Self-sufficiency in reach for B.C.

The promise of spring brings thoughts of a bountiful harvest and notions of living off the land. But just how realistic is it for Canadians to be self-sufficient?

It's possible that B.C. could grow all the food we need. We currently produce 48 per cent of the food we eat, according to a report by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. That's complicated by that fact that we don't eat what we should, according to Canada's Food Guide. If you factor in a healthy diet - more fruit and vegetables - we only produce 34 per cent of what we should eat.

The self-sufficiency picture gets even cloudier when you consider that Canada is a trading nation. B.C. actually grows more fruit than we eat, but we don't eat the fruit we grow. In fact, we import three times the fruit we export.

Do we have enough land to feed ourselves? Let's do the math. It takes one square kilometre of arable land to grow food for 200 people using current production technology. In order to produce enough food to feed British Columbians, the province needs a total of 21,500 square kilometers of arable land. We don't have that now. In order to meet the needs of a growing population, B.C. needs about 50 percent more land, some of which will require irrigation.

To keep transportation costs low, crops need to be grown close to markets. Cities compete with farms. Sprawling cities build on perfectly good farmland and waste water on inedible crops (unless you have a goat).

Canada's chances of being self-sufficient are even slimmer than B.C.'s. Canada has enough land to theoretically feed 83 million people but we export most of our crops to the U.S. In return, we import two-thirds our food from them. The reason is obvious: we trade a lot of grain of marginal nutritive value for the fruit and vegetables necessary for a healthy diet.

The chances of feeding the world are bleaker than Canada's. A useful indicator of the world's ability to grow food for all seven billion inhabitants is called "real population density." That's a ratio of the number of people in a country to its arable land. Given our massive land base, our real population density is only 78 Canadians per square kilometre. Compare that with Singapore, the highest in the world, with 441,000 persons to be fed from one square kilometre. Britain must feed 1,136 on the same area, almost twice that of India.

Global populations are growing and arable land is shrinking - a looming problem that no one wants to face. There are one-quarter million more mouths to feed each day. Land is being lost each year because of soil depletion, urban sprawl, and desertification. Compared to 1960, there is one-half the cropland per person resulting in the largest number of malnourished people ever recorded. Not only is it the largest number but it's the largest proportion of the world's population living on the edge of starvation.

We in the affluent minority world would rather look away from the stick people and their misery, or blissfully wish for better distribution of subsistence foods like rice. Or hope for another technological miracle like the "green revolution" that averted the last crisis. There are no miracles on the horizon; no political will to keep malnourished billions from dying; only less arable land with less water for irrigation and a per-capita crop production that continues to fall.

Even as hope springs eternal, we are running out of dreams. B.C. could be self-sufficient; Canada, not likely; the rest of the world, impossible.

David Charbonneau is the owner of Trio Technical.

He can be reached at dcharbonneau13@shaw.ca.

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