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Comment: To grow food in the city, heal the soil first

I wholeheartedly support Victoria’s new policy favouring growing food in the city, but there is a missing piece: the likelihood that our urban boulevards, vacant lots and even backyards are contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants.

I wholeheartedly support Victoria’s new policy favouring growing food in the city, but there is a missing piece: the likelihood that our urban boulevards, vacant lots and even backyards are contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants.

This has a direct impact on our ability to realize food sovereignty, and grow healthful food and medicine in the city.

People are often surprised and doubtful that Victoria could have contaminated soil, perhaps because it looks so green and blooming. Yet, in my years of helping people grow their own food with the LifeCycles Project Society, every time we got the soil tested for a food garden, it was found to have unsafe levels of heavy metals, namely lead.

Recently, a Vancouver community garden was found to contain unacceptable levels of lead and other metals in the soil, and now that city is encouraging people to have their soil tested before creating vegetable gardens.

Heavy-metal exposure — to hone in on just one type of contamination — is detrimental to the heart, immune and nervous systems, and has been implicated in a variety of conditions, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

My brother, an environmental engineer, tells me many of our cities are built upon old industrial sites. Industry happens on the outskirts and, as cities grow, these areas get pushed further out, but the toxic legacy remains beneath our schools, neighbourhoods and parks. In Hamilton, Ont., children discovered a black oily substance oozing from their playground grass. This led to the discovery that it had been built on buried contaminants from a tar and asphalt company.

Conventional remediation involves digging up the contamination and dumping it somewhere else. Until 1991 in Victoria, contaminated soil from industry was allowed to be used as fill in new neighbourhoods. Now it needs to be dumped somewhere else, typically out of sight and most often where marginalized people live.

This is where the demand for contaminated soil dumps — including the one recently approved in Shawnigan Lake — arises.

Colonialism, capitalism (and class) are at the heart of living on land that is contaminated. Much of this land was productive Garry oak meadow, stewarded by and producing food for Coast Salish people for millenia. Since European settlers came a few hundred years ago, this land has been polluted and degraded with mining, malls, gas stations and landfills, and it keeps happening.

We not only live on top of old industrial sites or buried contamination (in Cook Street Village, five properties were found to be contaminated with a toxic dry-cleaning chemical) but we also build our homes, clean our homes, lube our bikes, fill our cars and grow our gardens and farms with chemical pesticides, paints, solvents, petroleum products and so many other persistent pollutants.

We can work with living systems — plants, microbes and mushrooms — to detoxify contaminated soil and help break down, suck up or bind contaminants. This is called “bioremediation,” and it’s about amplifying what already happens in nature. Many of the tools we can work with to address contamination in neighbourhood and backyard soils are the same ones we use as food gardeners: hot compost and compost tea, mycorhizal fungi and hyperaccumulator plants, to name a few.

I’ve been working on a bioremediation project in a contaminated backyard in Victoria’s North Park neighbourhood. The people living there want to grow food in the backyard, but soil testing revealed unsafe levels of lead and other heavy metals. We are working with native plants and mycorhizal fungi to address the heavy metals, so that they can grow food in their backyard.

Part of what we’ve learned is that soil-testing is expensive and not everyone is going to be able to afford it. This is why I’m seeking funding to create a contamination map of Victoria that, through land-use history of each neighbourhood and available soil tests, will indicate likely contamination so that people can respond to it without needing to test their soil. This would be linked with resources and fact sheets on how to heal the soil.

It’s time to build community around healing the soil — we just aren’t going to be able to grow healthy food in urban spaces without doing so.

Danielle Stevenson is owner of D.I.Y. Fungi and co-ordinator of the LifeCycles Project Society’s Growing Schools program, as well as food-access co-ordinator for the Coalition of Neighbourhood Houses.

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