As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold across our country and the world, we are only now starting to realize the full impact and long-reaching effects that it will have on our economy.
This unprecedented crisis has brought tourism to a halt and led to the closure or partial closure of nearly 80 per cent of Canadian businesses. But what many do not realize is the dramatic impact that COVID-19 is having on agriculture here in B.C.
Farmers are experiencing unprecedented labour shortages, disruptions in the packing, processing and transportation sectors, and increasing domestic and international market uncertainty. These fears are resulting in difficult decisions about which crops to grow and whether or not to leave fields fallow for the season.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture cautions these compounding challenges could result in a decrease in the amount and quality of food in grocery stores and higher prices in the months ahead.
It is imperative that British Columbia’s government work with federal counterparts and industry partners to help to re-stabilize our province’s agriculture industry.
To weather this storm and ensure the security and longevity of our local food system, B.C.’s agriculture industry must become more self-sufficient. As the old proverb goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Pre-emptively, B.C. should prepare for future interruptions in the international food supply chain, as COVID-19 has made us realize just how reliant we are on food imports. We can no longer rely on imports of meats, fruits, and vegetables from other countries like China, the United States and Mexico. We need to incentivize both buying and growing B.C. products.
This can be done by utilizing more of B.C.’s crown ALR land and transitioning it into better and more efficient food production uses. More homegrown vegetables under glass is also to be considered, as well as increased opportunities to butcher, process, and package B.C. beef, pork, lamb and poultry.
Every crisis in our nation’s history has spurred innovation. Let’s utilize this opportunity to remediate and revive British Columbia’s agriculture industry. Now is the time to consider bold ideas rooted in new technological developments. Vertical farming, for example, could be utilized to maximize crop yields and reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation in increasingly urban areas such as Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria. The biggest barrier to vertical farming is start-up costs. Our Ministry of Agriculture could play a pivotal role helping to fund research and development in this exciting new industry.
Recently, B.C.’s new Food Security Taskforce recommended a certain amount of ALR land be set aside specifically for agricultural-industrial use. This will be critical if B.C. is to bolster our packing and processing industries, as well as to provide local cold-storage facilities to help keep produce fresh, retain its value, and increase its shelf life.
Additionally, we need to allow farm families to be creative and entrepreneurial in order to come up with supplemental income to support their farm operations. I get concerned when out-of-the-box ideas like festivals, processing facilities, eateries, roadside stands, and cafes are shut down by the Agricultural Land Commission. Agri-tourism is essential in this province. These activities should be encouraged, not regulated into oblivion.
Finally, if we are to truly take control of our own destiny when it comes to the preservation of our food system, we must invest heavily in education programs. Let’s re-establish farming as a subject of inquiry in our schools, and expand the offering of post-secondary programs in agriculture, horticulture, and agronomy. Let’s raise up the next generation of growers, ranchers, greenhouse operators, hobby farmers, and community garden enthusiasts.
The time has come for B.C. to diversify its agriculture economy to better equip future generations of farming. Agriculture has been labelled as an essential service during this crisis and we need to ensure that it is treated as such, for the good of all British Columbians.
Delta South MLA.