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The area of the Peace River where the proposed Site C Hydro Development Dam would be built is seen in January, 2013. The area of the Peace River where the proposed Site C Hydro Development Dam would be built near Fort St. John on January 17, 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

This article is part of Globe B.C.'s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series so far.

With its rich soil and long summer days, British Columbia's Peace River Valley boasts some of the best conditions in the province for growing food.

And that's why flooding the valley to build a $7.9-billion hydroelectricity project is a bad idea, agrologist Wendy Holm maintains.

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"They [B.C. Hydro] didn't look at the horticulture value of that land … they never really looked at issues beyond that – of community resiliency and food in the north – where families in the north are paying four times what people in the Lower Mainland are paying to put food on the table," says Ms. Holm, who earlier this year filed a submission to a joint federal-provincial review panel of the proposed Site C project.

"What is planted in the valley right now is not indicative of what might be planted if that shadow [of the dam] wasn't there," says Ms. Holm, who filed her submission on behalf of the Peace Valley Environment Association, which opposes the dam.

Provincial utility B.C. Hydro maintains the dam's impact on agriculture would be offset by the project's benefits, including clean, affordable electricity in decades to come and a $20-million compensation fund should it go ahead.

Both the federal and provincial governments have granted environmental approvals for the project, which now hinges on a green light from provincial cabinet.

The debate around Site C – expected to escalate Wednesday with possible legal action from landowners in the region – is one of many disputes involving agricultural land in B.C. and elsewhere around the globe, as farmers, developers and industry elbow for prime territory. Some of those wrangles feature large industrial projects, such as Site C, while others revolve around the question of how to balance space for crops and food with urban expansion and population growth, as has come up since Ontario passed the Greenbelt Act in 2005 to protect about 728,000 hectares of land.

That legislation, scheduled for a review next year, has been credited with strengthening local food networks and preserving green space but has also been criticized for squeezing out some types of farming operations – such as livestock – and making it more difficult for some farmers to sell their land.

Farm land can come out of production for a host of reasons, including sagging crop prices, urban expansion and industrial projects, ranging from new highways to gravel pits and gas wells.

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Between 2000 and 2011 in Canada, an area nearly twice the combined size of Toronto, Montreal and Calgary was converted from agricultural and natural land to settled areas, according to a 2013 report, titled Measuring ecosystem goods and services, from Statistics Canada.

The biggest shift took place in the Lake Ontario and Niagara Peninsula area, where about 630 square kilometres shifted from agricultural to settled areas.

Pressures on agricultural land tend to be most intense in populous areas such as Southern Ontario and B.C.'s Lower Mainland, but exist across the country.

In a three-year study now under way, researchers from several Canadian universities are looking at land-use practices to determine the best ways to protect farmland.

A dozen study sites selected to date include Ontario's Niagara Region, parts of which fall outside the protected Greenbelt; Brandon, Man., where a pork-processing plant built in 1999 was followed by retail and service expansion that pushed the city outward in all directions; and Rocky View County in Alberta, where the energy sector is moving into former agricultural turf.

Researchers hope the project will help balance competing land-use demands, including those related to food security.

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"As strong as the food-security movement has been, it has been slow to make the connection to protecting the land base," says David Connell, an Associate Professor in the School of Environmental Planning at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is head of the research project.

Protecting farmland is especially important in light of projections that show productivity could increase in parts of Southern Canada as a result of climate change while plummeting in other parts of the world, says Wayne Caldwell, a professor at the School of Environmental Design at the University of Guelph who is also part of the team.

"The question I pose for farmers when I am talking to them is, 'What does it mean to us, from an ethical and moral perspective, to live in a location which may have the good fortune of experiencing significant increases in productivity, when we can look at these maps that tell us much of the rest of the world is likely to be starving,'" Dr. Caldwell says.

"For me, it's a perspective that speaks to wonderful wealth of farmland we have across the country and the importance of that in the future to not only ourselves, but people elsewhere."

A recent report, Wake up Call: California Drought & B.C.'s Food Security, found prices of fruits and vegetables in B.C. could increase by as much as 34 per cent as a result of a drought in California.

The report, commissioned by B.C. credit union VanCity and written by Brent Mansfield, co-chair of B.C. Food Systems Network, noted that B.C. currently gets 67 per cent of its imported vegetables and 44 per cent of its imported fruits from the U.S., with more than half of that produce coming from California.

Some, including Ms. Holm, see such numbers as evidence of an overreliance on imported food and part of a host of reasons for protecting agricultural land, including that in the Peace Valley.

"As the [local] markets emerge for these fruits and vegetables more and more strongly, this is where this land comes into its own," she says.

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