Dave Sands, former regional director of the ministry of agriculture, in British Columbia, Canada.
Why should people care about peri-urban agriculture?
FOR me, it’s agriculture. It just seems that the best farmland quite often is around the city. The city starts where the best climate is, and the flat land. In British Columbia, about 35 years ago the government realised we were burning up our best farmland and that’s when they stepped in and formed an agricultural land reserve.
It’s for the security of food production for future generations. With the cost of oil rising, shipping food will be very expensive. In Canada, 75 per cent of our food comes from the States. The Americans are burning up their prime farmland. We can’t rely on another country all the time to supply our food.
Can you explain how the land reserve works?
It’s only 5 per cent of the whole land base of the province. If you have a piece of land in the reserve and you want to subdivide it, there’s a special commission set up to oversee what’s good for agriculture. So if somebody said ‘I’m growing this crop and the market is down, I want my land out of the reserve so I can survive’, they say ‘I’m sorry, you either sell it as a farm or you ride it like everybody else’. The economics don’t come into it.
I bet the farmers didn’t like that, when it was brought in?
No. But when the farmers said ‘You’re locking us in’, that government made up a formula to make sure they got a fair return on their investment. For about seven years, they paid the farmers sometimes if the market went down, and it got them onside. What it was saying to the farmers was you’re giving up some rights for the good of the community therefore we’ll help you through it. And now, you get people buying in there, but they’re buying into the agricultural land reserve, they know what the law is. It’s very difficult now for them to chop up a piece of land.
The main question people always ask is ‘Where are you going to build your houses?’ But the first thing should be, ‘How are you going to feed the people?’ If it doesn’t affect your food to take that land, that’s fine. You have to reverse it – first tell us how you’re going to feed everyone. It seems so far off now, but it’s making plans for future, that’s the hardest thing sometimes to do, and that’s what we’ve done.
How does city fringe farming compare to urban agriculture?
People are talking about urban agriculture, but really it’s not agriculture – it’s gardening. Realistically, it would take thousands of these community gardens for one farm in our Fraser Valley. The answer is at the edge where that farmland is, and keeping those farmers farming.
Is this about thinking about the food system as a whole?
One thing about food is that everybody needs it. It’s one of those few things. A shortage of food would bother people. But the food system is taken for granted. We eat three times a day and we don’t ever think about it. It’s always there. For lots of people in the world it’s never there. But, for us, we’re so healthy and rich, we’re living at probably the best time we’ve ever had and nobody believes it’s going to end.
But the other thing is that now around the world, something happens in one country and everything falls. We haven’t ever been here before, there are 7 billion people and in 2040 we’re going to be 9 billion people. We’re struggling now and about one-third of the agricultural land has problems, and desertification is increasing.
Farmland and oil go hand in hand, because as oil becomes more and more expensive, we’re going to look around and say, ‘Well, let’s grow it here’. But we’re giving away thousands of acres we could have saved.
See a video of Dave Sands speaking about the agricultural reserve, at the On the Edge forum, run by Village Well.