I was recently interviewed for a university graduate research project examining local governments and food security. The responses highlight current initiatives relating to local food systems in Victoria and the Capital Region.
Interviewer: To start out, how do you understand the term ‘food security’ in the municipal context?
Ben: I guess it’s ensuring that we are equipped to supply nutritious and healthy affordable food – ideally produced as locally as possible. So encompassing everything from growing food to the distribution network and accessibility to people, including people with low incomes.
Interviewer: Great, and do you feel that that opinion is shared with your colleagues?
Ben: Some of them.
Interviewer: And do you feel that it’s important at the municipal level, and that cities should address it?
Ben: Yes, cities often own a substantial amount of land within their municipal boundaries, from the park systems to the road rights of way, and cities also are often the primary land use approval bodies – so the regulator of how people can use their land. So because of the city's role both as landowner but also as regulator, it’s in a position to support local food production.
Interviewer: Great, and has your city created any policies that either directly address or indirectly address food security?
Ben: We’re in the process of formalizing our policy framework. There is an initiative underway called ‘growing in the city’ that looks at everything from boulevard gardening to food bearing plants and trees within the municipal parks system to having a regulatory framework that can support small scale urban agriculture. Because we’re a built out city and quite small, only 20 square kilometers, we don’t have any Greenfields and we don’t have any farmland within our borders, but we’re looking at other things we can do to support local food systems.
Interviewer: So were there any actions that had been identified before the development of this policy?
Ben: We’ll we’ve got a handful of community gardens that are operated by various neighbourhood associations and we have interim boulevard gardening guidelines which were adapted from Vancouver’s guidelines and brought in a couple of years ago, and there are also a few orchards within the municipal parks system – fruit orchards. We’re taking tentative steps in the direction of local food security.
Interviewer: Great, and beyond what’s been put on the table are there any other methods that you’d like to see enacted to try and address food security issues?
Ben: I think that we should be looking at encouraging more community gardens on City owned land, including within the municipal road right of way. We have about 270 liner kilometres of roadway and a lot of those roads are at least 60 feet wide in terms of one private property line to the other and we don’t really need that much pavement for moving people and goods so I think by moving forward on ‘road diets’ on some of our quieter streets we can free up land that could be suitable for food production. There are also opportunities to have more food bearing species within our parks systems.
Interviewer: Alright, and have you guys done anything in terms of looking at the implementation metrics that might help to track some of these initiatives?
Ben: I think that kind of research is going into this ‘growing in the City’ initiative. I’m not sure if they are metrics – it's more of a political decision to designate various parcels of land for food production – whether road rights of way or city owned green space, and then identifying what the operating model is, whether it's directly operated by the City through our parks system, or community partners who have some kind of licence of occupation with the City, and then potentially also financing – financial grants to support groups that are operating those lands. So more of a ‘decision making’ than ‘metrics’. Metrics might be more of how you evaluate the success of those kinds of programs.
Interviewer: Sure thing. So have you met any barriers to implementing this policy?
Ben: Yes, well some people don’t want to see it – some people are attached to ornamental gardens. In terms of things like allotment gardens they think there is a private benefit that rubs some people the wrong way when they see a privately tended plot of gardens on publicly owned land. And there are questions around the maintenance for fruit bearing trees compared to the lower maintenance ornamental species.
Interviewer: I guess from a higher end – where do you see the legislative rational, be it a mandate from the province or sections of the local government act, to address food security?
Ben: To my knowledge there isn’t.
Interviewer: Would you like to see something come from the province, and what sort of things would you like to see?
Ben: I don’t know if they actually have to put something in provincial legislation – the City does have the power to do everything I’ve just outlined. I think where provincial action is needed is in more rural areas, not within the City of Victoria, but in areas where there is farmland to actively pursue land banking. So to approve the use of provincial resources – a line item in the provincial budget for farmland acquisition. The province has tried to just regulate with the Agricultural Land Reserve – that’s better than not having a reserve, because it does put constraints on what private land owners can do with their land – but I think we need to go a step further and create a publicly owned land bank of agricultural land. I think that would be the province's primary responsibility – to designate however millions of dollars annually so we have a pool of funds to purchase and protect farmland in perpetuity, and then with the land value acquired by the province, the actual cost of farming, can be quite reasonable and make farming more accessible for young people and others who don’t have a few million dollars to purchase their own farm. So moving more from the ownership of farmland by individuals to public ownership of farmland and then leases to farmers.
Interviewer: Alright. And so I am interviewing both planners and politicians and some of the planners I’ve spoken to have mentioned that they see ‘food security’ as part of the ‘public interest’ which is enshrined in the Planning Institute of BC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. As a politician, do you have a mandate that comes from something comparable, or is this something you hear from the people? Where do you personally get your mandate for addressing food security issues?
Ben: I’m a socialist and environmentalist so access to affordable and nutritious food relates to both social justice issues and also ecological issues, so part of it comes from my own values and the public seems to support me representing them as an elected official… so that’s kind of where it comes from.
Interviewer: If I was calling you from another city and looking at creating my own food security policy what other examples would you point to in the CRD or elsewhere in BC that you’d cite as good examples to follow?
Ben: Well hopefully this 'Growing in the City' initiative when it’s done will be a solid policy framework. Our staff haven’t reported out yet so I don’t know what’s going to be in there, but currently we don’t have anything to point to in the City beyond this smattering of community gardens and community orchards. And regionally, the regional government has been reluctant to create it’s own farmland banking function. So right now we don’t really have a shining example – but I guess if you were to look internationally at jurisdictions where the farmland base is publicly owned and protected specifically for the purpose of agriculture and removing it from lands that would be suitable for development, that’s probably the overriding policy priority for food security.
Interviewer: So the land banking that you mentioned from the provincial level, is that something that you’d like to see then managed at the regional level in the future, if that was to come about.
Ben: The region has taxation power, but yes, I don’t think the current provincial government is going to intrude on private property rights or basically get in the way of the development agenda to the extent that is necessary to protect the farm landbase. So I think as an interim measure that the regional government should step in. We currently have a parks acquisition levy – so we charge $20 per household, per year and it raises four-million dollars annually and we use that to buy lands for park purposes. A similar levy at the same value could bring four-million to go towards a fairly decent sized farm that could be purchased by the region every year. Now to get back to your previous question, there are a few examples of these kinds of publicly owned farmlands. The District of Saanich has two: one is called Haliburton Farm and the other is an area called Panama Flats. Those are leased to tenant farmers and in the case of Haliburton farm, it’s leased to a non-profit society that then has a cooperative of several farmers, so new farmers can get access to very small plots at an entry size, so it has a good role as an incubator farming opportunity for people who are thinking about getting into that line of work.
Interviewer: Alright, so moving forward are there any key partners that you think local governments should be in consultation with when looking at addressing food security issues or creating policies?
Ben: Farmers would be the first group I think, and activists who are committed to fighting urban sprawl and pushing back against the development agenda that we have to squeeze money out of every square foot of land.
Interviewer: And then I guess one thing to look at – what sort of policy statements and values ought to be in place to support food security before a government can start addressing these issues, or is that something that’s not even a consideration?
Ben: Those are often hollow statements – it’s the actions that matter. It's good to adopt those, but really the policies are less important than the decisions in terms of designating land for food production, ensuring there is adequate financial support in place to make farming economically viable for farmers – so you can preface all these with lofty policy statements, but without the actions the policy statements are fairly meaningless in terms of advancing local food systems.
Interviewer: I know that in my definition of food security that I sent to you, I had mentioned that in the context of having these global markets that are susceptible to downturns, disruptions, and collapses – that there needs to be some level of local production capacity to ensure that communities are resilient. Is food security seen as an issue of community resilience or is that academic thinking that’s less relevant?
Ben: No, it is in the context of climate change and peak oil – we’re increasingly seeing the need to produce food as close to home as possible and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. So that [resiliency] is definitely a component of it.
Interviewer: Earlier you had mentioned that some of your colleagues may not see food security the way you do, are you able to speculate as to what some of their visions of what food security ought to look like might be?
Ben: Well some elected officials in the region appear to be lackeys of the development agenda so they have monetary backing from developers – so their agenda is to hasten the conversion of farmland into private real estate in order to maximize profits for the development industry that’s undertaking those projects – so that’s why they are opposed to protecting farmland in perpetuity for food production.
Interviewer: Alright. Those are most of the main questions I have – I do have another thought on potential provincial tools I’d like to get your input on. I am aware that as a city you have the ability to do development cost charges and some of that can include things like parkland dedication where its something like 5% or cash in lieu – could something like that, but geared towards farmland, also appropriate at the municipal level if the provincial legislation were changed to support it?
Ben: Well we don’t have any farmland in the City, but we do, as you say, have the power to create parkland. I don’t know if we’d need any changes to the provincial legislation/regulations – we could probably do that within our current powers under the development cost charges in terms of the parkland function. If we can acquire land to grow grass or ornamental plants, I don’t think there would be [legislative] barriers to acquiring land with edible plants.
Interviewer: That’s a very good point. So with those questions out of the way, is there anything else you think I should know when writing my thesis? Or other questions you think I should ask?
Ben: Well yeah, focus on the economics. Sort of follow the money since this isn’t neutral. It’s a battleground over land use where you either squeeze the maximum profit which is the development agenda – it's not that they are bad people, it’s just the line of work they have got into where their family wealth came from that – is used to convert land into real-estate, but has a negative impact in terms of food security. So keep that economic question front and centre when you look at why there are barriers to making land available to food production in the first place and then making it perpetual. One of the reasons why people can’t get into farming is because they can’t get their hands on land they can farm, because it’s such a valuable commodity. Converting attractive land into private real estate is hugely more profitable than growing food on it.
Interviewer: I guess as myself being an aspiring planner and having some colleagues back in Waterloo who are in the same boat, is there any advice that you would give to potential staff to how to best address food security in the context of the municipality.
Ben: You need to have an iron clad urban containment boundary. So you basically draw an absolute line in terms of urban sprawl – that’s your densification, infill development and your existing built up areas, and take the ‘new urbanism’ approach – and anything outside of the boundary you put really strong protections and move beyond regulatory protections to an acquisition strategy to protect the farmland around these urban communities in perpetuity and then some management mechanism to ensure that that land is available for farming. We do have a phenomenon where there is a lot of land in the ALR that is tied up as hobby farms and some are not even farms – but just rural estates. And the benefit of that is that it’s ‘frozen the land’ so there are no condos or subdivisions that have been paved over with higher density single family homes, but it isn’t being used to benefit food production right now. So there needs to be some mechanism to move those estates back into agricultural production, which could be that land banking function. Some people will be able to afford land to farm on, but most won’t be able to. So unless we are prepared to lose that land base, I think the state needs to step in either municipally, regionally, provincially, or federally – to acquire that land and transfer it from private to public ownership. This doesn’t mean that the state will hire employees to farm it, there are a lot of models where you can have operating agreements and give someone 5 years or 10 years or even 30 years of access to the land at a modest sum so farmers don’t need the upfront value of the land.