Looking for a Way to Nurture Systems to Feeds Us

Agricultural land is an irreplaceable natural resource and we are not looking after it as we should, according to Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“Nations and provinces and municipalities create policy and law and regulation all the time to advance their vision, their agenda, and somehow we have decided a sustainable food system isn’t worth doing that for,” Mullinix said in a telephone interview.

Mullinix is the lead researcher on Fostering Regional Food Systems, a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, from its Community and College Social Innovation Fund.

He and his colleagues are studying the importance, potential and challenges of implementing sustainable regional food systems—which he defines as “all the elements that collectively contribute to production, distribution, purchasing and consumption of food and handling the waste associated with it.” Regional food systems build local economies, rather than shipping money and jobs elsewhere.

There are good reasons to move back from our globalized food system, Mullinix said, including that climate change, transportation costs and other factors are making it unsustainable and unaffordable, while foreign agricultural practices may be unsafe.

The problem is that planners have ignored food systems despite their essential role in keeping us all alive. Agricultural land is under pressure from development — nowhere more than in Richmond, B.C., where Mullinix works, next door to the hottest real-estate market in the country. B.C. does have an “Agricultural Land Reserve,” protected for agriculture. But it fails to encourage regional food systems in several ways, Mullinix said.

Preserved land does not have to be farmed. B.C.’s land reserve policy does nothing to prevent speculation, putting prices well out of reach for people who might actually want to farm. (Wealthy landowners renting to farmers is known as feudalism, Mullinix pointed out, and probably not a model we want in this country).

Earlier research by the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems suggests about one-third of the unfarmed land in the agricultural reserve in Surrey could be productive, and — with small-scale single farmers doing community-focused, intensive farming — could create 1,200 jobs, satisfy Surrey’s needs for 27 crops and animal products six months of the year, while generating $77 million in net income.

The researchers will assess land value and ownership trends since 1977 and try to determine the extent regional food systems can supply local food needs, create jobs, and contribute to environmental stewardship. They will also create the world’s first web-based, open-access regional food system research and information hub.

“I am an agricultural scientist,” Mullinix said. “I have witnessed the industrialization of agriculture and what it has done to farmers, to food, to the economy, to communities and the environment. I have witnessed it, and I know there is a better way to do food systems.”

Funded by: Community and College Social Innovation Fund

About Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Established by the government of British Columbia in 1981, Kwantlen, now Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has four campuses located in the Metro Vancouver region of British... Learn more