How the B.C. floods revealed the fragility of Canada’s food system

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Flooded homes and farms are seen from the top of Mount Sumas, following rain-caused floods and landslides in Abbotsford, BC on November 17.Jesse Winter/Reuters

For the past week, the family-run Leap Farms Market in Abbotsford, BC has been open and fully stocked. Bright mandarin oranges sit in a wooden crate. There are milk and eggs in the cooler. A chalkboard sign announces the soup of the day: Cabbage Beef Borscht. But despite the store’s motto, “better when shared”, something has been done to feed customers.


Since the devastating floods in the Fraser Valley, the market has become an island, surrounded by flooded roads. Its surrounding area is under emergency order. Water has flooded the Lepp family’s vegetable farm in nearby Sumas Prairie. Flood in his poultry farm: All 6,000 birds are dead.

On some days, the shop is accessible only through gaps in barricades. “Can’t find food in other stores,” said market co-owner Charlotte Lepp. “We have food, but people can’t reach us.”

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The family’s plight mirrors the larger one faced in British Columbia: The flooding in its agricultural sector touched off a domino of disruption along the food supply chain, resulting in bare grocery shelves in some parts of the province, excess food in others.

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Grocery store shelves cleared in B.C. as floods cut off major transportation routes

The events of the past week have made the vulnerabilities in BC’s food system abundantly clear – vulnerabilities that exist not only in BC but across the country. And, given the urgent warnings about climate change, Canada’s food system is only going to weaken even further.

“As the world changes, the system has to change,” said Evan Fraser, director of the Aerel Food Institute at the University of Guelph.

Abbotsford, BC on 25 November Flooded dairy farm inJonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Even in good weather conditions, the Coquihalla Highway can be terrifying.

The highway that connects BC’s lower mainland to its interior – and is an important link between the province and the rest of Canada – is marked with steep mountain climbs and dramatic drops. It has earned its reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and has its own reality TV show, highway thru hello,

Still, thousands of trucks rely on the treacherous route every day to transport important goods and supplies.

So when floods closed a handful of highways last week (including Coquihalla), it brought much of the province’s supply chain to a halt. It also left experts questioning whether the food system is dependent on very few roadways.

Fayja Sahinyajan, a business professor at Simon Fraser University who studies supply chains, said the road network around the Lower Mainland is particularly fragile. “If one or two [routes] is broken, you are completely isolated from the rest of Canada,” she said. “The impact is fully felt when you are going through a disaster.”

Part of the problem is geographic reality. “You are literally moving through the mountains,” said Dave Earle, president of the BC Trucking Association. “There aren’t many options.”

Similar realities are faced in other parts of the country as well. This week, communities in Newfoundland found themselves cut short after a major storm. Last year, a state of emergency was called after a snow storm closed St John’s and its grocery stores for several days. Heavy flooding in Nova Scotia this week also closed roadways for some communities.

But even cities that are not geographically isolated can find themselves cut off, Prof. Fraser said.

“How Much Is Toronto Reliant on the 401, QEW and 407?” He asked. “There won’t be too many problems affecting Toronto before the groceries run out.” The fact that so much food travels very long distances – fruits and vegetables from California, for example – only makes the problem worse.

Last week’s floods also highlighted another type of infrastructure critical to agriculture.

Six years ago, BC’s Ministry of Forestry issued a report on dike systems in the Lower Mainland. The dam in the Sumas region – which broke in last week’s floods – was found to be “unacceptable”.

“Everyone is saying, ‘We have to do something about it. We have to defend against it,'” said Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at Fraser Valley University.

The same report found that 71 percent of dams were unsafe in the event of a flood. Only 4 percent met provincial standards.

“It’s one of many weak points that we know about, and we haven’t reached yet,” she said. “This will not fly in the age of climate change. Governments cannot ignore infrastructure.

Whatever people outside BC imagine about the flood, Ms. Newman said, the reality is much, much worse.

“It’s like a huge, flashing signal saying we need to think about infrastructure right away, and if we don’t, very bad things will happen.”

And it’s not just infrastructure that needs to be climate-resilient, she said. Similarly, we also produce food.

Debris on the side of a flooded road in Abbotsford, BC, November 25.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

When it started to rain last week, Chris Bodner felt a rush of adrenaline and his mood swinging wildly. “I thought, ‘Why is my body doing this to me?’ He realized it was panic – 10 years ago his farm had last experienced a major flood.

By the time the rain stopped, their fields were filled with water. Yet he considers himself lucky, considering how little he lost – and how much his friends and neighbors lost. He is extremely reluctant to give credit for anything he did or didn’t do.

But the reality is that most farms in the country don’t look like Mr Bodner’s Abbotsford Farm.

“To create the modern food system today, it involves a lot of trying to control nature,” said Hannah Wittman, professor of land and food systems at the University of British Columbia. In the Fraser Valley, this meant emptying lakes, diverting waterways, and designing intensive agricultural practices to maximize productivity.

Mr Bodnar’s operations are much smaller than other farms, and are focused on selling directly to customers through farmers’ markets and vegetable box subscriptions. He produces a diverse range of organic vegetables, and plants them strategically in many latitudes.

This approach is the key to climate resilience for the future, Prof Wittmann said. Studies have shown that highly diverse farmlands with diverse landscapes are more resilient than others to climate change.

Mr. Bodnar has tried to make decisions based on the realities of farming in the floodplain. Sometimes those decisions are about what not to do: On their 50-acre property, they’ve decided to leave a large wooded area and 23 acres of peat marshes untouched. He said the long-term goal would be to reclaim the marshes as wetlands.

Some of their neighbors have also left the forest areas untouched. “There is a greater recognition that for resilient rural areas, you cannot cultivate every square inch,” he said. “Some of it has to be in a natural state.”

Experts also call other alternative farming models flexible: moving agriculture to greenhouses, building vertical farms, and regenerative farming practices aimed at creating healthier soils. But it is the job of governments to encourage such models, Prof. Fraser said.

“It’s not on the farmers to do that,” he said. “The market does not reward them for doing so. The policy structure does not reward them for doing so.”

In a statement, Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Ottawa has pledged more than half a billion dollars in new programs focused on sustainable farming, with the aim of helping farmers improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. $200 million to help adopt practices from

“Farmers have made great gains in sustainable agriculture,” she said, “but now is the time to improve our resilience to the effects of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the region.”

Mr. Bodnar, whose farm is on leased land from a cooperative, also knows that most farmers are not able to choose the options they have. The proximity to the lower mainland has made the land extremely expensive. Neighboring farmers who are paying higher rent have to take a decision based on their financial conditions.

“We know there are people going through floods right now who are going to have to deal with it for the rest of their lives,” Mr Bodnar said. The immediate focus in the community will be on helping with the cleanup. But the next steps after that will be important.

“It’s generationally defining in some ways,” he said. The choices made in the coming months – choices by governments, policy-makers and individual farmers on how to rebuild – should be made with flexibility in mind.

“How do we learn from this and do better?”

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