Living/Working March 17, 2017

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Organic growth good for small farm survival: UBC study

University research finds organic food health benefits marginal, social benefits significant
Cropthorne Farm’s Lydia Ryall with her daughter, Kayjar | Photo: Chung Chow

Hewing to a strict organic food diet can increase your grocery bill by up to 50% and might have only marginal increased health benefits, according to a new study published in Science Advances by two researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

And while there are some environmental benefits to organic farming, there can also be negative impacts.

But there are two important socio-economic benefits that consumers can feel good about if they continue to buy only organic produce: it avoids exposing farm workers to pesticides, and the premium that organics fetch is helping to pull the small family farm back from the brink of extinction.

Verena Seufert, a researcher with UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and Navin Ramankutty, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and Food Security, analyzed the scientific literature on organic farming to evaluate its environmental and socio-economic pros and cons.

They concluded that, because Canada has relatively strict regulations on pesticide use, the health benefits of eating only organic food grown in Canada is “marginal.”

The health benefits increase when the organic food comes from a developing country that has fewer restrictions on pesticides. Most of those benefits go to the field workers who would otherwise be exposed to pesticides.

“One of the key conclusions from our study is maybe that some of the benefits of organics that consumers think of when they buy organic may actually not be that strong, while organic has some other benefits that maybe we don’t think about much,” Seufert told Business in Vancouver.

“For example, organic reduces the exposure of farm workers to pesticides, which is a huge problem, because our farm workers are exposed to high doses of these chemicals.”

Mischa Popoff, a former Canadian organic farmer who later became an organic farm inspector, thinks Seufert’s study is right on some key points, but he disagrees with the study’s conclusions on crop yields.

“Especially in Canada, you’re just sort of buying an idea,” said Popoff, who wrote a book called Is It Organic? “There’s no increased nutrition; there’s a slight decrease in pesticide exposure. But pesticide exposure is so low anyway, especially in Canada, what are you paying for? So on that point she’s bang on.”

Popoff disagrees with the study’s conclusion about low yields, however. So does Kevin Klippenstein, owner of Klippers Organics, which grows fruits and vegetables on a 40-acre farm near Cawston in the Okanagan.

The recent study concluded that there are environmental trade-offs to organic farming. On one hand, it can have a lower greenhouse gas (GHG) profile than conventional farming, because a lot of energy goes into making fertilizers and pesticides.

On the other hand, the study concludes that, because organic farming doesn’t use pesticides, crop yields can be, on average, 19% to 25% lower than in conventional farming. That means more land is needed, which can increase the GHG profile.

“We get inspected every year for organic certification,” Klippenstein said. “When we get our inspection done, they look at our yields … and our yields are always way higher than average compared to conventional.”

Popoff also thinks the report’s estimates about lower yields are too high. He thinks yields are not that much lower than in conventional farming, but says that’s because organic farmers are benefiting from the pest control done by neighbouring conventional farms.

He likens it to the herd immunity that benefits even those people who don’t believe in vaccinations: even those farmers who don’t use pesticides benefit from those who do.

“What all organic farmers and what Verena Seufert totally forget is that when you’re organic, you are benefiting from all the pest control going on around you,” Popoff said.

“The reason we don’t have locusts anymore is that conventional farming wiped them out.”

Despite some of her study’s findings, and despite the higher costs, Seufert said she buys organic food, primarily for social reasons.

She said 70% of small farmers in Canada often end the year in the red. The premium that consumers are prepared to pay for organic food means that small family farms can earn a decent living – farmers like Lydia Ryall.

Ryall, who has a degree in agriculture, owns Cropthorne Farm, a small 15-acre farm in Delta. She not only makes a living from farming herself, but also employs half a dozen people – none of whom are exposed to pesticides.

“We have a field staff of six or seven,” she said. “We employ up to 15 people during the season, on 15 acres. It’s basically one person per acre here, and out on the Prairies it’s probably one person for 20,000 acres.”

“Small-scale farming is not profitable in Canada,” Seufert said. “So, here, organic provides an advantage because it increases the profitability of farmers.”

Agriculture in B.C. has been on a growth trajectory in recent years. Exports of B.C. food, seafood and processed food products hit a record $3.8 billion in 2015. But organic farming remains a relatively small segment of B.C.’s agricultural sector.

According to the most recent Statistics Canada estimates, there were 569 certified organic farms in B.C. in 2011, which is just 3% of the total farms in B.C.

nbennett@biv.com

@nbennett_biv

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Infographic: Top network demographics

Who is your audience, and where are they hanging out on social media? This infographic breaks networks down by major demographic.

Infographic source: Tracx.com

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Kokoro stands out from the ramen multitude

It seems like you can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a ramen shop
Kokoro's Spicy Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen | Photo: Dan Toulgoet

Kokoro Ramen

5695 Victoria Dr.

778-379-7688

kokororamen.ca

Open Wednesday-Monday, 11:30am-9pm. Closed Tuesday

It seems like you can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a ramen shop. The popular noodle-soup joints are becoming more ubiquitous than sushi, and are showing remarkable staying power. (Of the more than one dozen that have opened in the last couple of years, only two have closed.)

Kokoro Ramen opened in November of last year. Located in the busy Victoria Drive hub at East 41st Avenue, it sits proudly on the northwest corner, not bothering to hide its blushes with bamboo-covered windows or any of the like. It’s all to the good: Walk in and you immediately appreciate the light and airy feeling from the tall, wide row of windows on one side. Pale wood banquettes and tables encircle a central communal dining bar that seats patrons around a central ledge that holds flowers, utensils and other mise en place. One wall is covered in bold arches of colourful paint, adding a nice focal point to the room.

Kokoro means “heart” or “spirit,” and there’s plenty of them on the menu. The vegetarian ramen ($10.50) has a base of kombu (seaweed), shitake mushrooms and coconut milk – a smooth, slightly creamy broth that comes topped with seasonal vegetables. (On a recent visit, that included kabocha squash, broccoli, corn, zucchini and carrots). The chicken-broth ramen ($12.50) is also a little creamy, and rich in umami; topped with torched chashupork, kabocha, broccoli, corn, snap peas and seaweed, it’s a delicious, light and remarkably healthy dish.

Speaking of health, owner Yasu Hiro serves his ramen in either black bowls (for traditional recipes) or white bowls (for more nutritious options). The kitchen also enjoys a bit of whimsy. A visit with my daughter saw her ramen topped with two hearts cut out of seaweed sheets. (I got one as well, so that I wouldn’t “feel left out.”)

Tonkotsu shoyu is the house ramen. Tonkotsu refers to a broth based entirely on pork bones that is not skimmed – rather, the fat is emulsified into the broth, making it extremely rich, thick and porky. Shoyu is soy sauce that is added to the tonkotsu for extra depth of flavour. The saltiness of the soy helps cut the fattiness of the broth. Kokoro’s version lives up to the descriptor. It’s dark, rich, salty and delicious. Paired with that torched chashu and the requisite slow-cooked egg, it’s an excellent way to ward off the rainy-day megrims.

For something different, try the Typhoon ramen ($12). The kitchen only makes about 30 portions daily, but it’s worth coming early to order it. This is a mazemen-style ramen, meaning no broth. Instead, it’s just noodles, green onion, house XO sauce, spicy miso, chashu, seasoned ground pork, wood ear mushroom, chilli-pepper threads and vegetables. Get it with the egg ($1.50) and go to town. A little dab of chili paste is also added to the side of the bowl, in case you want it extra spicy (but for just a pleasant heat experience, stick to the threads).

A word about portion sizes: They’re large. If you’re bringing your kids (or you’re not starving), go for a mini-bowl; at $7-$8 each, they’re a great deal and will fill you up at lunch. Add a side of the juicy chicken karaage ($3 for three pieces) and you’re set.

Ratings:

Food: ★★★
Service: ★★★
Ambiance: ★★★
Value: ★★★
Overall: ★★★

All ratings out of five stars.

★: Okay, nothing memorable
★★: Good, shows promise
★★★: Very good, occasionally excellent
★★★★: Excellent, consistently above average
★★★★★: Awe-inspiring, practically perfect in every way

Anya Levykh is a freelance food, drink and travel writer who covers all things ingestible. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Westender

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New ‘semi-market’ housing sector needed to fill affordability gap

Adding supply to the local real estate market is absolutely necessary, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will ever deliver affordability. Former Vancouver city planner Larry Beasley is among those who think middle-class affordability in today’s market can only be built outside the open market of supply and demand.

In spite of all the inexcusable barriers to new supply, Metro Vancouver saw 27,914 units started in 2016. That’s 57% above the 10-year average. With the average household at 2.6 people, that’s enough supply for almost 70,000 new people, but population growth last year was 30,700 people. We’re building more than enough to accommodate local population growth, but not investment demand.

That’s because Vancouver is among many cities around the world facing the onslaught of massive, growing amounts of mobile, nervous capital looking for a safe haven.

Geoff Dembicki, writing in The Tyee, points to Bain & Co.’s estimate of global investment capital tripling to $600 trillion between 1990 and 2010, with another $300 trillion expected by 2020.

“Bain & Co. believes that ‘capital superabundance’ will be the single biggest influence on our global economy for decades to come,” he writes.

If it continues to land in Vancouver, how can we possibly align that tsunami with real estate prices even remotely tied to local incomes?

One helpful step is to grab a few of the golden eggs from those global investors and invest them in local affordable housing. The provincial government’s bounty from graduated property transfer taxes and the new 15% tax on foreign buyers has shown what’s possible.

Although the 15% tax caused, or coincided with, a slight drop in prices, by all accounts it’s a temporary drop. Prices are expected to keep rising, limiting home-buying to people already on the equity hand-me-down cycle.

So, yes, increase supply, and, yes, raise the rates for people who want to park their money here. There are several ways to do that, such as the City of Vancouver’s empty-homes tax, and University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University professors’ ideas for hiking property taxes for those who don’t pay meaningful income taxes or act as landlords.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Studies suggests graduated property taxes, shifting the tax load to higher-valued properties, which would create an incentive for expensive properties to subdivide their lots into multi-family units.

Some of these proposals start to address the inequity of a homeowner raking in untaxed capital gains for sitting at home filing her nails while property values jump an average of $500 a day, competing in the market with a young couple futilely saving for a down payment and paying income tax on their earnings.

But just like increasing supply, taxing investors in varying degrees still won’t make housing affordable.

Beasley has concluded that we need to build out a “third sector” to deal with middle-class affordability: new supply that’s secured for locals and for certain groups of consumers.

He envisions “semi-market” housing targeted to middle-class income earners. One example would be reviving self-owned co-ops, where some units subsidize other units. Or we could follow Melbourne’s requirement for new big job centres to include employee housing. Or ramp up inclusionary zoning to require new high-end condo developments to include some fixed-price units. Madrid and Whistler are two places that have created non-profit home ownership: homes sold to local workers to build equity, but they can be sold only at a pre-determined rate, with little or no profit.

He also points to co-housing, where some living space is shared: “owners still build equity but consume less.”

Beasley admits building this third “semi-market” sector will take “unprecedented levels of collaboration between governments, the philanthropic community, private developers and the banking community.”

But he sees it potentially covering as much as 30% of the housing market, securing the kind of affordability that would guarantee the diversity of our region for years to come.

No amount of new supply alone will do that. 

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He is chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation’s board of directors.

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Saving character houses needs incentives and zoning

The City of Vancouver is undertaking a character-house zoning review to consider saving character houses through incentives such as increased size, number of units, and infill. This retains character while accommodating growth in a more sustainable way.

Although this is good in principle, additional options need to be considered. The city is moving away from downzoning, especially on non-character lots. This is a good thing because much public pushback was generated when they went too far by not adequately balancing the economics. But now the city must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Incentives for retention do need a supportive conditional zoning framework for them to work, as is the case in Kitsilano. But the economics must be very carefully balanced so that it is fair to owners, allowing the retention option to provide property values that are roughly equal to – or in some cases greater than – those resulting from the non-character new construction option. This has been achieved in Kitsilano, and the city should learn from past successes.

There is an urgent need for the review. Since city zoning rules were changed in 2009, demolitions increased to over 1,000 a year, with older homes being replaced by much larger and more expensive “monster” houses. On average, home demolitions increased 80% between 2009 and 2015, and by 73% on average for pre-1940 homes.

Most of those demolished homes were livable and structurally sound, many had been substantially upgraded and many had secondary suites. Prime old-growth wood was sent to the chipper, materials were relegated to the dump and few, if any, materials were reused. Many of the new houses, often twice as expensive as the older ones they replaced, are left vacant purely as investments. Hardly a green or sustainable city.

City of Vancouver survey results show that 90% of citizens think the retention of character buildings should be encouraged. 

Some say retention of character houses through incentives is freezing single-family zoning. In fact, it is doing just the opposite. Character zoning is proposed to conditionally allow a variety of additional options to meet current needs through adaptive reuse. This is by far the most sustainable way to accommodate growth, increase rental and ownership options, provide more affordability and mortgage helpers and retain neighbourhood character.

This is not an issue of needing more zoned capacity to meet growth. The city’s consultants and new head planner, Gil Kelley, have confirmed the city already has enough zoned capacity to meet regional growth to 2041 and beyond. We just need to find the right balance for more affordable sustainable housing choices while retaining neighbourhood character.

This can be achieved with a few adjustments to the character options proposed in the review. Although there may be some opportunities for new housing types such as duplexes, row houses, townhouses and low-rise apartments, this can be done through detailed neighbourhood-based planning at a later date.

Much attention is rightly being paid to the plight of millennials and their needs for affordable housing. However, there should be no delusions that new construction of duplexes, townhouses and row houses will fill this gap. Even East Vancouver half-duplexes go for more than $1 million, not much less than an older east-side character house.

However, if we don’t deal with the character-house issue now, the opportunity to expand affordable housing types through conditional zoning for adaptive reuse of character buildings will be lost forever.

Elizabeth Murphy (info@elizabethmurphy.ca) is a private-sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for BC Housing.

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