What if California can’t produce our food anymore?

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Dr. Kent Mullinix is the Director of Sustainable Agrifood Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He spoke about our vulnerabilities concerning the food that most of us take for granted. He agrees that on-going drought in the US southwest, one of our major food sources, makes us very vulnerable. Photo KPU

Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture

Ray Hudson

Dr. Kent Mullinix is the Director of  Sustainable Agrifood Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He spoke about our vulnerabilities concerning the food that most of us take for granted. He agrees that on-going drought in the US southwest, one of our major food sources, makes us very vulnerable.                                                             Photo KPU
Dr. Kent Mullinix is the Director of
Sustainable Agrifood Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He spoke about our vulnerabilities concerning the food that most of us take for granted. He agrees that on-going drought in the US southwest, one of our major food sources, makes us very vulnerable.     Photo KPU

California has been in a drought for fourteen years and it isn’t getting any better. Much of our fruits and vegetables are produced there, so what happens when the water finally runs out? We don’t produce anywhere near enough food to feed ourselves. Although we aren’t in a crisis, it is probably time we addressed the issue because the solutions will need considerable time to develop.

“Along with the drought, we are vulnerable from an energy perspective,” he said. “Our food system is dependant on transport, storage, and high levels of processing which takes energy. Most of that comes from fossil fuels which aren’t getting any cheaper apart from the current pricing anomaly.”

“Our food supply is not assured and it doesn’t take much analysis to show we are not doing all we could do to produce food right here. Fifty years ago, there were farms throughout the Fraser Valley. Now most of the vegetable farms are gone. Urban development has pushed much of it aside for housing.”

Mullinix said that in the fifties and sixties a trans-national food system replaced the more regionalized system. Ultimately, we gave up most of our food production.

“We threw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “Now we’re realizing that some extent of re-regionalizing the food system makes good economic sense, good community sense, and good food security sense, particularly with those food crops, especially fruits and vegetables that are perishable and that are mostly water. They take a lot of energy and money to store, and transport them.” Canadians have largely abandoned the farm. There is now only about 1.5% of the population farming, and much of the produce is food grains and oil seeds, beef, berries and so on, with much of it for export.

“In 2010 when Canadian inflation was 1.8%, fruit and vegetable inflation was almost 27%,” said Mullinix. “The producer wasn’t benefiting because our system was designed to go after the low cost producer wherever they are in the world, regardless of quality, production methods, regardless of pesticide residues.”

What does it take to become self-sufficient?

“I don’t really think that should be our goal. We need to use our resources well, steward them well and produce as much food, income and jobs and business opportunities as possible and in doing so advance our regional food self reliance, and advance broadly our regional economic activity in this centre.”

“Everybody operates in their own best economic interest. The larger food systems interests are working hard to make sure their interests are supported,” Mullinix said. “Witness $22 million in Washington and Oregon going to defeat Genetically Modified Food (GMO) labeling just a year ago, or in the US, $500 being spent on advertising for every $1 being spent on food education. There are huge resources being used to maintaining an economic environment that favours the status quo.”

In addressing the food system questions Dr. Mullinix said, we must re-evaluate the policies and economic strategies that built the original system, to support a more diversified food system, to allow local production to prosper, or at least serve local markets.”
The organic foods movement grew up outside the mainstream, and became so popular that the larger stores couldn’t ignore it. Now market gardens and farmers markets are becoming popular again.

Mullinix said that people are building regional food systems themselves, but they need help. He believes the region is a huge market primarily for fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy and protein. Currently Dr. Mullinix and his department at Kwantlen are studying the problem.
“The question is how much of the Southwest BC market could be satisfied with crops and products produced in Southwest BC,” he said. “What level of food self-reliance could we achieve theoretically? Once we establish that theoretical level of food self-reliance, we’ll do the economic evaluation to see what that means in gross and potential net revenue to farmers, job creation, small and medium sized fruit system business
opportunity.”

At the same time, they’re investigating linking that with environmental stewardship, reducing greenhouse gases, lowering our food’s ecological footprint and preserving or enhancing habitat for wildlife and recreation.
He said they are operating under the supposition that agriculture is going to re-emerge as one of the more significant dimensions of our economy because people have to eat. That’s going to make agriculture and the business around it important in an increasingly large sector of our economy, so where will the future farmers come from?

“There is a new generation of young people who are very interested in farming as a way to contribute to community and society in a meaningful and rewarding way,” said Mullinix. “They don’t want to engage so much in a commodified agriculture but instead engage in a smaller scale alternate market agriculture that’s linked to community and environmental stewardship.”

“Kwantlen has developed programs to prepare these people. We have the Richmond Farm School, now in its sixth year with full enrolment of ten to twelve more every year, and we’re starting one with the Tsawwassen First Nation, which is already at full enrolment for this year. We have also started a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sustainable

Agriculture, which is focused on teaching people how to farm. There are already close to fifty students enrolled in that program, and the majority of them have never farmed.”
“The numbers are good, but not in the sense of serving the future needs of our society. It’s going to take more than Kwantlen University focusing on this. It’ll take a lot of institutions and the various levels of government bodies focused on this transition.”

“Over the last five or six years since we have been bringing this study on, in Southwest BC, I have seen a big shift in the realization of the merits of diversifying the economic strategies in agriculture and the food system here. So things like the cost of food, climate change and the vulnerability of California are all starting to be realized. I’m seeing change. People are not so reluctant to look at change in the food system and our work is being increasingly well received and supported.”

In a future report we will look at how Dr. Mullinix’s department is exploring the opportunities of dramatically expanding the business of farming and regional food production in Southwest BC.