Local Food Connects Us to the Land – David Suzuki

When my daughter Severn was born in 1979, my wife Tara and I wanted to raise her with an understanding that much of the food in our diet is seasonal. After all, a lot of Canada is rock or buried under ice and snow for part of the year. Fertile soil and a friendly climate are hard to find. And the only reason we can always get fresh strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce and other produce year-round is because we use the entire planet as a source of products. When I was a boy and we wanted those vegetables and fruits, we went to the canned-goods section, but now we demand them fresh.

Around the world, we mark the seasons and celebrate our connection to the land through festivals for blueberries, rice, strawberries, peaches and other foods. Tara and I love cherries. We thought it would be great to celebrate their arrival each season with an annual ritual. So for 35 years, we have looked forward to our annual cherry run, which begins in late spring. We load up the van and camp our way toward the Okanagan Valley, in the Southern Interior of our home province of British Columbia.

It has become a wonderful ritual. Over the years, my daughters, Severn and Sarika, brought friends and cousins and boyfriends, as much for the swimming and horseback riding as for picking and eating cherries. Now we look forward to our grandchildren participating in our family tradition.

When we started this ritual, Kelowna, Penticton, Oliver and Osoyoos were small towns, delightful to visit and no doubt beautiful places to live. Yet over the years, the area has transformed as people have poured into the valley. Productive farmland that once generated a cornucopia of nutritious and tasty fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy now lies beneath sprawling housing developments, highways and strip malls.

The loss of prime farmland to development is happening elsewhere in Canada too as our communities grow and expand at a blistering pace. According to a Statistics Canada study, our spreading communities sprawl over what was once mostly farmland. Urban uses have consumed over 7,400 square kilometres of dependable agricultural land in recent decades alone; an area almost three times the size of Prince Edward Island!

Almost half of Canada’s urban base now occupies land that only a few generations ago was farmed. Most of it can never be used for agriculture again, despite city peoples’ efforts to grow food in community plots, on green roofs and by guerrilla gardening. And though there are strong, sprawl-busting policies in provinces such as Ontario, with its Greenbelt Act and award-winning Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan, and British Columbia, with its renowned Agricultural Land Reserve, the loss of farmland to development continues at a blistering pace.

It is for this reason that I’m hopeful for the success of a growing grassroots movement in communities across Canada for the protection of prime farmland. In Ontario, an innovative campaign called Food and Water First has emerged from the recent success that farmers and their supporters had in stopping the mega-quarry—a proposed massive aggregate mine that, if built, would have destroyed 2,300 acres of prime farmland near Melancthon Township, two hours north of Toronto.

Recognizing that trying to fight the onslaught of individual projects that threaten farmland—from proposed housing estates to pits and quarries— would be a fruitless whack-a-mole exercise, the Food and Water First campaign aims to ensure stronger government laws to protect prime agricultural land and drinking water sources, thereby strengthening the hand of local communities facing pressure from development. The Food and Water First coalition, which includes the David Suzuki Foundation as well as farming organizations, local businesses and other NGOs, has already managed to get nearly a dozen Ontario communities— from small townships such as Melancthon, which stopped the mega-quarry, to Canada’s largest city, Toronto—to pass council resolutions recognizing the importance of Ontario’s prime farmland and the need to protect it.

And though there are strong, sprawl-busting policies in provinces such as Ontario, with its Greenbelt Act and award-winning Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan, and British Columbia, with its renowned Agricultural Land Reserve, the loss of farmland to development continues at a blistering pace. – David Suzuki

The annual Okanagan pilgrimage that we started so long ago provides me with a perspective on why we must protect the farms and croplands that feed us. Paving over prime farmland and green space is foolhardy. Studies show that farmers contribute billions of dollars in revenue to local economies every year, producing a bounty of fruits and vegetables, beef, pork, dairy, honey and award-winning wines. Furthermore, increasing research shows that farmland and green spaces also represent a Fort Knox of non-market benefits, called ecosystem-services: trees clean the air, wetlands filter water and rich, agricultural soils remove and store greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

That’s why I believe our political leaders and citizens must seize the opportunity to grow our towns and cities using the principles of smart growth rather than urban sprawl. They must create compact, higher- density communities surrounded by local greenbelts of protected farmland and green space.

If we value local food and want to maintain the critical benefits that farmland and nature provides, we must place our most precious assets—food and water—ahead of short-term economic gains brought about with their destruction.

Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Visit www.foodandwaterfirst.com