Oil, climate change threaten food supply: B.C. report


Oil, climate change threaten food supply: B.C. report

Climate change and rising oil prices are a threat to B.C.'s ability to feed itself in the future, scientists and planners say.

APRIL 2, 2007

Climate change and rising oil prices are a threat to B.C.'s ability to feed itself in the future, scientists and planners say.

B.C. farmers produce only 48 per cent of the meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables that we consume, according to a report prepared by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. The report, titled B.C.'s Food Self-Reliance, says that the area of farmland with access to irrigation in B.C. would have to increase by nearly 50 per cent by 2025 to provide a healthy diet for all British Columbians.

Maintaining our current level of food self-reliance in 2025 would require a 30-per-cent increase in agricultural production, the report says.

The total amount of land being farmed in B.C. has gone up by less than one per cent since 1986, according to census data. In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, only 223 hectares of farmland came under irrigation between 1996 and 2001, for a total of 6,375 hectares.

The agricultural industry's reliance on fossil fuels for irrigation, processing, harvesting, refrigeration, transport and the production of fertilizer means that as the world's oil supply wanes and fuel prices spike, we should not expect to be eating Chilean grapes and Mexican lettuce in a few years time, according to Vancouver architect and planner Rick Balfour. Balfour, who obtained the ministry report through Freedom of Information legislation, envisions a near-future in which virtually everything we eat will have to be produced locally.

Balfour, who served as chairman of the Vancouver Planning Commission until last week, has organized "war games" sessions for planning and futurist conferences in which people try to work out how societies and economies reorganize as a result of oil price shock. The "re-ruralization" of the suburbs -- tearing up low-density neighbourhoods to grow crops -- is a typical scenario, he said.

"This report speaks to that very issue and it was being buried by the government," Balfour said. "It took six months to get a 20-page report that asks the question, 'When we can't afford to ship our food from Chile and California, what are we going to do?'"

Within seven to 10 years fuel prices are going to spike dramatically, Balfour said. Peak oil theory predicts a massive rise in oil prices as oil production reaches maximum outputs and production begins to fall. Scientists and planners predict that a painful reorganization of the global economy will follow the peak and subsequent decline in oil production.

"We have the capacity to be self-reliant in B.C., but we have to start planning," Balfour says.

The global food market is one of the drivers behind global warming and climate change, said organic farmer Heather Pritchard, executive director of Farm Folk/City Folk, a group that advocates local sustainable food production. The energy cost of refrigerating and trucking strawberries grown in California is environmentally irresponsible, she says.

According to the U.S.-based Earth Policy Institute, U.S. food production consumes as much energy as all of France. About 80 per cent of that energy is used to move, process, package, sell, and store food after it leaves the farm.

"The whole notion of shipping and trucking food from all over the world is so bizarre that it feels like I'm trapped in a science fiction movie," Pritchard said.

Ministry of Agriculture regional agrologist Mark Robbins says that real agricultural output in B.C. has outpaced population growth, but mainly through the use of "additional energy input."

"We've used bigger machinery, more fertilizer and so there is a limit to that and [we] won't continue to see that much improvement," said Robbins. "The biggest revelation to me in doing the report is how important water is going to be in improving future agricultural production."

Government agrologist Kim Sutherland says that the Fraser Valley is the most productive agricultural land in North America, but that a large fraction of land that could be used for food production there and in the Okanagan and Vancouver Island is either not being farmed or is being used to grow sod and shrubs.

Land that produces food will be an increasingly precious resource as climate change forces marginal agricultural land out of production in B.C.'s interior and north, Sutherland said. The land crunch and rising food costs will put enormous pressure on non-food agricultural uses like nurseries and horse-rearing.

Adding to the pressure is that the amount of raw land available for conversion to agriculture in the Fraser Valley is nearly exhausted, according to Harold Steves, a farmer, former MLA and a Richmond city councillor since 1977. In 10 years, the last of that unused land will have come under production, said Steves, and after that "they aren't making land in the Fraser Valley anymore."

Sutherland has been giving regular lectures to help people understand that the food economy is really an oil-based economy.

"Now that we are at peak oil, the next 50 years in food production are going to look very different," she explained. "A lot of marginal areas that are in crop production, will no longer be in production as conditions become more droughty."

B.C.'s temperature extremes and limited water availability outside the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan make it unlikely that climate change will bring more land into agricultural production, Sutherland said.

"We can't expect global warming to make Prince George look like the Fraser Valley."


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B.C. farmers produce 48 percent of all food consumed annually in the province, based on 2001 figures.

B.C. Consumption (in million kg) - B.C. Production (in million kg) - % Self-Reliant (in million kg)

Dairy 1,080 617 57

Meat & alternatives 467 298 64

Vegetables 765 331 43

Fruit 482 273 57

Grain 315 43 14

Sugar 136 0 0

Total 3,245 1,562 48

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