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Inside View: Paving paradise to put up a parking lot


January 5, 2009
By Gary Jones

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As the effects of global warming seem to become increasingly unpredictable, “climate chaos” seems to be the latest name in fashion. Most of us now accept that the root cause is undoubtedly rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Slightly less robust is the debate over why those GHGs are increasing. Most, practically all, scientists agree that the number one cause is the burning of fossil fuels, consequent from Man’s activities. Some reputable workers still dispute there is a “scientifically irrefutable” link between global warming and our activities, and offer very plausible evidence to back up their theories. So, let’s stop here and simply blame rising levels of CO2, whether natural or man-made.

As the effects of global warming seem to become increasingly unpredictable, “climate chaos” seems to be the latest name in fashion. Most of us now accept that the root cause is undoubtedly rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Slightly less robust is the debate over why those GHGs are increasing. Most, practically all, scientists agree that the number one cause is the burning of fossil fuels, consequent from Man’s activities. Some reputable workers still dispute there is a “scientifically irrefutable” link between global warming and our activities, and offer very plausible evidence to back up their theories. So, let’s stop here and simply blame rising levels of CO2, whether natural or man-made.

My question to you now is, “what do you think is the second most significant reason for climate chaos?” Cosmic rays (solar radiation), aerosols and volcanic activity play their parts. But land use changes are often quoted as the most significant. In this context, changes of land use usually point the finger at two actions: deforestation and agriculture. Deforestation, primarily of massive areas of South American rainforest, is marching on at a relentless (and according to a very recent BBC report) increasingly destructive pace. No doubt my lifestyle at some point contributes to this.

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But blaming agriculture as the major reason for deforestation however, I take personally. I guess it all comes down to a matter of scale. Let me explain.

In condemning agriculture as the major contributor to the issue, environmentalists focus on the fact that the first act of converting land to agriculture is clearing land of natural vegetation, and hence removing natural “carbon scrubbers” (trees) from the eco-system. But at a local level, it’s difficult to argue that agriculture is the villain in the case of changing land use versus the environment.

Metro Vancouver produces about 30 per cent of all of British Columbia’s agricultural income from just two per cent of the Agriculture Land Reserve (ALR). But the pressure to convert land out of agricultural use and into residential and commercial zoning is huge. So, at a local level, “change of land use” is not driven by farmers clearing trees, but developers removing existing agricultural eco-systems and paving them over. At the global level, agriculture still carries the blame for change of land use. If we are continually told that we should “think global, act local,” then let’s do that. How so?

At the end of November, Metro Vancouver concluded a series of community dialogues, entitled “Future of the Region,” addressing issues around sustainability. The final one was on agriculture, and naturally focused on the ALR issue. An assorted panel of respected farmers, agriculture land commission representatives, agrologists and food service representatives each put forward a five-minute summary of the state of agriculture as we know it, before fielding audience questions.

Panelists stressed that farmland needs to be continued to be farmed. This means farming needs to be profitable and attractive to newcomers. “Edge planning” around housing development areas can reduce land use conflicts. Government-owned farmland needs to be identified and returned to agriculture. Local government planners need to scrutinize the “gentrification” of farmland by developers seeking to increase its value. Restaurateurs can help by buying local, thereby making local agriculture profitable. An organic farmer said they hadn’t been able to grow enough this year to meet demand, and that in Italy there is a boom in new agricultural business startups like never before. These are being driven by 30-somethings looking for rewarding, profitable and ecologically friendly careers.

In B.C., we are in an “ALR crisis.” According to one panelist, over 10,000 acres has been taken out of ALR in the last five years. Only 7,500 acres has been put back in, and these in areas unlikely to develop into profitable, local agriculture, since they are away from major population (consumer) centres. Urban agriculture seems to be the way forward.

So, global warming is due to agriculture chopping down trees, right? If you disagree, do something locally to reduce climate chaos globally. Get involved in these land use issues.

Gary Jones is Chair of Production Horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He sits on several industry committees and would welcome comments at Gary.Jones@Kwantlen.ca.


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