Conservation Council recommends more local food security as part of COVID-19 recovery plan

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick is calling on the provincial government to encourage more local food security in agriculture and fisheries, to broaden protections for natural areas and water systems, and to reform the electricity system to make it more reliable and affordable.

It’s all part of the organization’s recommendations for a COVID-19 recovery plan.

The council marked Earth Week by sending an open letter to Premier Blaine Higgs on Thursday focused on those three priorities.

“We really do think this is an opportunity for us to rebuild post-pandemic in ways that protect our health, our security, and make us safer from environmental threats as well as health threats like the pandemic,” said director of climate change and energy solutions Louise Comeau.

“You know, going back to normal isn’t going to make us safer, healthier and more resilient. So we’re looking for solutions that are better than normal.”

The seven-page letter is not so much a “course correction” as it is expanding upon existing efforts, said Comeau.

For example, there are already calls from farmer organizations, farmer market operators, local food security advocates, and others that the province needs to bolster food security.

The conservation council agrees the province needs to “increase dramatically” the proportion of its food from homegrown sources.

As it stands, only about eight per cent of fruits and vegetables are grown locally.

“We need a balanced mix of New Brunswick-grown and sustainably-managed community gardens, home gardens, hobby farms, and larger agriculture operations supplying not just produce, but most of the food we eat if we want to improve food security,” the letter states.

It also recommends deploying land suitable for growing food with programming targeting young people who want to start farming in 2020 and 2021.

As part of the focus on food security, the conservation council also wants to see increased wage subsidies for farm workers, as well as help for inshore fisheries and the fish-processing industry.

To build community and ecosystem resiliency, it’s calling on the government to exceed its goal of protecting 10 per cent of natural areas by 2020 and instead develop a plan to protect 25 per cent of each of the land and marine base by 2025.

“We need to learn from our recent history, including two back-to-back 100-year floods of the St. John River, Hurricane Dorian and Arthur and the 2017 ice storm and move rapidly to implement protection plans that ensure natural systems can protect us from extreme weather,” the letter states.

This will also help create jobs in protection and restoration, in building trades through infrastructure projects, and temporary work such as beach debris cleanups.

The plan also deals with forestry, including better protection of Crown lands by decreasing the average size of clear cuts by about 80 per cent, and replacing aerial herbicide spraying with more labour-intensive silviculture practices, such as manual thinning and Acadian forest restoration.

Under electricity, the conservation council recommends an action plan that would include targets and timelines.

It suggests immediately retrofitting 100 per cent of New Brunswick building stock over the next six years, which it says could result in a net increase of 3,460 jobs per year and a net increase of $730 million in GDP per year.

Details of plan ‘in coming days’

Premier Blaine Higgs said Thursday he will share the province’s COVID-19 recovery plan “in the coming days.”

The province will outline a series of phases similar to Saskatchewan’s plan, where different levels of services are to begin to reopen while physical distancing is maintained, and there is a limit on how many people can gather at once.

“There’s two factors. One is in relation to allowing people to get back to their normal way of life in the new norm … and then the phase of, how businesses recover and the economy,” Higgs said.

Thursday marked the fifth day in a row of no new cases of COVID-19 in New Brunswick.

There are 14 active cases, including five people in hospital, one of whom is in intensive care.

To date, 104 people across the province have recovered from the disease.

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Shift in attitudes

Going back to the way things were before COVID-19 likely isn’t an option, said Comeau.

“Some things are not going to recover,” she said. “Changes in the energy sector may not be something you can just switch back onto.”

Polling also indicates a shift in attitudes, she said.

People are more interested in buying local and seed sales are “skyrocketing.”

People are enjoying working from home and being closer to family.

“I think these social changes that have emerged during the pandemic have the potential to create permanent change and opens a window to doing things differently,” said Comeau.

In addition, governments are co-operating, people are collaborating are feeling empathy toward each other, she said.

“I think we definitely have an opportunity. Not only should we do better than normal, but people will want us to do better than normal.”

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