Agriculture’s essential role in a turbulent world
Are you hungry? Is there a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food reliably accessible to you? Everyone enjoys a good meal — but many of us take our food supply for granted.
The events of this past year have made clear the fragility of food security in Bermuda. Grocery store shelves emptied in the face of the approaching Covid-19 pandemic and left many wondering what to do. In response, many Bermudians harnessed their resourceful natures and turned to the home vegetable garden as a means of supplementing their fresh-food supplies. Even goat ownership and keeping beehives for honey production increased.
The Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce, supported by fellow environmentally concerned organisations such as the Bermuda Audubon Society, the Bermuda National Trust, the Bermuda Agricultural Group and The Garden Club of Bermuda, agree that this is an excellent first step, but much more can be done to increase our local food production. In particular, we need to maximise the preservation and use of the land we have available for agriculture. This includes traditional crop farming as well as dairy and livestock production.
The Bermuda Draft Plan 2018 governs the planning and zoning decisions of the Department of Planning and the Development Applications Board. This plan protects 738 acres of land as Agricultural Reserve, but only about half of that is actually being used for food production. Much of what to the casual observer may appear to be lawns, small groves of trees, shrubs or overgrown bushes is still zoned Agricultural Reserve and has the potential to be used for agriculture. Unfortunately, some of this land has been used for inappropriate industrial storage, which has compacted the soil and diminished its agricultural value, but with a concerted effort this can be restored.
Of even greater concern is the permanent loss of agricultural land and its protective setbacks for non-agricultural development. Approved planning applications allow for new homes or additions to them, condominium developments and access roads in areas zoned Agricultural Reserve. Although these approvals may be technically legal, do they in fact fulfil the objectives of the existing Bermuda Draft Plan:
• “To conserve all important agricultural land to support agricultural farming and horticultural uses”
• “To conserve agricultural land for its natural and aesthetic value, and for providing a visual and amenity buffer between and within development areas”
A great deal of discretion is built into the Draft Bermuda Plan, which we believe is being used to allow and encourage development at the expense of our agricultural land. As Bermuda’s ability to produce food at all is in decline, other countries are enhancing food production and its quality by exploring, for example, pesticide-free agriculture. Why isn’t this discretion being used to maximise the protection of agricultural land so that it may be used for food production in the future?
Even when applications are refused by the DAB, the decision can be appealed to the home affairs minister, who may give permission without an explanation for the development. This permission can be given against the recommendations of the minister’s own Department of Planning and against the advice of an independent inspector brought to Bermuda from overseas to review an appeal.
We think the minister should be required to substantiate his decisions to show they are for the greater national interest. This is not the case at present. The ultimate rejection of the extensive efforts by non-governmental organisations and individuals to save agricultural as well as pristine land on Judkin Lane near the environmentally important Mangrove Lake nature reserve in Hamilton Parish from the irreversible damage caused by quarrying is an example of this (see pictures).
The importance of preserving our Agricultural Reserve lands was clearly recognised in the comprehensive Crop Strategy 2016-2021 — Feeding Bermuda Ourselves document released by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The goal of the strategy was “… to increase local food production by 20 per cent by 2021 through optimising and increasing arable land, utilising sustainable practices (such as building soils with compost thus reducing chemical inputs), promoting home gardening, public education, and training to create jobs for Bermudians”.
The very first objective of the strategy was “to preserve and enhance the agriculture land base”. We are concerned that this critical component of the strategy has been and continues to be overlooked — and it is now April 2021.
We must also halt the loss of land used for dairies. The Bermuda Dairy Industry Strategy, also published in 2016 by the DENR, serves as a clarion call for us to prioritise and preserve an industry that contributes to our milk, cheese and meat supply. Getting food from the land is part of our history, our culture, and our way of life. This must be nurtured and preserved.
Let’s encourage people to put these areas into use for food production. Our government needs to move towards implementing the initiatives identified in the Bermuda crop and Bermuda dairy industry strategies and the as-yet-unpublished livestock strategy, including:
• Extending leases for crop and dairy farmers, and livestock producers to encourage capital investment in farm infrastructure
• Reducing tax rates for agricultural land in production
• Undertaking a legislative review and improving enforcement of zoning laws to require restoration of destroyed Agricultural Reserves
• Encouraging career pathways in farming for young entrepreneurs
• Most importantly, permanently protecting and preserving our Agricultural Reserve land
With these steps we can improve the sustainability and security of our food production. We may never be able to meet all of our food needs, but who knows what the future holds as science and technology continue to develop.
In the meantime, we can create a buffer for times of emergency. And, when we are not in crisis, we will have the benefit of an abundance of affordable, healthy, fresh foods produced by our local farmers from our own agricultural lands — in other words, food security.
• Kim Smith is the Executive Director of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce