ALR change raises suspicions

By Judith Lavoie, May 2014

The farmers don’t want changes to the ALR—so who does?

Ingrained dirt outlines Nathalie Chamber’s fingernails and her hands are marked with calluses—inevitable by-products of the planting, pruning and soil preparation underway at Madrona Farm in Saanich.

Spring should be an exhilarating season on the 27-acre organic farm. Instead, Chambers is as mad as hell. “I am enraged about Bill 24. Ninety-five percent of British Columbians don’t want anything to change with the Agricultural Land Reserve. They want the land protected for future generations,” said Chambers, who, like many farmland activists, is angry about the provincial government’s introduction of a bill changing the 40-year-old ALR.

Chambers believes the legislation will mean the loss of valuable farmland and she is insulted that the Province did not consult farmers. “Dirt is for real. Civilizations rise and fall on the basis of soil and, especially with climate change, we are cooking up a recipe for destruction,” Chambers warned.

Bill 24 divides the ALR into two zones. In Zone 1, made up of Vancouver Island, the South Coast and Okanagan, where there are strong development pressures, rules remain the same.

In Zone 2, which includes the North, Interior and Kootenay regions, when an ALR withdrawal application is made, consideration will be given, not only to the agricultural value of the land, but also to “economic, cultural and social values” and “regional and community planning objectives.”

It is not yet known exactly what that means, but specifics will become clearer when government releases regulations to support Bill 24. Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson wrote in an email that those regulations will come after conversations with the Agricultural Land Commission, the agricultural sector, and Union of BC Municipalities. He noted that under current regulations, activities such as bed-and-breakfasts, pet breeding kennels and unpaved helipads are permitted, provided there is ALC and local government approval. “The changes we are looking at, in conversation with our stakeholders, would be consistent with these existing permitted uses,” he said.

The legislation also entrenches six panels of local residents who will be the main decision-makers for land withdrawal applications.

Local panels have been part of the fabric of the ALC since 2002, but most final decisions have been made by a province-wide panel that includes all regional commissioners. Opponents see a return to strictly regional boards as a retrograde step because of the possibility of board members being vulnerable to local pressure. It leaves the door open to interference, said Linda Geggie, BC Food Systems Network policy chair, who predicted a wave of “shady deals.” “You are going to see a whole bunch of instability. No one will know what the rules are.”

Lenore Newman, Food Security and Environment Canada Research Chair at the University of the Fraser Valley, also worries about regional boards and predicts that agricultural land will be lost in both zones. “We found before, it is a lot harder for them to be independent,” she said.

Minister Thomson, however, said those concerns are unfounded. “The purpose of formalization is ensuring that local people, with local knowledge, are making local decisions,” he said. But those protesting Bill 24 are suspicious of the motives behind the government’s insistence that ALR changes are needed, especially as the Agricultural Land Commission was already reviewing boundaries.

Pressure for change is not coming from most farmers, pointed out Linda Geggie, noting that 95 percent of applications for withdrawal of ALR land come from those with development interests, not farmers.

NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons questioned the minimal public consultation on a topic vital to the future of the province, asking, “Why didn’t they talk to anyone? That arouses suspicions immediately…We don’t know who asked for this or what motivated it. Is it simply this crass idea that they want their developer friends to make money or, as some people on the inside say, is it a personal grudge?” He characterized the Liberals plan this way: “They haven’t opened every door, but they’ve certainly unlatched every door.”

Critics also find the government’s move bewildering in the face of climate change: Why, as evidence of climate change mounts, would a government pass legislation that could shrink farmland in northern BC—where it will be necessary to increase food production as warmer temperatures or drought threaten productivity further south? As Lenore Newman stated: “We are entering a period of global food insecurity where there could be disruptions, and, apart from making sure we have food, it is a huge business opportunity. Some of this land that is marginal now is going to be very good.”

When the business case is added to the public outcry it is difficult to understand why Bill 24 is ploughing ahead, Newman said. “It makes you scratch your head.”

Some suspect the Zone 2 changes are designed to streamline applications from the oil and gas industry, especially in areas where there is already tension over competing land uses, and West Coast Environmental Law has questioned whether that is the true motive behind the legislation.

“It may be no coincidence that many of the lands in the proposed Zone 2 lie atop significant mineral and petroleum deposits,” WCEL staff lawyer Anna Johnston wrote in an analysis of the Bill.

Minister Thomson dismissed such fears, pointing out the ALC already has an agreement with the Oil and Gas Commission that allows the OGC to make limited decisions in parts of northeast BC.

Other concerns have been raised by scientists. Thirteen soil experts wrote a letter to Premier Christy Clark predicting Bill 24 will return the province to pre-ALR days, when 10 times more farmland was lost than post-ALR. And another letter—from more than 100 of BC’s leading scientists—warns the changes will threaten valuable ecosystems and species at risk.

Farmers have demonstrated their concern on the Legislature lawns. Erin Harris, a 24-year-old dairy farmer from Creston, attended a Legislature protest and then met with Bill Bennett, a vocal critic of the ALR, who, as minister responsible for government’s core review, has led some of the changes. In their meeting, Bennett agreed the consultation process was flawed, but said Bill 24 would go through anyway, Harris said gloomily. “It’s pretty frustrating to be told by one of our representatives that our opinion doesn’t matter,” said Harris, who is hoping government could at least include areas such as the Kootenays in Zone 1. “Zone 2 will be really open for land speculation,” she said. “It’s already tough being a farmer and it’s going to get harder.”

Newman, the Food Security and Environment Canada Research Chair at the University of the Fraser Valley, is worried that Zone 2, which contains 90 percent of the province’s ALR land, is being portrayed as poor farmland, when, in many areas, there is excellent agricultural land—which will be more valuable for farming as climate change progresses.

“The Peace is our best grain land. You don’t get so much per acre, but there’s a lot more of it,” said Newman. She would like to see ALR rules tweaked to give northern farmers more freedom without compromising the land base. Government could also insist that land is owned for a specific time before a withdrawal application is considered, to prevent outright speculation, she suggested.

Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, believes there needs to be a societal shift to put more value on preserving agricultural land. “There’s the idea that we should be using all resources to the highest and best use, which means making the most money in the shortest possible time,” Mullinix said. That, he noted, often means degrading the capacity to sustain ourselves because of short-term thinking on the part of leaders. “All dimensions of our economy and all aspects of our society emanate from the ability to sustain ourselves with food,” he said.

It’s a concept that Mullinix believes British Columbians are beginning to understand, which explains the ALR outcry. “The people of BC are speaking loud and clear in support of the ALR, but I think the government is serving vested interests,” he said. Certainly, those like Geggie would argue Bill 24 is not serving the interests of young farmers—more development potential on farmland means land prices will increase, putting another block in the road of young farmers, she said.

Nathalie Chambers plans to fight back by becoming politically involved and will be running for Saanich council this fall, in support of municipal plans for a local land trust.

Meanwhile, the NDP’s Simons recommends that everyone opposed to the changes should make their feelings felt provincially. “Anyone who has any connection to agriculture should write to the premier—and that means anyone who eats,” he said.

UPDATE: After an April 23 meeting with the 14,000-member BC Agriculture Council, new Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick announced a BC-wide consultation to help him decide whether or not to change or scrap Bill 24.

Award-winning journalist Judith Lavoie was an environment and First Nations reporter for the Times Colonist for many years. Twitter @LavoieJudith.