The Real Value of Land

We’re trading our past and our future for the fleeting pleasure of a potato chip. A salty treat that we buy as an afterthought at the convenience store, forgotten or regretted as soon as the bag is in the trash. SLM Spud Farms would like to till 6500 hectares of native grass prairie to grow potatoes.

Native grass prairie doesn’t look like much. As you whiz down the highway at 110 kmh you’d be hard pressed to define what is so special about endless grass. The truth is that it’s an incredibly productive landscape. The grass itself is a miracle; its long roots allow it to thrive over decades of drought and protect some of the richest soils in the world from erosion. They also provide an enormous carbon sink. A prairie morning is a cacophony of bird song with all the species that are able to nest in the grass or wetlands. Iconic species such as sage grouse, pronghorn, coyotes and rattlesnakes dot the landscape. The grass is the lifeblood for ranchers who graze their cattle on the range.  There is endless recreational value in exploring the coulees, finding teepee rings, hunting deer and pheasant. But less than 10% of Alberta’s native prairie grassland remain, most of it tucked into the southeastern corner of the province. Because the grasslands are disappearing, it’s not surprising that the species that live there are as well. The majority of Alberta’s endangered or threatened species live in the grasslands, including burrowing owls, Sprague’s pipit, leopard frog,and  ferruginous hawk. 

Native grass prairie is largely public land in Alberta. Private lands are often tilled or otherwise developed for profit, so in a sense retaining public lands has preserved our landscape. It is not enough to just preserve parcels of land; it is also important that the parcels be large enough to support populations of animals and be adjacent to other parcels for animals that need to roam around. To properly protect species at risk, large contiguous areas of healthy prairie is needed. Selling off large pieces of public land is not consistent with this goal.

Prairie potatoes are the ultimate in unsustainable food. Southern Alberta is an arid, desert like landscape, notorious for drought. Potatoes require water to grow. The potatoes are being grown to feed our demand for french fries and potato chips, which seems unnecessary when we see headlines about obesity, heart disease and diabetes every day. Essentially, we are selling our public lands to grow a product we don’t need, using water we don’t have, on land that could easily provide a host of ecological services if left alone. SLM Spud Farms also grows potatoes as feed for cattle, and sued the US Government for preventing the trade of cattle during the mad cow crisis in Alberta. The land that they are proposing to use is already used as a grazing reserve; cultivating more potatoes to feed more cattle in a recovering beef market hardly seems necessary.

It is insult to injury that Alberta Public Lands, lands retained by the government in the formation of the province for the benefit and enjoyment of all Albertans, can be sold for the favour of a small political donation. There is already development on Alberta Public Lands, some would argue too much. To lose them entirely and forever for the throwaway pleasure of a potato chip is just too much.

So what can you do?

  • Write your MLA, write the premier, write angry letters all over the place to stop this deal. Here’s some addresses to get you started. E-mail good, letters are better, phone calls are best.

The Hon. Ed Stelmach 780-427-2251
Premier of Alberta
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

Honourable Mel Knight 780-415-4815
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development
#404 Legislature Building 10800 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

  • Stop eating potato chips, or at least less potato chips. Or at least give some thought as to where your potato chips come from. And in general, try to give more thought as to where your food comes from. Agriculture has allowed human beings to thrive and flourish by providing a stable food supply, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently noble. Get to know your local producers. Go to a farmers’ market and ask where their product is grown. Join Slow Food.
  • Get to know more about the land around you and what’s going on with it. It’s easy to dismiss the effect of plowing up one farm or space for one well pad or cutting a large undeveloped tract of land into a housing development. But uncultivated land provides important ecological functions that we can’t exactly mimic with technology.
  • Don’t assume that the government is taking care of it. Endangered species legislation only really protects harm to individual animals and their dwellings, but it does not provide broad enough protection for the land needed to support them. Join the Alberta Wilderness Association or other similar conservation groups for more information and ideas on how you can help.
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