Ensuring Sustainable Happiness through Local Food Security for Edmonton: A Case for Conserving Edmonton’s Prime Food Lands

Ensuring Sustainable Happiness through Local Food Security for Edmonton

(this was based on presentation I made January 30, 2009 at the Food Today, Tomorrow and Forever conference in Edmonton, Alberta)

Potato Fields: Urban Farmland in Northeast Edmonton (Horsehills)

As the 2013 municipal election will soon be upon our great city of Edmonton, I would like to challenge all mayoral and counsellor candidates to consider an important question:

Could happiness and wellbeing be improved in Edmonton by securing enough ‘foodland’ within Edmonton’s boundaries to feed one million people in perpetuity?

Will the new city council have the courage and wisdom to treat the most productive food (farm) land in Alberta (with the longest growing season) as a strategy asset?

If we agreed to support the building of a new arena (a community and private enterprise (Oilers) asset) through our tax dollars why not find the accounting and political rational to put a good portion of Edmonton’s northeast farm/foodlands on the city’s ‘natural capital balance’ sheet which will generate ‘wellbeing’ returns on this wise investment for generations to come?

As Edmonton’s wellbeing economist I’ve examined the  potential options for the development of the Northeast section of the City also known as the Horsehill farmland, the question Edmontonians should be debating is: ‘how much ‘food’ land should be conserving as a ‘food land legacy‘ to provide our community with sustainable local food options?’

How much land would be required to feed 1,000,000 Edmontonians with enough vegetables per year?

What would the ‘genuine’ economic impacts — impacts to our community well-being —  of setting aside these lands, which will otherwise be developed for housing, commercial real estate and roads?

What would the WellBeing Returns on Investments be from food land conservation, beyond the property tax and other financial returns on development-as-usual?

How much land would we need to feed 1,000,00 Edmontonians

I’ve even done that showing that we could, in theory, sustain roughly 200 lbs of vegetables per annum for  1 million Edmontonians on that original 85,000 acres of Horsehills lands, with ‘spin-farming’ methods of gardening. Spin Farming can generate yields of roughly 26,000 lbs per acre. The average North American consumes 200 lbs of vegetables per year (9.2% of their diet). That would mean that we would only need to set aside 7,576 acres of land for meeting a good percentage of Edmontonians vegetable needs (not all of course since many vegetables will need to be imported!).  So we are talking about setting aside less than 9% of the original Horsehills area! The value of locally grown vegetables with lower transportation costs and distance to markets is of enormous value to our well-being. Some estimates suggest that the returns per acre on spin farming could be as high as $24,000/acre which is much better than conventional farming (average per acre cash farm receipts for Canada were only $320/acre in 2011). So are any of these numbers in the GEA materials and the ‘ask’ of City Council? These are the kinds of figures we need to present to the Mayor and Council; to date while trying to compel my Legacy board to do so, most have been reluctant (some feel ‘we should preserve all of the lands available’, which is unreasonable position from which to negotiate). I would prefer to go in with a clearly rational ask as I have suggested based on an analysis of how much land would we need to sustain our local food needs.


According to the GDP accounting calculator, the more money we spend the better off society is presumed to be. However, few people realize the GDP does not distinguish between expenditures in the economy which constitute a genuine improvement in individual, family/household, community or environmental well-being and those expenditures which actually reflect the loss of our social, human and natural capital assets. For example, Edmonton or Alberta’s GDP could be increasing every year as we deplete the amount of arable land in the interest of short-term benefits from oil and gas extraction and refining.

This is not only poor economics – in the traditional definition of economy as the science of the study of the well-being of households, it is also flawed capital accounting.

Wise economics would counsel that we know the condition of the capital or assets that contribute most to what we feel is ‘the good life.’  Wise stewardship like wise economics would consider also the material needs of each household including their need for good and healthy food, shelter, clothing, energy and ultimately happy living conditions. Yet our economic accounting systems do not measure these things in the GDP. All the GDP cares about is how much money changes hands.

Food is one of the most important contributors to our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Healthy food comes from healthy soils or land. New movements such as the Slow Food movement that originated in Italy are examples of groups of citizens and food producers who have united to renew our relationship and celebration  of food, grown locally and reflecting unique local growing conditions and cultural heritage.

I have spent some time attempting to measure the true economics of food production and how much land we need to feed a million or more Edmontonians on the land we occupy.

Surprisingly I found little information on how much land is available within Edmonton’s boundaries or surrounding counties for feeding enough Edmontonians with healthy foods. In other words, we have no account of arable land. Land is an important asset yet we have no balance sheet for the City or our communities which monitors the area of land available for growing food. Moreover, we know literally nothing about the natural productivity of the soil itself to generate respective yields of healthy supplies of vegetables, fruits, livestock, dairy and poultry products. We are, however, good at tracking how many cattle we produced and export to markets outside of Alberta yet have no idea of what we are capable to producing locally to supply our local populations with a sustainable supply of healthy food.

Edmonton’s Ecological Footprint

The average Edmontonian requires about 9.80 hectares of land in 2007 to meet their food, energy and material needs. That may not seem like a lot but consider that multiplied by about 750,000 citizens amounts to 7,345,000 hectares of total land required to meet our collective needs. The bad news is that Edmonton’s land area is only 69,980 hectares. This means that our total available land area would only meet less than 1% of Edmonton’s total land base! That means Edmontonians are entirely dependent on the importation of materials, energy, goods and services to meet our current life style.

Consider that the average world citizen only consumes 2.7 hectares of global hectares of land to meet their needs. This means that Edmontonians are consuming about 3.6 times more land per capita than the average world citizen.

Consider also that there are about 2.1 hectares of land available for each citizen and 1.0 hectares for cropland and pasture land for growing vegetables and raising livestock on the planet to meet their material or corporeal needs.

How Much Land Do We Have in Edmonton to Grow Food?

Based on my most recent analysis of the Genuine Progress Indicators for the City of Edmonton, using civic land statistics, in 2007 there were 28,922 hectares (71,437 acres) of land that are zoned as agricultural land (which also includes green space) which represents 43% of Edmonton’s total land area of 69,980.  This means there are roughly only 0.04 hectares of agricultural land available per Edmontonian, a far cry from the current consumption of 2.42 hectares (of ‘food land’ that is currently consumed by the average Edmontonian.

The bad news is that we have actually lost agricultural land within our city boundary since 2003; a 12.1% loss of agricultural lands (or a loss of almost 4,000 hectares since 2003 when we had 32,914 hectares of agricultural lands within our boundaries.

That seems like a lot of land, however, consider that the average Edmontonian requires about 2.42 hectares, based on ecological footprint analysis that I conducted for the City of Edmonton. With almost 750,000 citizens in Edmonton this would require 1,861,991 hectares of land for producing the food Edmontonians currently eat. Of course the agricultural land available within the City boundaries would only meet a mere 1.6% of our current food demand! This means we are completely dependent on imports of food from agricultural land outside of our immediate city boundaries from somewhere on the planet.

What we don’t know is what percentage of those 2.42 hectares of food land are supplied by Alberta agricultural land and how much is imported. Alberta only has 646,557 hectares of Class 1 prime agricultural land available or only 0.19 hectares per capita based on 2008 provincial population figures. Again this would suggest that at best Alberta is only able to meet about 7.7% of our ecological ‘food’ footprint or demands. This means that a significant portion of our food consumed is imported.

Is there more land available outside of Edmonton for our food needs?

Based on a study I completed for the city of Leduc and Leduc County in 2006, I estimated that there are about 97,326 hectares of prime agricultural land available in Leduc County for growing good food, vegetables, livestock and other foods. If we add this to Edmonton’s agricultural land this would add up to 126,248 hectares or still 6.7% of Edmonton’s current food footprint.

How much land would be required to feed enough Edmontonians using intensive food production practices?

According to the analysis of my friend Joey Hundert, who has studied the benefits of SPIN farming, it would be possible to supply 750,000 people in the Edmonton with 200 lbs of vegetables (carrots, onions, garlic, beets, chard, etc) each per year with a mere 2,300 hectares of productive agricultural land.  The average American vegetable consumption per year is less than 10%, by volume, of a total food consumption of 2,175 pounds. To put this another way, one hectare of agricultural land within the city’s boundaries would provide about 132 people or approximately 50 Edmonton households (based on 2.6 members per household) with a sufficient supply of local vegetables. This depends on the success of SPIN farming yields; SPIN farming clearly provides significantly better yields of food per unit of land area. For example the vegetable food footprint amounts to a mere 0.003 hectares/person.

The typical American eats about 2,175 pounds of food per year. If all of this food were vegetables this would require a SPIN farming land area of 25,106 hectares to feed 750,000 Edmontonians. Again, if these yields are possible, it would suggest that Edmonton currently has sufficient agricultural zoned land (28,992 hectares) within its boundaries to generate enough for a total vegetarian diet.  Of course, these are hypothetical and crude estimates and do not considers land required for meat, poultry and other food production.

What is the real cost of shipping our food?

Some studies have estimated that the average food items can travel over 1500 miles  or 2400 kilometers (according to Michael Pollen author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma) s from farm field to your table.  If I were to price these kilometers the same way I expense my business travel costs (e.g. at $0.48/km) that would suggest my food is far more expensive to ship to my table than what I pay in the store. Why is this?

What I’ve always wondered is how food distributors can bring food into our Edmonton stores so cheap? How is it, for example, than bananas that come from Ghana can travel across the Atlantic ocean then by train or transport truck across Canada to my Edmonton grocery store and cost $0.49 per pound. That banana has traveled more than 10,000 kilometers.

I did some full cost accounting analysis for Ivor McKay when he tried living on a 100-mile radius diet in Edmonton for tomatoes.

What I found was the following:

I have been working with Ivor McKay who is living on the 100 mile diet here in Edmonton. Ivor works for CBC. I tried to calculate the true cost of his 100-mile diet effort contrasted with, for example, that  $2.50/lb hot house tomato from California (that probably really costs $45/lb tomato when you consider the real transportation costs). IF we applied the same cost of distance travelled calculus to Ivor’s 160 km diet we should be able to demonstrate that not only is this a wise choice financially but also ecologically and from a carbon footprint perspective.

Ivor is traveling about an average 40 km/week to get his basic food needs (21 km/week to markets) and an additional estimated 20 km/week for other incidental things (this is my estimate). Using the full cost of the Yaris driving per km, applied to a total annual travel of 2132 km would equate to $376.56 to meet ALL of his local food needs. Contrast that with the cost to travel to California and back for a single trip (just for tomatoes!) = $904.66! So we could easily argue that it is far more economical for Ivor to buy locally than to have to travel afar.

I have also calculated that Ivor’s average grocery bill for each week of his experience between August 18, 2007 and January 19 2008 (about six months) was roughly $262.22 per week, which is only the purchase price of the local food excluding transportation costs. This weekly bill if applied to a calendar year would equal $13,635 per year which is about 2 times more than the average Edmonton household spent on food in 2005. I also estimated that his total travel distance for a year of living on a 100-mile diet was only 2,132 kilometers (about 10% of the typical annual kilometers driven by Albertans). Using a full cost accounting on each kilometer driven in his Toyota Yaris, which includes the social cost of carbon, I calculated an average $0.18/kilometer driven for a total cost of $376 in transportation costs. While this may appear high consider the real health and well-being benefits that don’t get counted. To be fair you also need to consider the full costs and benefits in terms of reduced environmental costs or liabilities that our conventional food does not include in the price tag.

I also calculated the full cost of the organic tomatoes I bought at Superstore that might eat which come from Sacramento, California area. Normally I might pay $2.50/lb, however if I consider the full cost of driving from Edmonton to Sacramento and back (5,122 km door to door) in my 2008 Toyota Yaris with it’s fuel efficiency and carbon footprint, the real cost of that pound of tomato should be more like $45.23/lb. (plus the purchase price of the tomatoes when you get there) which is base on a full cost accounting of driving the Yaris which is $0.1697/km (this includes total car purchase price amortized over 10 years, fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc.). Add to this the social cost of carbon which for the Yaris would be $0.0069/km you get a total per km. cost of $0.177 to drive your Yaris to get stuff.

Does Locally Grown Food Cost More?

Some might argue that local food can sometimes consume more energy — and produce more greenhouse gases — than food imported from great distances. Moving food by train or ship is quite efficient, pound for pound, and transportation can often be a relatively small part of the total energy “footprint” of food compared with growing, packaging, or, for that matter, cooking it. A head of lettuce grown in Edmonton in the winter may have less of an energy impact than one shipped up from California. But grow that Edmonton lettuce late in the season in a heated greenhouse and its energy impact leapfrogs the imported option. So while local food may have its benefits, helping with climate change is not always one of them.

“All things being equal, it’s better if food only travels 10 miles,” says Peter Tyedmers, an ecological economist at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University. “Sometimes all things are equal; many times they aren’t.”

The Economics of Happiness Argument for Local Food

Price and cost isn’t all that counts when you consider the quality of life experiences associated with food and eating.  The Slow Food movement believes that food produced locally with passion, under wise land stewardship and ultimately a good dose of love , tastes better and is healthier for your body. It returns us to Hippocrates vision that “Let  your food be your medicine.”

The case for local food is several-fold: It tastes better and preserves species biodiversity of local vegetables, fruits and other foods. It supports small-scale economies and communities in the face of globalization and cultural homogenization. Money spent on local food has a greater money multiplier impact. Buying food from farmers markets results in more engagement with other people; more relationships contributes more to personal happiness than money and education.

One of the arguments most often heard, however, is about energy. And at a time of rising concern about climate change, the great distances that most of our food travels are a potent symbol of the system’s profligacy and cost in greenhouse gases. For local-food activists, “food miles” have become a favored measure of environmental impact. Food activists in the US and especially in Western Europe have pushed to put the term on menus and grocery-store labels.

If we were to honestly measure our food miles and attach those to our labels as well as include the real environmental costs of food production and transport, local food would soon become truly economic. The real dividend, however, is in improved quality of life, healthier diets, and ultimately happiness.

About Mark Anielski

I am an economist interested in genuine wealth and the author of the Economics of Happiness, a book that reveals how to use numbers to get at what's really important in life.
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