When it comes to the Food & Agriculture Strategy, there’s perhaps no organization more deserving of credit for getting us to where we are today than the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA). They worked hard during the development of the MDP to ensure that the importance of local food and agricultural land was recognized, and those efforts ultimately led to the creation of the strategy that is now in draft form. But GEA is also largely responsible for tying the development of that strategy to the land in the northeast, which has resulted in a document that fails to adequately address the importance of food to our city.
Instead of a strategy to transform Edmonton into a world leading food city, the Food & Agriculture Strategy is viewed by most as simply one of the final remaining hurdles to the continuation of urban sprawl that has plagued our city for decades. Whereas the WinterCity Strategy was created to “highlight Edmonton as a leading winter city,” the Food & Agriculture Strategy was created to allow the development of ASPs to move forward.
The Advisory Committee, created to “offer guidance and experience in exploring the development” of the strategy, was doomed to fail from the beginning. Because the land issue was not resolved, it was made up of fifteen members representing very diverse interests, rather than fifteen members all focused on food. It’s no surprise that farmers and developers could not see eye-to-eye on what should happen with the land in the northeast and that the issue dominated discussions.
Think about all of the other advisory committees and task forces that have been created over the last few years. We’ve had groups come together to talk about community safety, homelessness, winter, and dozens of other topics. The makeup of the Food & Agriculture Advisory Committee is like putting people that hate winter on the WinterCity Strategy committee, or people who love crime on the REACH committee, or people who think we should have more homelessness on the Homeless Commission.
So, how did we get here? There are lots of reasons of course, but here are a couple thoughts.
One issue is that GEA’s leaders don’t care about food as much as they care about power. This was made abundantly clear at the ward meeting GEA held on October 9. A significant amount of time was spent discussing the power struggles that take place behind-the-scenes inside and outside City Hall. “One of the tools GEA uses in organizing is the power analysis,” GEA’s Monique Nutter told us. She said that in organizing there are two forms of power: organized money and organized people. The latter is the approach that GEA has taken, and for a while it seemed to work well. They filled City Hall with citizens, and they got the attention of their opponents as well as City Council.
But somewhere along the line, GEA lost the room. Any support they may have had from Council during the MDP deliberations has largely evaporated. Were they too aggressive in their demands, or disrespectful in their communications? Does organized money speak louder than organized people? It doesn’t matter. The fact is, Council is unhappy with GEA right now. That’s a problem for those of us who care about the same issues as GEA but are not associated with them, because I think at least some Councillors now treat GEA and others who feel strongly about food and/or agricultural land as one and the same. Which means that if GEA is being viewed negatively, so are the rest of us.
I don’t mean to suggest that GEA deserves all the blame for the turnaround in support. Certainly Councillor Loken has not done the strategy any favors by “trying to add some reality to the discussions.” He claims his efforts have made him a target on the Advisory Committee. Rather than diffusing an already tense situation, it seems Councillor Loken has actually made things worse.
The second issue is that as far as I can tell, GEA didn’t have any other choice. Tying the development of the land to the creation of the strategy was really the best they could accomplish at the time. There was no support from Council for a stronger stance on urban sprawl, as evidenced by policy 126.96.36.199 in the MDP which establishes that just 25% of city-wide housing unit growth be located in the downtown and mature neighbourhoods.
In an ideal world, a Food & Agriculture Strategy would have been initiated without the need to incorporate a contentious debate over land use (of course, any strategy on food would have included something about the importance of agricultural land, but in broad strokes rather than specifics). Then again in an ideal world, the true cost of sprawl would be known and factor prominently in decisions about how our city should grow. We don’t live in an ideal world.
On Friday, City Hall will fill up with citizens eager to have their say on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. We know that Executive Committee is not looking forward to the public hearing, they’ve made that clear. They’re expecting to hear the same thing over and over, and I admit that’s not an enticing prospect. But I think that’s because they’re viewing this strategy through the lens of land, rather than the lens of food. I hope there’s a large turnout on Friday, that at least a few people talk about the importance of food to Edmonton’s future, and that Executive Committee chooses to listen to them.