Despite clear public input, Edmonton’s draft Food & Agriculture Strategy lacks recommendation to preserve agricultural land

The City of Edmonton released the draft of its Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy yesterday. The 94 page document is called “fresh” and is labeled “version 3”. I’ll be digesting it (and the other 8 associated documents) over the next week or so, but I wanted to share something that I noticed right away. Despite clear public input that Edmonton should preserve agricultural land, the strategy makes no such recommendation. Instead, a “framework” is provided to aid City Council in its decision.

As I wrote back in July, the contentious part of the strategy relates to land use and the preservation of agricultural land within city limits, particularly in the northeast. Deciding what to do with municipal land should never be easy – we should be forced to seriously consider options to make the best decision for the city. Ultimately the decision rests with Council, but I’m disappointed that given the clear feedback on this issue from the public, the Advisory Committee responsible for the strategy chose not to make a clear recommendation.

Section 5.9, under the heading “The Complexity of Issues”, reads:

The Direction to Integrate Land for Agriculture was the most difficult the Advisory Committee tackled. The Committee agreed that some prime agricultural land must be protected for future use and generations, identifying that a need exists for food production within Edmonton. At the same time, Committee members agreed that given the diverse interests represented across the Committee, it could not, and should not be the body to determine how much land should be protected versus developed in specific locations in the Urban Growth Areas. These decisions should be made through existing regulated processes by City Council.

A recommendation is very different than a Council vote. There’s no way the Advisory Committee could have been “the body to determine how much land should be protected versus developed.” Its recommendation to “treat food waste as a resource”, for example, does not detail the specific amounts of food waste that should be dealt with, so why would the Advisory Committee be expected to detail the amount of land to be preserved? The rationale for avoiding a clear recommendation on this issue leaves me unsatisfied.

The Advisory Committee was made up of “fourteen citizens from different parts of Edmonton and with different interests in the food and agriculture sector.” I suppose it should be no surprise that farmers and land developers would differ over what to do with a piece of land. Stakeholders and other citizens were much less divided on the issue, however. Let’s take a look at some of the other documents that were released alongside the draft strategy.

First, we have the Public Opinion Survey Report. It outlines the results of the survey the City ran from June 4 to June 23 (a total of 2,269 people participated). In the open comment box in the section on growing and producing food, the feedback was clear:

“…a number of clear themes emerged, the most emphatically expressed being to preserve arable land, particularly in the Northeast corner of the city.”

Of the 1388 people that left additional comments, 349 or 25% mentioned the importance of preserving municipal agricultural land, the largest of any theme.

Next we have Stakeholder Group Summary for Round 1 and Round 2. In the first round, there were “differing opinions about land use when it comes to agriculture in the City” with passionate arguments on both sides. The second round was much less ambiguous. “The vast majority of respondents agreed that providing land for growing food was a sound direction for Edmonton.”

Finally, there’s the Citizen Panel Report. The sixty-six panelists settled on ten “best of the best” strategies and in their cover letter encouraged City Council and the Advisory Committee to begin implementing them as recommendations. Their top two both deal with preserving agricultural land:

Strategy 1: Create and/or amend zoning, bylaws, fees, and taxes to prohibit developments on good fertile agricultural land, particularly the northeast farmland.

Strategy 2: Maximize spaces and places within the City of Edmonton for urban growing and food production. Develop systems for permanent and ongoing identification, inventory, and assessment of urban spaces for urban growing. The inventory includes identifying the water and soil suitability for a variety of local crops. Create accountable and objective monitoring.

There was a quite a range of participants on the panel, both in terms of age but also background. As you might expect, there were differing opinions on many issues, but the importance of preserving agricultural land was much less controversial:

Panellists were not always in agreement and throughout the Citizen panel there was in depth discussion, dialogue and areas of disagreement. However, the panellists did agree to put forward the overall strategies as outlined in this document. They also clearly articulated a critical need for political will and leadership on issues related to food and agriculture, and the importance of using municipal policy tools to protect existing agricultural land within Edmonton’s city boundaries. Participants also repeatedly expressed, in the strongest possible terms, their desire to see these recommendations treated as high-priority action items.

From the online survey to the stakeholder groups to the citizen panel, the feedback is clear: preserving agricultural land within the City’s boundaries is important. It’s too bad that a clear recommendation to reflect that is not found in the draft strategy.

The draft strategy will be discussed at a non-statutory public hearing on October 26, and you’re encouraged to provide input before that date. There are two open houses taking place this week, downtown on Wednesday and in Old Strathcona on Thursday, and so far they are the only two opportunities to learn more about the draft strategy. You can provide input at those events, by filling out the online survey, and of course by contacting your Councillor at any time.

Here is some other reaction to the draft strategy that you should read:

9 thoughts on “Despite clear public input, Edmonton’s draft Food & Agriculture Strategy lacks recommendation to preserve agricultural land

  1. What a frustrating survey! I’m beginning to wonder if they actually want any feedback. First, it takes an eternity to load and, when it does, I get the “503 server error” message. I’ve attempted it several times, only to have an error message after completing a few questions. Not to mention the fact that the questions are poorly worded (especially 3a).

  2. Note that all three instruments you refer to are not valid random surveys and cannot therefore claim to reflect the views of the City as a whole. The survey was announced through specific groups and to people who specifically asked to be updated on the issue, and was more likely to be filled in by those who have a strong view in one direction or the other on the subject than a truly random sample. The panels collected the views of the people who attended them, which may exclude a “silent majority” of Edmontonians who may not have strong opinions either way. Given that, and the likelihood that the advisory committee could not reach a unanimous or perhaps even majority position on the issue of land acquisition, it seems perfectly reasonable for the report to leave the decision about land acquisition up to City Council.

    1. Where exactly do I or the three instruments themselves claim to reflect the views of the City as a whole? In fact if you read the documents you’ll find that the authors recognize the limited coverage of the survey/meetings.

      The point is that these were the agreed upon ways for the Advisory Committee to gather input. They got that input, it contained a clear direction, and yet they couldn’t agree to endorse it.

    2. If they were tasked with “making recommendations” then that is what they should do. It was never a question of “leaving the decision to council.” Mack made this point above. If they were unable to make a recommendation on a given point, then they should say, “we were unable to agree on a recommendation on this point.”

      If they could not understand this distinction they should not have been on the working group.

      However given the amount of public support preserving this land has, they should have been able to recommend preserving (all of) it.

  3. One major problem I see with the draft report is that the committee members are identified by name, but not by organization or affiliation. If it was by nature the composition of the group that made them unable to agree on a recommendation (it included farmers, activists, land-holding developers, and – inexplicably – two members of the Dutch Consulate), then don’t Edmontonians and Council deserve to know what the members’ background is or how the committee was composed?

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