At the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, Asst. Prof. Hannah Wittman studies how small-scale, sustainable farms can survive and prosper in a globalized food economy.
With food recalls on the rise for E. coli, salmonella or listeria contamination, the question of food sovereignty is an urgent one, says Wittman, who is also appointed to UBC’s Institute of Resource, Environment and Sustainability.
“Food sovereignty refers to the ability of communities and regions to control their food systems. This includes markets, modes of production, and natural resources,” explains Wittman, who grew up on a farm in Idaho, her parents third-generation farmers.
She notes that B.C. has the most diverse agricultural landscape in Canada. “There are internationally recognized wineries and fruit orchards in the Okanagan, expansive grain farms in the Peace River and highly productive market vegetable operations in the Lower Mainland.”
However, the province is not food self-sufficient. Over the past 30 years, B.C. has seen a major increase in the production of crops for lucrative export markets such as cranberries, blueberries and hothouse vegetables. But B.C. still imports about 45 per cent of its food, with 60 per cent of those imports coming from the U.S.
In 2006, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands estimated that about 0.5 hectare of farmland is required to sustain one person for one year. To produce a 100 per cent self-sufficient and healthy diet for the projected population by 2026, B.C. would need to have 2.78 million hectares of agricultural land in food production—a 300 per cent increase from 2001 levels.
“This is well within our grasp,” asserts Wittman, whose international research focus includes agrarian reform settlements in rural Brazil and community-based resource management in Guatemala.
“B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve covers approximately 4.7 million hectares, much of which is currently underutilized for food production oriented to local and regional markets.”
Challenges faced by small-scale farmers, however, include spiraling land costs, expensive equipment, labour shortages and the absence of established policies and coordinated distribution systems to get products to B.C. consumers.
To explore solutions, Wittman is working with a non-profit, B.C.-based organization that provides education and networking opportunities for small-scale farming as well as new models for preserving agricultural land.
Founded in 2006, the Community Farms Program provides support to new farmers and communities seeking alternative approaches to implementing food sovereignty. These include facilitating the development of long-term leases on public, cooperative and community-owned land.
“The idea is to get land into the hands of new, enthusiastic farmers eager to connect urban consumers to the source of their food.”
And once on their farms, many are turning to co-operative ventures and diversified business strategies to pool resources and reduce overhead, says Wittman.
“For example, two farmers in Abbotsford are leasing one farm. Together they offer a vegetable market garden, a fruit orchard, chickens, bees and goats.”
Of B.C.’s 19,759 farms, 83 per cent are small-scale operations and 16 per cent are classified as organic farms—the largest percentage in Canada.
“I’m very optimistic. B.C. is one of only two provinces where the number of farmers increased in the last five years, while there was a 10 per cent decrease in farmers at the national level.”
Similarly, consumer demand for locally produced food has fueled a growth in farmers’ markets, which currently contribute more than $3 billion to local economies across Canada.