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NDP aims to increase support for B.C.'s local food producers

Trevor Bird of Fable restaurant said if more people bought locally, it would help farmers stay in business.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Amid growing opposition to government legislation that critics say will weaken protection for B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve, the NDP has announced a private member's bill intended to support farmers.

Opposition Leader Adrian Dix said Tuesday he is hoping the government will embrace his bill, the British Columbia Local Food Act, which the NDP will introduce Wednesday.

"I think this is an idea whose time has come," Mr. Dix said at a press conference when he was reminded governments rarely pass private member's bills. "I'm very optimistic [because of] the public voice on this question. The public is way ahead of the politicians here. This bill helps the politicians in the legislature … catch up to where the public is at."

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The bill, introduced by the opposition, would encourage government institutions to buy locally produced food. The primary focus would be on the health and education sectors, but Mr. Dix said the procurement strategy could apply more broadly than just to hospitals and schools.

He said if the government emphasizes buying local produce it could provide a real economic boost to B.C. farmers.

Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson said he couldn't comment on the likelihood of the bill passing until he'd seen it, but noted that his government already promotes the purchase of local goods.

"We've got a very strong focus on local food production and on the buy-local program," he said. "We know authorities focus on buying local and so we agree that the local food industry is important to support – that's why we've supported and help build the farmers' market program in B.C."

Mr. Thomas said directing health authorities and others to buy local might be too restrictive an approach.

"The program we have in place offers some flexibility and freedom to promote the products as [organizations] see best," he said.

The NDP proposal comes while the House is debating controversial changes introduced by the government last week that will establish two categories for farmland in B.C. Under the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, the first category includes farm land in Vancouver Island, the South Coast and Okanagan, and the second covers land in the Interior, Kootenays and North.

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Zone 1 lands, which are under the greatest pressure from development, would continue to be protected by existing regulations, which have applied since the ALR was established 40 years ago. But Zone 2 lands would be more flexible in allowing land withdrawals for non-agricultural uses.

Critics point out that nearly 90 per cent of B.C.'s farmland is located in the second category.

"The legislation we're proposing today is to support farmers and to protect farmland. The legislation that the government has put forward is simply going to erode the protection that [a previous NDP government] put in place for the farmland and the farmers," said Mr. Dix in the press conference at Fable, a Vancouver restaurant that features locally produced food.

"The best way to protect our farmland is to have it producing," said Trevor Bird, chef and owner of Fable.

He said if more people bought locally it would "put millions and millions of dollars into our local [farm] economy," and help farmers stay in business.

Joanne Bays, national manager of Farm to Cafeteria Canada, said five provinces in Canada already have government policies to encourage the purchase of local farm produce and she hopes B.C. will join the trend.

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Ms. Bays was critical of the B.C. government's move to make it easier to take land out of the ALR in the north.

"I don't agree that we should be carving up [the ALR] and saying the northern part is lesser than the southern part. Climate change is going to make that the new bread basket of Canada and we should be looking at keeping it," she said.

Richard Bullock, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, raised similar concerns recently in a posting on the ALC website. He states that in the future, some farming operations may want to move north and it is important to ensure there is land there for them.

Vicky Husband, a spokesperson for Commons BC, applauded the NDP private member's bill, saying it will financially help farmers.

But she remains deeply concerned about the government's changes to the ALR, saying it could push the price of farmland up beyond the reach of young farmers.

"It's going to cause land speculation for sure," she said of the government's policy.

Brent Mansfield, of the BC Food Systems Network, said the public is upset about the government's proposed changes to the ALR.

"The outrage is significant," he said.

Follow me on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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