Scrap BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve?

Recently a community rag, the Tri City News, published an op-ed suggesting B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) should be scrapped.

The News points as proof of the ALR’s failings to a report by the Fraser Institute BC – Agricultural Land Reserve: A Critical Assessment. The News fails to point out that the Fraser Institute’s bizarre assessment suffered blistering attacks by media, politicians and consumer groups, in addition to environmental and agricultural groups across the province.

It was pointed out that the author, Diane Katz, is from the Eastern United States and doesn’t appear to have even been to BC. Her statement that “British Columbia was not made for farming” is a clear indication she has no idea what she’s talking about and she probably has never seen Chilliwack’s towering corn fields, the ranches of the Cariboo and the Kootenays, the orchards and vineyards of the Okanagan, the cranberry bogs of the Fraser Valley flood plain (which provide Ocean Spray with a quarter of its annual crop), the potato farms of Pemberton “Spud Valley” (which produces more varieties of seed potatoes than anywhere else in the world), the orchards of Salt Spring Island (which produce 350 varieties of apples), the dairy farms of Abbotsford or the berry fields of Langley Township, where the combination of soil and climate provide some of the best berry growing conditions in North America.

In that one statement the Fraser Institute lost all credibility on this subject and secured its reputation as an organization that is both obscure and ridiculous.
Katz argues that developments in biotechnology and greenhouses will significantly increase produce yields. The inference being that these “advancements” diminish the need for farmland to produce food. She ignores widespread concerns about bioengineered food, factory farming and the energy demands of greenhouses and their impacts on food pricing and climate change. She ignores the fact that we share the province’s foodlands with hundreds of wildlife species.

The strongest premise of the Fraser Institute’s report – and the one echoed by the News – is that the ALR has made housing unaffordable in BC. Yet, as the News points out, even during this economic slump, BC enjoyed the most robust housing sales in the country. It would seem that BC’s housing prices aren’t really prohibitive at all, nor that the ALR impedes housing sales.

BC’s farmland does contribute to high property prices, but not because it restricts development. For more than two decades, research has consistently shown that greenspace elevates property values. Our rich farmland, like our majestic mountains, our breathtaking coast line and rich biodiversity make this area one of the most popular places in the world to live. That, coupled with a climate that allows people to rollerblade the Stanley Park seawall in shorts and t-shirts in February, is what drives our housing values.

There is no shortage of land for housing or commerce. We just have to start making better use of the land that we have – and that’s not hard to do, because we have been flagrantly wasteful for the last 40 years.
Katz carefully selected a handful of references to support her conclusions and ignored vast bodies of information about BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve, agricultural, economic and environmental trends. She ignored the serious warnings contained in British Columbia’s Food Self Reliance Report, and she ignored huge contributing issues like climate change and peak oil, and the UN’s assertions that that the world is now in a global food security crisis. She ignored the fact that agriculture in this province provides 38,000 direct jobs and 300,000 food-related jobs.
She ignored the considerable contributions to BC’s economy from tourists who flock to BC to enjoy the rich biodiversity, hundreds of species of which rely on farmland for habitat.

Katz failed to mention that other jurisdictions (including Ontario and Quebec and a number of American states) are now racing to create land reserves for foodlands and wildlife habitat.
Katz makes a wildly flawed assumption that British Columbians will be able to rely on imported food indefinitely. She doesn’t appear to be aware that of the 52 per cent of food BC imports, our largest supplier is California, an area that has experienced drought conditions for three consecutive summers.
Most offensive of Katz’s assertions were the listing of a handfull of examples of health related issues arising from local produce. It is a weak and insulting argument, and is not balanced by the overwhelming environmental health concerns associated with imported food.

Tri City News refers to some anonymous “in-depth analysis by a national news organization…showed that locally grown produce is not only far more expensive but has a far larger ecological footprint.” The only remotely similar report I’ve ever seen actually specified “organically grown” produce as being more expensive and failed to include the full range of environmental costs of shipping.

A quick Google search reveals there food price critics in virtually every North American city (including the vast majority that have no farmland reserve, and those in California which grow most of the produce consumed in BC). The reality is that local farmer’s markets throughout BC are struggling to keep up with demand for both organic and non-organic locally raised food.

Polls show that the Fraser Institute and Tri-City News are seriously out-of-step with the public. Results of a BC government-commissioned poll released in December showed 90 per cent of Lower Mainland residents strongly support the ALR. A CBC poll a year earlier indicated 79 per cent of British Columbians believe there is no acceptable reason for destroying farmland.
In 2009 the United Nations declared the world to be in a global food security crisis. Since then there are daily news stories of global warming-induced agricultural collapse in Africa, South America, the Middle East and India.

The only problem currently with the ALR is the Campbell government’s failure to respect it. BC is currently losing farmland – and with it the province’s food security – faster than at any time since the ALR was created in 1973.

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