Food and Community

maxresdefaultWithin the Christian tradition, the apostle Matthew is credited with writing the following account of events during the last supper that Jesus shared with his closest followers.

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples. ‘Take it and eat,’ he said, ‘this is my body.’
27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he handed it to them saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you,
28 for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (New Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 26.26-28).

I think these words exemplify the depth of the connection between food and community, a connection that is likely present in most cultures and traditions.  Sharing food, especially food that we have had a hand in gathering, preparing or growing, is sharing a part of ourselves. Sharing food also plays a central part in healing the divisions between people and communities.  The roll of sharing food in sustaining and strengthening community is rooted deep in our culture, if not in our genes.  For most of human history, people existed in small, hunter-gatherer communities, where some in the community hunted and others gathered, and both came together to share what they had harvested.

I recently posted the argument that even though agriculture within the boundaries of Kelowna is not that significant to the local economy, global environment, or local food security, it produces many values beyond food that are important and therefore agriculture is worth supporting.  I presented statistics gleaned from a variety of sources to back up my points.  Some readers were outraged.  They asserted that my facts were wrong, but when I inquired, could not produce anything that challenged what I had posted.  I delved a bit deeper into the work that has been done on local food production and poverty alleviation and on local food production and environmental impacts.  The point I made, that local food production isn’t automatically better for the environment or helpful for the food insecure in our community, isn’t challenged by any rigorous studies I could find.  Why then is it so important to some people that these facts not be true?

Farming is hard.  The Stan Roger’s song “Field Behind the Plow” brings tears to my eyes when I think of the hours I spent on a tractor in my youth, and of my father and his dedication to the farm.  Farmers don’t have the luxury of a regularly scheduled job.  Their work hours are determined by weather and season, and the plethora of unexpected things that must be dealt with.  Farmers don’t have the luxury of a regular salary and a union negotiating on their behalf.  Rather, they are stuck between the risks generated by the natural system with which they work and the risks from the market, a result of the way those natural systems have played out elsewhere in the world, changes in people’s tastes and preferences, and all the government policies that impact on agriculture around the world.


Global food prices have been on a downward trend for much of recent history. Over the last decade they rose for a number of years, peaking in inflation adjusted terms at more than 50% above the price level in the early 2000s.  However, they have now come almost all the way back down to where they were, and they have come down as rapidly as they rose.  There are a number of explanations for the rise, ranging from government support for biofuels that took land out of food production, rapid economic growth in China and increasing demand for meat and similar products that are further up the food chain, and events like droughts and floods.  Why have they come back down?  Farmers have taken advantage of the higher prices, and increased their production.

Farmer’s, and the industries that support them – fertilizer, seed, equipment, plant breeding, etc. – are very good at what they do.  That food production has increased faster than the global population is a testament to how good the agriculture industry is at meeting global food demand.  In fact, in some ways, they may be too good.  It has long been noticed that in spite of improving technology, the situation of the average farmer doesn’t seem to get any better.  Agricultural economist Willard Cochrane described this dilemma as a treadmill (nice presentation at The elements of this treadmill are:

  1. A new technology emerges that lowers production costs.
  2. Early adopters (often larger farms) produce more and earn above normal profit.
  3. Extra output leads to lower market price, and lower profit or loss for rest of industry.
  4. Rest of industry forced to adopt.  Further lowers price till all earning normal profit.
  5. Those unable to adopt exit the industry, typically selling to larger farmers.
  6. Consumers gain from lower food prices, farmers overall see no long term gain.
  7. Industry over time adjusts to fewer, larger producers.

So, farmers and the agricultural industry have done a remarkable job of feeding the population of the world.  However, the average farmer hasn’t gained much as a result. Those who have done well tend to be the early adopters, innovators in trying out new technology, in exploring new marketing opportunities, etc.  Those who can afford to do this also tend to be the larger farms, perpetuating the cycle favoring ever increasing farm size and ever shrinking share of the population involved in primary agriculture.  All of this means that the return farmers have been getting on average for their labors and their investment hasn’t been increasing, while the share of the household budget making it to the farm gate has been steadily falling.

If that wasn’t bad enough, things get worse in places like Kelowna.  Land in the urban fringe is land that can be used for something other than farming.  A basic fact of property markets is that the price properties trade at depends on what they can potentially be used for, not what they are actually used for.  Agricultural land in Kelowna has various potential uses, including rural estates and development.  The Agricultural Land Reserve is an attempt to limit the development option, but growing cities need land, and the ALR has mechanisms to ‘exclude’ land.  Those buying property know that there is potential to get it out of the ALR and are willing to pay more than the agricultural value of the land to buy into this potential.  If a farmer wishes to purchase land in the urban fringe, she likely has to pay more than the land will ever pay back from the crop she can grow. This makes it very hard for anyone who wants to start farming to do so in the urban fringe. However, since it is costly to establish a farm, new farmers often need to be close to urban centers to hold down other jobs, jobs that enable them to finance their farm in the early stages.  In Kelowna, it also means competing against ‘lifestyle’ farmers, who retire to the Okanagan and take up farming as a retirement project, with no real need to make a living from it.

So if making a living from farming in the urban fringe is hard and if there are alternative, more profitable uses for the land, why should we seek to protect agricultural land in Kelowna?  In my last post, I listed a number of reasons, linked together with the idea of ‘multifunctionality’.  The multifunctionality, the multiple functions provided, by agriculture is something we don’t always recognize, and I think that we can make poor decisions about land use if we don’t look at the whole picture.  That whole picture should include the many services agriculture in our community provides which don’t show up as cash someone can take to the bank.

The whole picture should also include the role that food and local food production plays in building and strengthening the connections we have with each other in our community. Sharing food is an important part of connection and community, something recognized by many cultures and traditions, such as the Christian tradition I started this post with. Producing food within the boundaries of the city of Kelowna can contribute to our connection as a community.  The more people in the community that can be involved with some aspect of food production, the more opportunities there are to build those connections.  Providing the opportunities for people to be involved requires creative policy approaches that recognize the unique challenges posed by farming in the urban fringe, and that support agriculture in contributing all it can in the many ways it does to the health and well being of our community.

So back to the question of why were some people so upset by what I wrote in my previous post? I’m sure each person has their own answer.  When I listen to the many varied and sometimes contradictory reasons people have for supporting local food production, the link I see is between food and community.  We live at a time where social connections don’t just happen.  We can easily sit at home and have little connection with other people or the natural world.  Local food production is a way for us to connect with our local environment, and a way to connect with others in our community.  Those connections are fundamental to human health and well being, and keeping agriculture and food production as a part of the Kelowna landscape is an important part of protecting and enhancing our local quality of life.  I think we lack an effective language to speak about these things, and so have come to rely on economic and environmental arguments as justifications.  Therefore, challenging the environmental and economic justifications people have come up with threatens something much deeper than just those justifications.   I’m sure that those who stand to gain by developing agricultural land are quite familiar with the facts that I described in my last post, and use them as part of their arguments in favour of development.  I hope we can find a more convincing language to describe the importance of local food production than the easily refuted economic and environmental arguments. There is far more to the health and well being of the people of Kelowna than economic growth alone.

And most importantly, if you care about these issues and want to be heard, pay attention for opportunities to contribute to the updating of Kelowna’s agricultural plan.

Kelowna Agricultural Plan: Be Heard!

peaches-aboutTo me, agriculture, and in particular fresh, juicy apricots and peaches define the Okanagan.  Before buying a place and planting some of my own trees, I would keep visiting the BC Tree Fruits store in anticipation of the first apricots, buying a box as soon as I could, and polishing it off within a week, largely on my own, before going back for the next one.  Once the peaches arrived, same story. These fruits are what make my summer.  To me, this place would truly lack something special if that local season of soft fruits wasn’t part of our year.

The city of Kelowna is in the process of updating its agricultural plan (Capital News). I think that this is an important opportunity for us to define the role that agriculture has in our community.  There will be opportunities for public participation, and I hope that the citizens of our city choose to participate.  In deciding what the role of agriculture is in our community, I think we need to face some important facts.  I recently gave a talk that reflected some of these issues, with the slides available here.

Fact #1: Agriculture is only a small part of the Kelowna economy.  Agriculture was a key industry in the settlement history of the Okanagan valley and in particular the city of Kelowna.  However, the city has grown, and other industries have taken over.  As reported by Statistics Canada, the share of the Kelowna population directly employed in agriculture is under 2%.  The share of businesses involved in agriculture is less than 3.5%, and many of those are businesses that have no employees.  Even if we are generous and say that each job in agriculture supports two jobs elsewhere in the economy, we are still talking less than 6% of jobs.  Within Kelowna, agriculture is a small industry.

thomas-malthus-e1378486464478Fact #2: We don’t need local agriculture to feed ourselves.  We do need agriculture to feed ourselves.  Farmers feed the world.  However, that doesn’t mean the farms need to be nearby, such as within the urban boundaries of Kelowna.  Over the long term, food prices have been falling, even as global populations have been increasing.  Yield per acre and yield per person have been increasing everywhere in the world.  Malthus’ predictions that the ability to produce food will be what eventually limits population growth – famine if pestilence and disease are insufficient – seems so far to have been kept at bay.  Loosing the food production that occurs in Kelowna would have little discernible impact on food prices or food availability in the city.

Fact #3: Local agriculture has little relationship to food security.  Food security is a term people like to throw around when talking about local agriculture.  If we are talking about protecting our ability to produce food in the face of the risk of other suppliers not being available – drought in California being the recent example – then local food production contributes very little.  This kind of food security is best addressed by ensuring that we have strong trade agreements that allow local food retailers access to multiple sources.  If food security is about ensuring those on low income can acquire the food they need, then giving food to the needy would have to be the priority of local food producers.  It isn’t. There are gleaners, and there are donations, but these are what happens when the farmer is unable to sell the crop.  Local farmers are not growing crops to give them away.  This kind of food security is best addressed by helping those on low income to increase their income.

Fact #4: Buying local is not better for the economy.  What is good for the economy is producing the goods and services we consume at the lowest possible cost – which includes environmental costs.  If agriculture is the most profitable use of local land, then we wouldn’t need the ALR, and we wouldn’t be perpetually worried about the loss of local farms and farmland.  This ties to helping the poor.  If one buys expensive produce from a local producer rather than lower cost produce at a big box store, then there is less money available to donate to helping the poor.

Fact #5: Buying local is not better for the environment.  What is good for the environment is having the smallest total environmental impact from the goods we consume.  This Freakonomics blog lays out nicely some of the issues.  First, transportation is only a small part of the environmental impact of the food we consume. That means we have to compare the rest of the environmental impacts.  If growing food locally requires more land, or more irrigation, or more fertilizer, or more pesticides, per kilo of product than what is needed to produce it elsewhere, then growing local may actually be worse for the environment than bringing in food products from those places that are best at producing them.

These are some pretty darn depressing facts for anyone who wants to have agriculture as part of our community.  The upshot of these facts is that on the basis of economics or the environment, local food cannot be easily defended.  If local food production and local agriculture is to be part of our communities, it has to be so for reasons that go beyond the simple economics of jobs and farm profits and the simple environmental arguments that local is automatically better for the environment.  We need to think far more broadly about the part agriculture plays in our communities.

So, beyond food, what does agriculture provide in Kelowna?



Landscape: Orchards, vinyards, market gardens, and pastures with grazing animals are important parts of the visual landscape we enjoy here in Kelowna.  Look at real estate agent websites, and it isn’t uncommon for that visual landscape to be something they ‘sell’.

Open Space: Agricultural lands are not developed lands.  Being able to escape from the bustle of the city to nearby spaces is valuable to many people.

Father Pandosy MissionCulture and History: While agriculture may presently represent a small part of the Okanagan economy, it was instrumental to the settlement of the Okangan by immigrants who arrived during the last couple of centuries.  Maintaining a working landscape provides a connection with that history and our cultural heritage.  A related issue is the importance of protecting lands that provide traditional indigenous foods, but that is a discussion for another day.

Habitats and Environmental Services: Agricultural landscapes can be important habitats for natural species.  They may need to be managed with these services in mind. However, if lost, so is this option.

orchard-kelownaConnection with the Seasons: When agriculture is part of our landscape, we are exposed to the natural cycles that farmers live with. Seeing spring blossoms, summer irrigation, fall harvest, and winter pruning provides us with a deeper connection with the place in which we live.  This is particularly true when we as a community make a concerted effort to integrate these seasons into the events and activities hosted as a community.

Farming ‘vicariously’: Many urban residents long to be involved with food production. Some are fortunate enough to own property and have the time to garden.  Many others are not so lucky.  However, farmers markets and other opportunities to interact with local agricultural producers provides urban residents an opportunity to be more connected to where their food comes from.

Building Community: I recently attended an event organized by the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council.  A unifying theme among the presenters was that being involved with food production built connections between people, people who may never have interacted around any other issue.  Food is one of the few topics which anyone, irrespective of education, affluence, race, etc. can share about.



Recreational Activities: Wine tourism, agri-tourism, equestrian activities, etc. all take place on agricultural land, and activities like cycling and walking are often enjoyed in agricultural areas.

On a quarter section many kilometers from the nearest residence, these factors are likely not that important.  In the rural-urban fringe they can be large.  The agricultural land in Kelowna is land in the rural-urban fringe, and these non-food services that agriculture provides are important here.  Some experts have taken to speaking about the ‘multifunctionality‘ of agriculture, to clearly acknowledge that agriculture provides much more than just food and fiber commodities. Some European nations recognize this multifunctionality explicitly and make it part of their policy goals (e.g. Switzerland).

The present agricultural plan does mention a number of these non-food services. However, it does not explicitly mention multifunctionality, nor does it make any effort to assess how important or valuable these non-food services are.  A substantial thrust of the document is towards supporting agriculture as an industry, with some management necessary to deal with some of the negative challenges, such as wetland loss, that we seek to reduce. Can we clearly recognize the multifunctionality of agriculture, and take that multifunctionality into account when making decisions about land use conversion? Can we develop policies that identify and support those non-food services that local agriculture provides?

If you care about these issues, be sure to pay attention for the opportunities to make your voice heard.