California crisis chance to think local food

A crisis in California could be a huge opportunity for the Cowichan Valley and the rest of B.C., in more ways than one.

The severe drought in California and other parts of the southwestern U.S. might have a few silver linings for B.C., both as a chance to learn some lessons and as an economic opportunity.

"If anything, it comes down again to taking control of our own food production overall," Cowichan Green Community Executive Director Judy Stafford said. "We can’t wait for a crisis to change. People do change their habits in a crisis. They band together when there is a crisis. Crises can help move a movement along. This is a great talking point and an opportunity to think about what we’re going to do."

The agricultural potential in the Cowichan Valley is boundless, and the region could be a leader in the province in terms of sustainable agriculture and food security.

"We need to stop relying on California," Stafford said. "There is a lot of support for agriculture locally. It’s exciting; let’s do it. Let’s grow it."

It doesn’t have to be local farms doing the growing, either. Seeds and knowledge are readily available, through Cowichan Green Community and many other avenues.

Regardless of how much time and space you have for growing food, there are ways to make it manageable.

"It’s so much healthier," Stafford said. "There are a million different reasons."

The drought is also an opportunity to talk about water. Animal agriculture, Stafford points out, uses 70 per cent of the world’s water, and while we don’t need to cut meat out entirely, there should be more of a focus on grains and vegetables. It is also a mistake to cut back water usage in agriculture.

"Water restrictions are understandable, but restrictions on people who are growing food are not the solution," Stafford said. "We need to allocate water to people who are growing food and restrict washing cars."

Cowichan Valley NDP MLA Bil Routley wants to see more leadership from the provincial Liberal government with regard to the drought situation in B.C., which isn’t as serious as California’s, yet.

"It’s starting to be a trend in California, just as we’re seeing in the Cowichan Valley with the Cowichan River," Routley said. "I’m frustrated that the government hasn’t done anything to help the situation."

The drought in California could be a big economic opportunity for B.C., but the government hasn’t been supportive enough of agriculture to truly capitalize on it, Routley believes.

"It does mean people in California are wanting to buy our blueberries," he said. "There’s potential that some of our produce could start going south. But at the same time, our government in B.C. is dismantling an agriculture sector that we were once

very proud of."

Routley and the NDP are particularly concerned right now that the provincial government is allowing international corporations to plant trees as carbon offsets on valuable agricultural land in the Interior, while actual forest land is decades behind in being replanted.

"Companies are buying up acres of farmland and planting trees," he said. "We need to protect our agriculture land base, and California is an example of that." The issue has been bubbling under the surface since 2008, when Bob Simpson, then the NDP MLA for Cariboo North and now the mayor of Quesnel, first raised the issue in the legislature. He’s still upset about the situation.

"It’s bull–," he recently told Black Press legislature reporter Tom Fletcher.

"This isn’t marginal land." Simpson said the land in question includes prime alfalfa fields and historical ranch and forage crop lands.

In one case, neighbours found out about the new use when they saw a helicopter spraying herbicide to prepare the area for tree seedlings.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said last month that reforesting farmland in the Interior is contrary to the intent of B.C.’s agricultural land reserve, and he’s looking for a way to put a stop to it.

Letnick has said that a 2011 requirement for the Agricultural Land Commission to approve covenants for long-term reforestation of farmland would be required before such lands could be used as carbon offsets for the European carbon market.