One of the reasons I started this blog is to advance the idea of evidence-based environmental decision-making. As such I have spent a lot of time dealing with topics like the Site C Dam project where so much ridiculous information has been spread around that it risks overwhelming the decision-making process. While I have written several posts where I have discussed the Site C Dam, tonight I have decided to take on the most ridiculous factoid being communicated by the anti-Site C activists: that the area to be flooded by the Site C Dam could feed 1 million people and that building the Site C Dam risks our food security in BC.
To start, because people always seem to ask, here is my conflict of interest declaration: I don’t have any conflicts of interest with regards to this file. Neither I, nor my employer, has anything to do with the project. I don’t get paid to blog and I generate no income from this blog. I do not blog for, or on behalf of, my employer. These words are mine and mine alone and I blog in my spare time. I have no more to gain or lose, personally or professionally, from the Site C Dam than any other British Columbian.
It has taken a while to track down the basis for the bizarre claim that “the land destroyed by this dam could produce enough food to feed over 1 million people” and that the dam risks our food security. I have also seen it quoted as:
As world prices for food escalate in response to inevitable pressure, the land in the Peace River Valley is our food security Plan B…. The land to be flooded by Site C is capable of providing a sustainably produced supply of fresh fruits and vegetables to over a million people!”
Ultimately tracking this factoid to its source we come to a YouTube video by a retired Professional Agrologist named Wendy Holm who says this:
“The Peace River Valley in British Columbia that will be flooded by this dam is capable of producing sufficient nutrition to meet the needs of over 1 million people a year and that is a very conservative figure. In fact, that figure should actually be closer to 2 million.”
At this point your science antennae should be straight up and your bunk detector should be blaring like a siren. Two million people could be fed by the land to be flooded by the Site C Dam? How could that be? Well the quick answer is that it couldn’t. The claim is ridiculous on its face but that being said let’s delve into it a little bit so you don’t have to simply trust me on the topic.
According to the documentation about Site C, the reservoir is expected to flood around 5500 hectares of agricultural land. To clarify, the area described as being part of the reservoir includes existing river so when the activists say that 12,000 hectares are going to be flooded that includes existing river bottom that is already underwater. To help you visualize a kind researcher has posted a map of the area to be flooded. As you can see, much of the area to be flooded represents islands in the middle of the river that are inaccessible to farming and riverbank that could never be farmed because it is a river bank. The amount of useful farmland to be flooded is much smaller than the 12,000 hectares suggested by the activists and the amount of actual useful farmland appears to be much smaller than the 5500 hectares presented in the documentation. A professional land use planner familiar with the area reports the following:
The reservoir will have surface area of 9,200 hectares, which is only double the size of the existing river…. building the Site C dam will not create a huge new reservoir, but will simply raise the water level — the river will be deeper, but not much wider. As such, the loss of valley bottom land with agricultural capability is closer to 3,800 hectares, of which only 1,600 hectares has farming potential. I would also point out that little of the land being flooded — less than 400 hectares — was actually being cropped; and that mainly for forage, not food crops.
This now gives us a useful range for our discussion. The farmland to be flooded by the Site C Dam is somewhere between 1,600 hectares and 12,000 hectares. So how many people will that amount of land feed? As I have written previously according to food researchers:
The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person.
I’m informed that if you are only counting calories, then a really efficient farm (with year-round growing seasons) can provide the minimum calories (absent any food variety or critical minerals or spoilage or loss to insects etc.) to support 5-6 people per hectare. Unfortunately for the Peace River District they don’t have a year-round growing season. While it is very rich land it has a relatively short growing season (about 4 months). So pressing the absolute limit and giving the activists the benefit of every doubt the 12,000 hectares they claim will be “flooded” could possibly feed 72,000 people with an absolute minimum vegetarian diet of grains and fruit. Using the mean numbers from agricultural science the 3,800 hectares of agricultural land being flooded could potentially feed 7,600 people. Using the numbers I hear the most, the 1,600 hectares of farmable land could feed 1,600 people with a standard western diet after losses for wastage, spoilage and pests. This gives us a potential range of 1,600 – 72,000 people that could theoretically be supported by the land to be flooded. Neither of those numbers are anywhere near one million, let alone two. We are talking being off by orders of magnitude folks?
Now the farming numbers I am providing are not new research nor are they hard to find. As such I am amazed that activists keep repeating this obviously incorrect figure presented by Ms. Holm? Perhaps the tape was edited, perhaps she meant the entire Peace Valley, who knows. All I can say for sure it that there is simply no way on god’s green earth that the area flooded by the Site C Dam could come close to feeding a million people, let alone two? This claim is so ridiculous on its face that I am not sure why the activists think it will pass muster…except that I keep hearing it again and again: from the highly educated doctors at CAPE to the world class economists at CommonSenseCanadian. Honestly people did it never strike you as being a number that was simply too good to be true?
Now let’s take a short moment to look at the food security claim. According to research prepared for the Peace Regional District, in 2011 there were approximately 4.6 million hectares in British Columbia’s agricultural land reserve (ALR) and 27% of BC’s ALR was in the Peace Regional District. Of that 4.6 million, in 2011, approximately 2.6 million hectares of land was being farmed in BC with 825,000 of that land being farmed being in the Peace District. According to the official numbers that means the Site C Dam will flood approximately 0.4% of the agricultural land in the Peace District or 0.2% of the agricultural land in BC. Doesn’t this put these food security arguments into perspective? It is ridiculous to claim that the flooding of the land required for Site C will put our food security at risk? We currently have almost 2 million hectares of ALR that we aren’t even bothering to farm (including 426,000 in the Peace District) and the activists claim we will go hungry if we flood around 5,000 hectares of it in the Peace?
Of further note, the easiest way to demonstrate that this particular area of land doesn’t have mystical properties is to note the following. This land is relatively close to the highway which means there are no significant access issues. This particular area of land is close to a farming community people farm all over that region. Yet given these facts most of the area to be flooded has not been farmed in the 100+ years westerners have been farming the Peace. If this land is so incredible why are people farming land near it in all directions but not farming it? Clearly the people of the community don’t see it as particularly special otherwise it would be studded with farms, but it isn’t. Except for a couple exceptions the area to be flooded has sat unfarmed since the valley was first inhabited thousands of years ago. That, in and of itself, should tell you about what the locals think about the area being flooded for farming.
Because I love playing with numbers let’s look at it another way. Using the most overstated numbers from the anti-Site C proponents that the reservoir will “flood” approximately 12,000 hectares of land and using Ms. Holm’s claim that the land to be flooded will feed 2 million people we can do a simple calculation to establish that the existing 825,000 hectares of ALR land in the Peace should be able to feed almost 140 million Canadians. Losing that 12,000 hectares doesn’t sound all that alarming from a food security perspective does it when using the activists own numbers the Peace District (on its own) should be able to feed the entire Canadian population over four times over.
Looking back at what I have written in this post I simply don’t believe that I had to write this all down. The claims were so obviously over the top and yet they have been repeated again and again and again. One retired Agrologist on YouTube made a wildly inflated (or potentially misunderstood) claim and it has become the go-to fact for the people fighting the dam. I am literally embarrassed for the Doctors at CAPE and the Economists at CommonSenseCanadian that they blindly repeated this easily debunkable factoid without it once crossing their minds that the factoid needed confirmation. But that is the problem with discussions in this day and age. People are too quick to believe “facts” that support their positions and to ignore “facts” that don’t. Unfortunately, that is not how evidence-based decision-making is supposed to be done and while I excuse the casual observer for making this mistake I think the activists should do a bit more research before using some obviously wrong numbers for their attempted political gain.
I have been contacted by Ms. Holm in the comments who asserts that her statement is correct that:
the Site C dam is capable of PROVIDING THE NUTRITIONAL REQUIREMENTS OF OVER ONE MILLION PEOPLE A YEAR, IN PERPETUITY, is based on BC HYDRO’s own reports filed with the BCUC in the 1980’s. [emphasis hers]
Funny thing is you go to her web site and look up the report she is citing and she claims it says something entirely different:
The study also notes Site C would flood 4,470 acres (1,809 ha, or 42%) of these unique vegetable soils. Using BC Hydro’s math, and assuming full capacity, that translates to fresh vegetables for over 1 million people; the entire valley, as a “green veggie belt”, is capable of supplying 2.6 million residents with fresh vegetables.
Firstly, BC Hydro did not assume full capacity, Ms. Holm did, and more importantly providing vegetables for 1 million is completely different from “providing the nutritional requirements of 1 million people“. It seems Ms. Holm needs to make up her mind on what that report said because those two statements are not interchangeable.
I typically hesitate to attribute to bad faith something that can be equally explained by innocent error (or outright incompetence), but I will note that when these two, mutually exclusive statements were presented to Ms. Holm her response was to go straight to conspiracy theory mode. Rather than correcting the record or explaining how these two mutually exclusive statements could be reconciled she attacked me because my employer was involved in a project 50 years ago. A project that has been dead literally longer than most of my readers. I leave it to readers to guess why when shown her errors Ms. Holm chose to take this approach.