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Les Leyne: Farmland is being planted with trees

While metro Vancouver ponders the impact of foreign ownership on real estate, some B.C. farmers are raising the alarm over what offshore buyers are doing with properties in the agricultural land reserve. The B.C.
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Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick says tree-farming is a permitted ALR use.

Les Leyne mugshot genericWhile metro Vancouver ponders the impact of foreign ownership on real estate, some B.C. farmers are raising the alarm over what offshore buyers are doing with properties in the agricultural land reserve.

The B.C. Agriculture Council has written to the government twice in the past month with concerns about foreign ownership of farm land. The concerns arose mostly from a British manufacturing company’s moves in the Nechako Valley, Prince George and Cariboo regions, where trees are being planted on previously cultivated land to collect carbon credits and offset the firm’s emissions elsewhere.

The issue resurfaced in the legislature Monday on the strength of the second letter, from council chairman Stan Vander Waal. He said current land-use policies are not adequately managing foreign ownership of farm land, and the issue has become a high priority for the agriculture council.

“With renewed interest to use B.C. farm land for purposes unrelated to food production, there is an immediate need for government to proactively manage, and in some instances restrict, certain activities on lands reserved for agriculture.”

Using farmland to grow forests for carbon credits includes imposing a restrictive covenant for 100 years, to effectively guarantee the credits. ALR law limits restrictive covenants to some extent, but the agriculture council said the limits don’t go far enough. Vander Waal said there is no mechanism to ensure the Agricultural Land Commission is aware of such covenants, and the commission mostly learns of the covenants only after the land is removed from production.

The agriculture council said innovation and development in the agri-food sector may be enhanced by foreign investment, but unrestricted foreign ownership poses threats.

No ownership restrictions means farmers can get the highest sale value for their land, “but the long-term impacts to agriculture and rural communities must be examined to fully understand and weigh the cost of this short-term benefit.”

The council said it’s unlikely B.C. will ever be a self-sufficient food producer, so maximizing food security should be an imperative.

NDP Leader John Horgan said there’s a disconnect between the million hectares of forest land that hasn’t been restocked, and the practice of taking agricultural land where food used to grow and planting trees.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said tree-farming is a permitted ALR use, but imposing covenants has to go through the land commission for the covenant to hold any weight. That requirement was imposed in 2011 by an amendment that was passed unanimously in the legislature, he said.

“I would ask the members on both sides of the House to give the Agricultural Land Commission a chance to do their work.”

Letnick said the commission needs time to examine land proposed for carbon-offset use and see if there are compliance and enforcement issues.

NDP critic Lana Popham said the minister’s position is that the covenants have no effect until approved by the commission, but the agriculture council says the commission only learns about them after the land’s out of production. The total ALR has increased by about 38,000 hectares in the past 15 years, but a portion of that new land is being used as carbon sinks, and Popham said the government has no idea how to stop it.

“This situation is out of control.”

Letnick said when it came to his attention that more acres were being used for carbon sinks, he forwarded the information to the land commission, which is determining if covenants are in place.

“If they have been placed improperly, they have all the tools necessary to take care of the issue.”

There are 4.7 million hectares in the ALR, and the ministry estimated last month about 1,500 hectares are being used to grow trees for carbon credits. But it updated that estimate last week to say another 7,000 hectares may have been planted for carbon credits, and they’re under review by the land commission.

Tightening up the process for establishing covenants would likely curb the carbon-credit tree plantations. The British firm — RB — says it has planted several million seedlings in B.C. on “previously deforested land.”

lleyne@timescolonist.com