B.C. pitches separate land zones in reserve and value added for farmers

VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government has proposed changes to the province's Agricultural Land Commission that opens the door to value-added processing and potential oil and gas development.

The changes — the first since land protection laws were put in place more than four decades ago — were welcomed with a wary eye by ranchers, who say an update is long overdue.

"We have to make sure that whatever changes we make right now are for the present, but they also have long-term effects, and we need to make sure those are in consideration as well," said Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association, on Thursday.

Boon said farmers have long asked for greater flexibility in land use decisions including, possibly, oil and gas development, "but we can't do it at the cost of agriculture."

In the next two or three decades, it's expected only a half dozen countries will produce more food than they consume — and Canada will be one of them, Boon said.

"Overall, we need to look at the importance of food security not only for our province but as an economic driver down the road," he said.

The Liberal government said the plan preserves the commission's original purpose as an independent watchdog to protect farmland but will allow farmers to gain more value from their lands.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said farmers will have opportunities to explore value-added agricultural activities on their land, subject to reviews by regionally appointed officials.

"British Columbians really care about agricultural land and they worry about food security and making sure we don't pave over all of our province," Bennett said in Victoria. "We get that. But that doesn't mean you should never take a look at the agency."

Of B.C.'s approximately 20,000 farms, three-quarters generate less than $50,000 in sales annually, according to the province. Just 10 per cent of the land within the reserve generates 85 per cent of total farm sales, said a government news release.

The amendments are part of the Liberal government's core review of government spending, led by Bennett. He said the changes will help farmers increase incomes, while supporting increased food production.

No concrete examples of "value-added" activities were given but Bennett said the Agriculture Ministry will start talks with the Agricultural Land Commission, the agricultural industry and the Union of B.C. Municipalities on what those may be.

The changes would also divide the land reserve into two zones.

In Zone 1, where land is in greater demand, such as Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Okanagan, the commission would focus on protecting farmland. In Zone 2, which would cover every other region, farmers would have more flexibility in land use.

The commission would remain a fully independent decision-maker on specific land uses within the Agricultural Land Reserve, Bennett said.

Nicholas Simons, agriculture critic for the Opposition New Democrats, said British Columbians don't want the province split into separate agricultural zones. They want an independent body with a duty to protect all agriculture land.

Anthony Perl, a professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University, said the province does need a better economic strategy for the agriculture sector — but this isn't it.

"Just opening up land for unspecified future, non-agricultural use doesn't strike me as the way to go," he said. "Food security is something that is going ... to have a lot higher priority in the coming years with climate change and the global energy challenges that we're facing."

Jay Ritchlin, of the David Suzuki Foundation, said less than five per cent of provincial land falls within ALR protection and another 12 per cent is protected as provincial park land. Last week the province introduced legislation that would allow oil and gas development in parks and now the ALR is open to exploration, he said.

"We're putting all our eggs in one basket and it's a basket that is directly leading to more climate change, which is only going to make it more difficult to provide food to ourselves in the long run" Ritchlin said. "It's short-sighted."


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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Jay Ritchlin's last name.