential for agriculture to “revolutionize” our relationship to nature, to re-connect us to food and community, and to help us heal from the practices of domination and extraction.

Food, Climate, and the Agri-Cultural Revolution by Susan Swift was originally published May 2021 in The Bowenian, No 1 Vol 60.

[1] The Future of Our Food System Kwantlen Poly Tech University Institute for Sustainable Food Systems 2016, p.14 [2] Based on parcel information, 34,147 ha (84,377 acres) of ALR land is used for farming, and another 1,570 ha (3,879 acres) is being farmed outside the ALR. Farming in Metro Vancouver, 2011. [3] Agrarian Analysis, BIFS 2019 [4] Farming in Metro Vancouver (2011) [5] Groundwork Executive Summary [6]Agrarian Analysis (7.5 MB PDF) [7] The Metro Van Regional Food Action Plan (PDF) directly confronts the threats of climate change to our food supply chain, and it spells out more than 160 recommendations for local communities to adopt. [8]Executive Summary Groundwork Report, Bowen Island Food Sovereignty (BIFS) 2019. [9] [10] RootShootSoil: The soil food web refers to the complex relationships between the diverse groups of fauna and flora found in soil. These groups include bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, and the larger plants and animals found in and around soil. The composition of each specific web is greatly influenced by biological, chemical, and physical forces in the environment. [11]

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This is a great article. Thanks for posting!

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