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Roslyn KuninPort Metro Vancouver needs more land to expand its services, but it is running up against a wall of local push-back.

The port is vital to the economy of Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada. In a global economy, it is a door through which our resource exports go out the many imports that enable us to maintain our lifestyle come in.

Port Metro Vancouver also provides many well-paid jobs – about 70,000 directly and indirectly. Without access to additional land, that number will not grow and may well diminish as port-related functions move to other locations outside Metro Vancouver and even outside B.C.

The last B.C. provincial election campaign was based on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Apparently, not everyone buys in. Back when there was an empty quadrant at the Roberts Bank port facility and unemployment was high, a proposal was received to use the space to export grain, generating up to 200 permanent, unionized industrial jobs.

It seemed like a no-brainer. You are moving grain. What could be cleaner or safer? These jobs fit the profiles of many unemployed people in the Delta area. Everyone will love it. Boy, was I wrong!

From the reaction to the proposal, you would think the region was going to be receiving and shipping radioactive nuclear waste, not foodstuff. When I mentioned that 200 good jobs would go south of the border to the United States if the proposal was not approved, the reaction was “Let them go.” They went.

Those same people seem to care about land. Land is an extremely valuable and scarce resource in Metro Vancouver. Limited land is a major contributor to the ever-rising prices in the residential sector. Business has long been bemoaning the lack of industrial land and the reductions in investment and employment this causes. Many in the public, however, have a NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude toward increasing or even maintaining industrial land regardless of the lost economic opportunities.

If industrial land is treated like an orphan, then agricultural land is the favoured child. No doubt, opposition to providing the port with more space is increased by the fact that the land which the port desires is a 36-hectare farm. Some time ago, I did a study on the economic returns to agricultural lands in the Metro area. Only two products made sense, or should we say dollars – houses and marijuana. Even $4 cauliflowers are not enough to justify farm land in urban areas on economic grounds alone.

Locavores (those getting most of their food from nearby producers) say that we need to consider the overall environment and not just basic economic returns. They maintain that there is a negative environmental impact from the energy used to transport food from afar which can be avoided by eating locally. They are not always right.

The carbon-based energy needed to grow food in heated greenhouses in B.C. far exceeds the energy needed to transport outdoor grown Mexican or U.S. produce to us. In fact, the energy needed to bring a small quantity of organic produce up the Fraser Valley to Vancouver can exceed, on a per-pound basis, the energy costs of shipping a boatload of produce from Chile.

These calculations are from Vacliv Smil’s detailed and thoughtful analysis in his book Making the Material World – Materials and Dematerialization and his other works. Smil is an emeritus professor from the University of Manitoba, knowledgeable in environment, food production, economics and statistics.

Like Smil, we need to do the statistical, environmental and economic analysis before we jump to conclusions about what is the best of use our limited resources, including land. Such analysis should be entered into with an open mind and without any preconceived ideas. All costs and benefits, including those hard to quantify, must be considered.

Only then can we make wise and thoughtful decisions on complicated questions like whether to provide more industrial land to Port Metro Vancouver.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 

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