As Jack Knox opened in a recent Victoria Times Colonist column, “Farmland development is like virginity: You can say no a thousand times, but say yes once and it’s gone forever.”
Provincial Cabinet documents leaked last November revealed Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm’s proposal to move the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) into his ministry, with the BC Oil and Gas Commission given authority to permit industrial activity on agricultural land.
The proposed changes to the ALC would dismantle its authority as an independent administrative tribunal, while expanding its mandate to give equal weight to economic development as to agriculture.
Two classes of the Agricultural Land Reserve would be created: the status quo would be maintained in the Okanagan and Fraser Valley to Vancouver Island. Few rules would apply to the rest of the province, including the Kootenays and the north. Other changes would affect land use decision making by local governments.
Regrettably, these changes would eventually result in the permanent detriment of the province’s agricultural land base that has been protected for the past 40 years.
Farmland preservation has been considered successful in BC because the decision making process over development proposals hasn’t been subject to the crisis of the day or short term profit that would devastate agricultural land for generations to come.
To undermine the independence of the ALC would reintroduce the crisis over agricultural land that led to the creation of the reserve in the first place. Because of short term election cycles, political expediency and general lack of awareness about food security, governments have been unable and unwilling to protect farmland.
Agricultural land would gradually succumb to the development pressures of proposals considered by elected officials as being more urgent or economically favourable. The Commission has been successful because it’s required by law to look beyond three to four year terms.
A report by the Auditor General on the ALC in 2010 highlighted that agricultural land is an indispensable, natural resource. Less than five per cent of the province’s land base is suitable agricultural land and much less is considered “prime” agricultural land. Once taken over for urban development, farmland is no longer available for food production.
“Protected farmland fosters local economic stability and provides environmental services and public benefits. One of the main reasons for any jurisdiction to preserve farmland, however, is to secure food production into the future.”
The province’s $10.5 billion agri-food sector comprises both the export of agricultural products as well as providing home grown food to local communities. British Columbia farmers currently produce less than half of the food consumed here.
The ALC exists to prevent our communities from realizing one day that we’ve paved over our farmland. While it is equally critical to ensure that our farmers are adequately supported, we can only develop practical solutions if there is still somewhere to farm.