New KPU study suggests Okanagan could satisfy local diets by producing its own food

Mon, May 31, 2021

Regionalizing food systems can be a driver of sustainable community development and the basis for resilient local and regional economies and ecologies. This is the message from a new study at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

“Food systems cannot be separated from other planning and development activities. We need to recognize the inextricably linked nature of food systems and adopt a ‘food systems lens’ in all our planning activities,” says Dr. Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS).

The ISFS has concluded the three-year Okanagan Bioregion Food System Project. The study focused on farming and food systems in the Okanagan region of British Columbia.

“Planners, decision-makers, and community leaders in the region are grappling with food system challenges at the present time and asking how they can realize a sustainable food system for the region. At the request of and to support local leaders, and building on our successful Southwest BC Bioregion Food System project, we began this work in the Okanagan.”

Mullinix says the current global industrial food system is unsustainable and has many adverse ecological and social impacts, including habitat degradation, unsustainable use of finite resources, labour issues, increased vulnerability to distant disruptions, and corporate concentration and control which leave out farmers, and local economies.

“Regionalizing our food systems by producing food closer to home, bringing the economic activity home to local communities, and having more control over our own food system through local policies, can help address some of these issues. However, good regional-level data about the potential impacts of regionalizing the food system have been previously unavailable.”

The goal of the study is to inform food system discourse and provide useful information to citizens and decision-makers in the Okanagan bioregion. Results include:

  • Considering the population, current diet, and agricultural land base, the Okanagan could theoretically satisfy approximately 70 per cent of local diets by producing food for the local population.   
  • Developing regional food systems can have economic benefits for the bioregion. These benefits are maximized when investments are made in the development of food processing, distribution and storage infrastructure. 
  • Agriculture has historically been one of the primary drivers of habitat loss and continues to have negative impacts on wildlife habitat. Measures like protecting critical habitat and implementing on-farm habitat enhancements can help mitigate some of these impacts. 
  • Increasing the consumption of locally produced food does not reduce the environmental impacts associated with the food system, but changing diets does: When it comes to ecological footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, how food is produced, and the resources required, matter more than where it is produced. Reducing the consumption of livestock products can reduce the ecological footprint of the food we consume, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • The Okanagan Nation Alliance has been highly successful in advancing and restoring sustainable Indigenous food systems and food sovereignty. Collaboration with them and other First Nations partners is critical moving into the future.

This multi-disciplinary study involved stakeholders including researchers, local government, health authorities and community groups.

“The Okanagan Bioregion Food System Project Report could not have been released at a more opportune time. Food insecurity has long been a growing concern and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the alarming fact that too many households in Canada and in British Columbia face inadequate or insecure access to food,” says Summerland Mayor Toni Boot. “

“This Report provides the regional data required by communities and policymakers to make informed decisions on how to strengthen the Okanagan/Similkameen food system. It also provides examples of food system policy initiatives that are underway in other jurisdictions; these are leading to cohesive, healthy, and resilient human communities without neglecting the needs of wildlife and the ecosystems that support them—something that is always top-of-mind-for local governments.”

Jill Worboys, a dietician with Interior Health, adds that healthy eating depends on a healthy food supply.

“Climate change and other factors bring uncertainty to the dominant global food system. Finding a better balance between our global and regional food systems can help make sure that we continue to have access to the foods we need to support good health now and in the future,” says Worboys, “The Okanagan bioregional study is a new tool that can help our communities increase their food self-reliance to support healthy eating while considering other important aspects such as the environment and the economy.”

Mullinix adds agricultural land needs to be protected and be accessible to farmers.

“We need to consider the impacts of any development to food, water, and wildlife, and also ensure that we develop local post-production infrastructure so that we can realize many of the potential benefits to the local economy and communities that regional food systems can provide.” 

ISFS is also running a series of introductory webinars that are free to attend. Registration is required.