Maybe we should have just had a food strategy

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.

City Market 2012

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.

MDP Second Reading

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.

Food in the City

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 3.1.1.2 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.

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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.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisbuyze Chris Buyze

    Mack, another well written and thought out discussion on the NE lands. For many, food and land issues go hand-in-hand. It’s hard to separate the two, making this issue all the more contentious and confusing. But if some in the activision to save the land have lost the vision about food first as you describe, it will not help the Exec Committee any on Friday. I am concerned that much time and effort have been lost to a lack of willingness on all sides to find a negotiated position, but I am not as up on the politics of this issue as many involved. It should never have come to the point of pitting farmer against farmer.

  • Fabian Jennings

    Mack, you have moved over time from making some sense, and in a reasoned way, to making no sense at all in a convoluted way. I hope your readers can follow that trajectory and, as they realize they can’t really follow your logic and strategizing, can feel alright about just ignoring you. This, your latest, reads like you just completed a course in complexity theory and are anxious to try it out. Problem is you failed the exam.

  • raquel feroe

    The two issues are very tied together. Who ever made up the committee must have realized that because they included primarily the interests of those involved in the northeast. I think there is still reason for hope. Everyone is on a steep learning curve (administration, planners, developers, land owners, foodies and champions of democracy. There are conservation tools that can be used that could result in some wins for all. As the strategy says: developers can reduce their costs and cluster their developments; The city can reduce costs of community services by saving Ag land and increasing density elsewhere; new tools can be used by all parties working together. I think Oct 26 will be informative and we will all come out better educated and with incentive to work together on win wins. This will not be a zero sum game. We are already smarter because of the process and council will likely show leadership and help get all parties working together. I predict councilors that do not capitalize on the opportunities in the strategy will not be back in Oct 2013. Ag land, Urban sprawl and Food will define the next election.

  • Nancy Siever

    Mack, Curious about the comment about GEA being seen by council as being disrespectful in their communications. As the person who was responsible for most, if not all communications to Councillors, I believe that our communications were professional and respectful.

    • http://blog.mastermaq.ca Mack D. Male

      Nancy, I debated whether or not to include that comment, but in the end I felt it was relevant. My communications with GEA have always been professional and respectful, without question. I did hear from a couple of folks on Council that they felt differently.