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Despite being at ‘peak farm,’ land is getting less protection

As the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, Dr. Lenore Newman tries to look into the future.

And she doesn't like what she sees in British Columbia where – just as we are reaching "peak farm" – the provincial government is stripping the Agricultural Land Commission of powers it has used for 40 years to protect farm land.

Under Bill 24, which is currently in second reading, two zones of farm land will be created. In zone one, which covers about 10 per cent of the most valuable agricultural land in B.C., mostly in the Lower Mainland and Okanagan, current regulations will continue. But in zone two, which covers the Kootenays and Northeast, where about 90 per cent of B.C.'s farmland is found, it will become much easier to make removals from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

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Dr. Newman says those changes, together with a structural realignment of the Agricultural Land Commission which will put land-use decisions into the hands of local boards, have her worried.

"It's hard to see how it's going to help farm land," she said. "I think what we're going to see happen is loss of land for urban development, especially around Kamloops. I can't understand why that's being put in zone two. It's excellent land, very valuable as farm land and it's going to be turned into urban development because there's incredible pressure all across the region."

Dr. Newman said the impact on B.C. won't be immediate, but over time, as prime farm land is lost to urban sprawl and industrial development, the ability of the province to grow its own food will diminish.

And she doesn't see the numerous, small, local boards proposed under the new legislation holding the line.

"There's so much pressure on the land reserve right now. The one [amendment] I'm most worried about is the change to take it back to regional boards of control," Dr. Newman said. "It's hard [to say no] at the local level. You are under a lot of pressure from people you probably know who want the land out."

The provincial government has argued there needs to be more flexibility to remove land in the Kootenays and Northeast, because the land there is less productive and farmers have to augment their income by carving out pieces of their property for use by the oil and gas industry.

But Dr. Newman said those northern lands will be increasingly valuable for crops in the future and you just have to look south to figure that out.

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"All around the world people are waking up to the fact that we are kind of at peak farm. There isn't any new land to really bring into production – and we're losing land. And if you look at what's happening in California [where drought has put 800,000 acres out of production], that has massive implications for B.C. and Canada," she said.

"The drought … is unprecedented. We've never seen anything like it. It's unlikely California will ever recover to its previous level of production. And with that happening there we've got to be saying to ourselves, 'Okay, this is a chance where we can actually become a real producer. It's getting warmer every year. And we'd better protect that land.'"

Instead, the land is getting less protection.

What's surprising about Bill 24 is that the Liberal Party had a very different view in the last election.

During the campaign, Country Life in BC, a magazine that has served the agriculture sector since 1915, asked all parties whether they had a long-term agri-food strategy for the province.

"Yes, we will maintain the excellent relationship we have built with the ALC," replied the Liberals. The party also said it would increase funding to the ALC, and would "work more closely with farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations to preserve agricultural land."

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Instead, under the core review led by Bill Bennett, the government moved to reduce the powers of the ALC and weaken the land reserve, without consulting farmers.

"That extremely poor policy making will threaten our future food security," said Nicholas Simons, the NDP agricultural critic.

He, like Dr. Newman, fears a B.C. that can't get all the produce it needs from California – and can't grow enough of its own. Bill 24 could hasten that day. That's why the Liberals should withdraw it, and return to the policy they held in the election campaign.

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