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Backyard wheat fields produce food for green-policy debate Add to ...

In May, Revel Warkentin scattered seeds in her Vancouver yard.

By late summer, she hopes the plants in her eight-by-12-foot plot will be taller than her two-year-old son.

And this fall, she plans to be hand-harvesting Red Spring wheat, as part of a ‘lawns to loaves’ program that has already reaped a bumper crop of ridicule over city plans to provide a $5,000 grant to support the initiative.

The grant, one of 16 recommended under a $100,000 Greenest City Neighbourhood Grant program, was slated for a council vote on June 16. That vote was derailed by the June 15 Stanley Cup riot that left the city’s downtown a disaster zone and Mayor Gregor Robertson on the hot seat. The vote is now scheduled for a June 30 council meeting.

Meanwhile, the green grants – along with the riot – have become political fodder, with lone NPA councillor and mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton calling the lawns-to-wheat-field project “goofy” and citing it as evidence of a council that pays more attention to chicken coops and wheat fields than city basics. Vision councillors note that Ms. Anton has voted repeatedly in favour of the grants and related programs.

Whether the riot or Mr. Robertson’s ambitious green agenda become defining issues in the November civic election remains to be seen. But as the political winds blow, Ms. Warkentin is undeterred, saying she planted wheat to hone her gardening skills and help shape public dialogue about food.

If all goes as planned, her plot will produce about 15 cups of flour – enough for four loaves of bread or several batches of pancakes. For now, she’s dining out on conversations with passersby.

“This stuff – in one week, it sprouted two inches,” Ms. Warkentin said. “It’s amazing.”

The Greenest City Neighbourhood Grants are part of the Greenest City program, which began in 2009 when Mr. Robertson put together a team and charged it with figuring out what the city needed to do to become the “greenest city in the world” by 2020.

A 2009 report called “Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future” set out categories and targets, including “green mobility” – having more than 50 per cent of trips conducted on foot, bicycle or transit by 2020 – and local food, with a target of reducing the carbon footprint of the city’s food by 33 per cent per capita.

The budget for the Greenest City program – not including the grants – was $340,000 last year, out of a city operating budget of $961-million. Civic grants accounted for 2 per cent of the city’s operating budget in 2010.

In terms of land use, turning lawns to wheat fields is a poor way to boost local food production and reduce land, fuel and other resources required to feed a city, says William Rees, the University of British Columbia professor who coined the “ecological footprint” term to describe how much productive land it takes to support a given population.

“The last thing you want to use what precious little land we have in the city for is grain production,” he said.

That said, Prof. Rees supports Vancouver’s Greenest City program, and says the mini-wheat fields could get people talking to their neighbours about growing more of the food they eat – something he argues is essential public policy at a time when rising fuel costs and climate change are rattling the global food supply chain.

For Andrea Bellamy, planting wheat on a vacant city strip was a bit like putting up a living billboard.

“This is not going to replace the wheat belt, by any stretch,” said Ms. Bellamy, who planted wheat next to a community garden and the West House, a sustainable laneway house formerly showcased at the 2010 Olympics. “It’s a symbolic gesture, and hopefully getting people to think.”

The Lawns to Loaves project – put together by the Vancouver-based Environmental Youth Alliance – aims to produce 100 pounds of wheat for milling by a local company.

The Canadian Wheat Board forecast for commercial wheat production in 2011 – expected to be a disastrous year because of widespread flooding in Saskatchewan and Manitoba – is 20.3-million tonnes. Grain prices are currently high, reflecting supply shortages and a developing world’s growing appetite for meat.

Elsewhere in the city, gardeners are ripping out lawns to plant broccoli, turnips and beets.

On her lot in Vancouver’s Southlands neighbourhood, Julia Smith raises chickens and grows vegetables. She has convinced a neighbour whose lawn was ravaged by European Chafer beetles to replace grass with carrots and potatoes.

“We’re using people’s backyards and any kind of space that we can to produce as much food as we can,” said Ms. Smith, adding that the former owners of her property kept a big garden for decades. “Everybody needs food – it’s a common denominator. Having all these lawns just seems gratuitously wasteful at a time when food security is an issue.”

While Councillor Anton singled out the lawns-to-loaves project for criticism, she also questions other grants recommended by city staff under the Greenest City umbrella, including $15,500 to the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition for a cargo bike delivery service.

“Why are taxpayers paying for that?” she said. “People are perfectly capable of starting businesses like that themselves.”

The neighbourhood grants are awarded according to criteria approved by council, says Vision Councillor Andrea Reimer.

“The decision we are making is not whether we like each of these grants – the decision is, were the criteria which we had already approved properly applied,” Ms. Reimer said.

Applications for the grants far outstripped available funds, she added.

The furor over front-yard wheat fields is reminiscent of the flap that resulted last year over the city’s bylaw to allow backyard chickens.

As of this month, the city has 44 homes that have registered to keep chickens. An undetermined number likely have active chicken coops but have not registered with the city, says Sarah Hicks, manager of licences and inspections with the city’s animal control branch.

In 2010, the city responded to 25 chicken-related complaints, with most relating to wandering hens or people keeping more chickens than the four per lot allowed under the city’s bylaw, Ms. Hicks says.

As to maintaining pecking order, “We are focusing more on education when responding to chicken complaints,” Ms. Hicks said in an e-mail. “We want to assist hen owners in creating a positive experience for themselves and their neighbourhood.”

Food policy is part of Vancouver’s Greenest City plan – there’s even a Vancouver Food Charter – and the notions of urban agriculture, food security and sustainability are reflected in projects that range from bee hives on city rooftops to farmers markets and community gardens.

But is it possible for the city to feed itself?

Not a chance, says Bill Rees, the University of British Columbia professor who came up with the “ecological footprint” analysis to measure how much productive land it takes to support a given population.

Cities can, however, go a long way in that direction, primarily by growing things suited to local climate and conditions – and in Vancouver, that means vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and turnips.

Some numbers to chew on, courtesy of Prof. Rees:

0.5 hectares: amount of land required to feed a single person based on the typical North American’s high-protein, meat-rich diet, with most of that representing grain, roughly equivalent to six city lots

600,000: Vancouver population

300,000 hectares: land required to feed Vancouver

11,400 hectares: actual land in Vancouver

1.8 hectares: amount of land each person on the planet would be entitled to, if land capable of growing food were divided equally among the world’s residents

7 hectares: amount of land currently required to feed each resident of Vancouver

Wendy Stueck

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Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck


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