Thousands of hectares of agricultural land in British Columbia are being planted with trees so that companies can gain credits for carbon sequestration, says NDP agricultural critic Lana Popham.
During a tour of the province, the MLA has been hearing about the practice from ranchers and farmers who are worried about the loss of food productivity and who say they are being outbid for good farmland by large, foreign corporations.
Given the massive drought in California and the uncertain future of food production everywhere due to climate change, it seems crazy to take valuable farmland out of production to grow trees. That is especially true in British Columbia, where there are already extensive tracts of industrial forest land that have been logged and which are waiting to be replanted.
There's room for more trees in the forest land base, but Ms. Popham said companies want flat, open farmland because it is easier and cheaper to replant trees there.
She first heard about the practice of replanting farmland with trees last year when meeting with farmers in Prince George. Then, last week, in Williams Lake, the issue surfaced again.
"If it was just a few hundred acres here or there I'd be, yeah, whatever, but it's tens of thousands of acres," she said. "So it's an enormous situation."
She said one B.C. rancher told her he has been trying to assemble land so he can produce hay for export to China, the United States and across Canada.
"He's got this big plan and needs [land] but this other company keeps scooping him," said Ms. Popham.
The last deal he missed out on was for more than 500 hectares, she said, when Reckitt Benckiser Inc. (RB), a British-based multinational that produces health-care and home-cleaning products, bought the land.
A company spokesman couldn't be reached immediately for comment, but RB states on its website that its Trees for Change program is an "ambitious project to offset the greenhouse-gas emissions from our manufacturing operations" by planting trees in Canada.
In a letter exchange last year, Victoria Wood, RB's Global Head of Sustainability, told the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako the company only targets land "that is marginally productive." But the RDBN disputed that claim, saying the farmland is of "high value," and expressing concerns conversion of nearly 2,000 hectares of farmland to forest would damage the agricultural economy.
"Once it goes into a carbon-offset program it can't be logged," said Ms. Popham, "so all of this land goes out of production for a century. It's really, really alarming."
She is drafting a private member's bill to restrict the practice and limit the amount of farmland foreigners can buy.
Richard Bullock, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, said his agency isn't tracking the conversion of farmland to forest, because it doesn't violate regulations. In B.C., trees are considered a crop, so taking a wheat field out of production to plant pine trees, is okay under provincial laws.
"It's certainly not an issue we can do a helluva lot about," he said of the ALC's lack of authority.
But the practice worries him.
"You know ranch families have done a lot of work clearing land and now this land is being put back into forestry. There are lots of questions as to whether that's the best thing," he said. "All I can say is it's an issue we've raised [with government] and it's a bit of a shame really because there's a lot of [forest] land available for [tree] planting."
Wayne Ray, whose family has been farming in the Vanderhoof area since the early 1900s, said he's surprised by how much agricultural land is being returned to forest.
He said about 500 hectares of Class 2 and Class 3 farmland near Fort Fraser were recently purchased by a company that planted pine, spruce and fir on a parcel that once grew fruit trees and alfalfa.
"I think it's absolutely stupid," he said of the practice.
Mr. Ray said on the RB website, the company states it wants to plant 10 million trees by 2016. By his reckoning, that will eat up 40,000 acres – or more than 16,000 hectares – of farmland.
"That is a lot of land," he said.
It is, and in B.C., where increasingly you can't see the farmland for the trees, it is a frightening loss.