On 16th October, countries around the world marked the World Food Day. Whereas some significant progress has been made towards reducing global hunger, many countries are still confronted by a myriad of challenges that differ in their nature, scale and magnitude. Equally, while policy interventions differ from country to country, it has become apparent that the world can no longer underestimate the complexity and interconnectedness of food system challenges.
This year’s theme was anchored on the changing role of migration in the greater context of investing in food security and rural development1. The occasion also coincided with my first month in Abbotsford, Canada, since I left Kenya to continue my research on sustainable food systems. It is my third time in Abbotsford in just about three years, and I have noted the rapid transformation taking place in the city’s landscape. As a trained urban planner, I am always fascinated and quick to ponder about the form, function and vitality of the cities I visit. In my view, therein lies the future of cities. So why is this city significant to my research and by extension to British Columbia?
Abbotsford is not only the largest municipality in British Columbia, but also Canada’s leading agricultural area. It has a total area of approximately 389 km2. 75% of the land base is located within the Agricultural Land Reserve2. Needless to say, the local agriculture industry is the economic driver of the city. A 2008 report highlighted Abbotsford as the “hub of agribusiness activity in the Fraser Valley”, supporting 11,300 full-time equivalent jobs and $1.8 billion in annual expenditures within the local economy.3 The 2011 Census of Agriculture also reported that annual gross farm receipts to be in the range of $640 million4. Comparably, Abbotsford has the highest farm gate sales in BC; more than twice as high as Chilliwack, the second largest agricultural municipality in BC.
So here lies the challenge. On one hand, Abbotsford’s population has been on the rise and is projected to reach 200,000 by 2025. This is partly due to soaring property prices in the Greater Vancouver Regional District which has led to a surge in the number of people who cannot access affordable housing. Inadvertently, people are being pushed further into the agriculturally-rich hinterland. Abbotsford is therefore, caught in this social-economic and political quagmire. A struggle to maintain its grip on the invaluable agricultural land, and the pressure to absorb the shocks from imminent urban-rural migration.
On the other hand, the agricultural industry in BC is undergoing radical transformation. Farmers are adopting comprehensive and intensive farming systems that incorporate state-of-the-art technology to boost their productivity. In order to enhance their economic viability and competitiveness in the global market, there has been a similar but gradual shift to embrace value-addition and on-farm processing and marketing activities. This means that there exists a very thin line between urban and rural spheres. The prevailing urban-rural linkages are slowly being eroded and now threaten to strain the harmonious social fabric. A fabric that has over the years distinguished urban and rural areas as separate spaces.
Grappling even harder with these conflicting options are Planners who are confronted with immense pressure to review zoning Bylaws. There is an economic argument that this will attract investment and ease the housing crisis. However, another school of thought asserts that, such a move would lead to increased urban sprawl devoid of safeguards to protect the sanctity of agricultural land.
Fortunately, the city has acknowledged these challenges and initiated some plans to address them. AGREFRESH is one such initiative. This is a comprehensive three stage planning process to review agricultural policies, bylaws, and regulations, and to establish a framework for ongoing bylaw compliance for land within the Agricultural Land Reserve.5 Through this, communities get a platform to engage with the city authorities in discussing the vision set out for the future of Abbotsford.
While the Agricultural Land Commission is mandated to work with local governments to preserve agricultural land for food production, the realities of immigration and sustained pressure on land acquisition are dawning on the city. These can no longer be wished away. Ultimately, how the City of Abbotsford manoeuvres to address and accommodate these competing needs to build a sustainable, economically-viable, socially cohesive, and food secure city, remains its greatest test.
BC Ministry of Agriculture. (2012). Agricultural Land Use Inventory: City of Abbotsford, Summer 2012. (Reference No. 800.510-25.2012).
Council of the City of Abbotsford (2016) Bylaw No. 2600-2016 Official Community Plan Bylaw.