While the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is urgently encouraging countries throughout the world to protect their agricultural lands, the B.C. Liberal government’s Bill 24 would reduce ours.
If enacted, Bill 24 would take the province in the wrong direction. If enacted, the proposed legislation to amend the Agricultural Land Act will divide the province into two zones: A first-class zone where most of the existing rules would apply in the Lower Coast, Vancouver Island and Okanagan regions, and a second-class zone covering the remainder of British Columbia where the level of protection afforded to agricultural land would be diminished.
Bill 24 also seeks to establish five regional administrative bodies, balkanizing the province by setting up a situation where pressures from developers introduce the risk of eroding protection standards to the lowest common denominator.
British Columbia is long on mountains, but short on valley bottoms — less than five per cent of the province is considered arable farmland and even then, we have lost much valuable farmland to development, including several large hydro-electric reservoirs. Valley bottoms are where most of the population resides and where conflicts over land use are common.
Turf wars were even more common before 1973 when Dave Barrett’s NDP government enacted the Land Commission Act and appointed a single board to administer the Agricultural Land Reserve. Bill 24 threatens to revive these conflicts rather than using the science at the foundation of the ALR.
To solve these disputes, the ALR was based on decades of soil inventories to find the best arable land. In the latter half of the 20th century, Canada and the provinces invested heavily in natural resource inventories, including agriculture, forestry, wildlife and recreation through the Agriculture and Rural Development Act. The provincial soils surveys that were initiated as early as 1926 for forestry and agriculture were upgraded in the 1960s and 1970s via the ARDA-supported Canada Land Inventory to modern standards.
A specific soil’s described profile is used to determine the agricultural capability of a given unit of land. Because the scientifically based description of a soil profile is admissible in a court of law as evidence of an area’s agricultural value, soil capability was chosen as the basis for the reserve boundaries.
Thus, the province had a well-studied and understood basis for determining where the best soils and therefore the best farmlands existed throughout the province. Nearly all high and medium (classes 1 to 3) capability agricultural lands were reserved from most industrial and residential developments, and subsequent years have seen many of the boundaries readjusted to incorporate new information.
Modern agriculture has expanded the area of arable land so that some areas that were once marginal cropland have become economical to farm. The farming industry has made major strides in adapting to conditions in the highly variable environmental conditions found in B.C.
One example is the production of haylage, which is like hay but has a higher moisture content and has reduced the risk of crop damage as an alternative to producing hay. This one innovation alone has revolutionized livestock feed production in the Peace River and on Vancouver Island.
While in the recent past, hay crops were strictly weather-dependent and were frequently destroyed by rain, they are almost guaranteed because of wet baling in large plastic bags. Another is the great strides made in plant genetics and breeding, leading to revolutions in grape, canola and field-pea production in areas that just 30 years ago were unsuited to their production.
There are many other examples of agricultural advancements and undoubtedly many more to come, including those that will be needed to adapt farming practices to the effects of climate change. Failing to protect and conserve our precious and limited agricultural land base in the haste to reduce red tape for developers is simply not responsible stewardship.
There is neither need nor any solid rationale for splitting the province into two zones. More fine adjustments in the agricultural land boundaries are necessary, but as the saying goes: “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The current government continues to seek efficiencies and in that vein, the best solution is to simply leave the present system in place.
Fred Harper and Ray Demarchi both possess master’s degrees in agriculture and have served as regional wildlife biologists in several regions in the province. They both worked on the Canada Land Inventory and assisted with the primary ALR mapping in the province for their respective regions in the early 1970s.