Cowichan farm community worries about future food security due to ALR changes

Changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve passed by the BC Liberal government this spring are a threat to food security in this province, say farmers and political leaders in the Cowichan Valley.

"It’s just a wedge," said Cowichan Agricultural Society President Bob Crawford. "We lose precious pieces of farmland every year to development."

Crawford owns 18 acres just outside Duncan where he raises meat chickens yearround and turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are sold at the farm gate. He also sells eggs and hopes to soon be selling pork.

The Society, whose members grow and produce everything from nuts to fruit, and tea to honey, opposed the changes to the ALR and the agricultural land commission.

"We’re very concerned about the changes that have been enacted to the agricultural land reserve," said Cowichan Green Community President Bev Suderman. "It seems to put the priority away from agriculture and open up agricultural land for a variety of other types of activities."

The CGC is a member of the agricultural society. A non-profit society, one of its key mandates is to improve food security and increase local urban and rural food production.

Cowichan Valley MLA Bill Routley puts it even more bluntly: "It’s all about the withdrawal of land," he said of the motivation behind the legislation.

The ALC was formed in April of 1973, and the commission established the agricultural land reserve between 1974 and 1976. The move was prompted by the fact that nearly 6,000 hectares of prime agricultural land were being lost each year to urban and other uses.

The land reserve set aside 4.7 million hectares (five per cent of the provincial land base) for farming.

Since then, decisions about permitted land use and whether lands could be withdrawn

from the reserve have been made by the agricultural land commission.

Bill 24, passed in the spring, made significant changes to how farmland is governed in the province.

It split the land reserve into two zones, with oversight of the ALR passing from one united ALC to six regional panels.

Zone 1 includes the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan. Rules for the land reserve in this zone, which includes the Cowichan Valley, won’t change.

It is the changes for Zone 2, which covers the rest of the province, that are causing controversy.

In the past, the ALC has been tasked with making decisions about agricultural land with farming as the only priority.

Now, in Zone 2, the ALC panels will be required to consider economic, cultural and social values, as well as regional and community planning objectives when deciding whether or not land can be taken out of the ALR.

The province has stated that preserving agricultural land is still the dominant consideration, but the idea that other factors such as development of land for urban or industrial purposes is now on the table doesn’t sit well with opponents.

"If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile," said Crawford. "And we don’t want to give an inch.

"We just can’t afford to build anymore ball parks on farmland, police stations on farm land and whatever else has been going on," he said, referring to projects that have been approved in North Cowichan over the last several years for land that had previously been farmed, though not all of it was in the ALR. "Imagine if we didn’t have the land reserve. It would be wall to wall houses from False Creek all the way to Hope."

Though Cowichan farmers won’t be affected directly by the changes, there are larger principles at stake, said Crawford.

"Where are we going to grow food?" he questioned.

"We are so damn dependent on importing our food," Crawford said.

Vancouver Island produces very little of the food residents consume. If there is a catastrophic event, such as the large earthquake that scientists agree could hit our area at any time, Vancouver Island would be in trouble, Crawford said.

As a member of the NDP official opposition in the legislature, it is no surprise that Routley isn’t supportive of the new legislation passed by his political opponents.

But the reasons he gives echo the concerns of those in the agriculture industry.

Routley says it’s an eye-opener to consider that the amount of productive farmland in the Cowichan Valley has declined from 17,261 hectares in 1986 to 11,559 hectares in 2006.

It’s a microcosm of the larger issues.

"B.C. can’t supply enough food for itself," he said. "Every hectare of land that’s taken out of the farm reserve means more pressure on buying harvested products from elsewhere – places like California where now they have a water problem."

It also calls into question the future for the next generation of farmers, Routley said.

"The concern is the continuing attack [on the ALR] means less and less land and as we move into the future eventually it becomes so under attack that there will be very little land left," he said.

Suderman pointed out that the amount of land set aside for agriculture in the province is already small.

"In the Lower Mainland and so on, it’s been under pressure for a really, really long time and some of the best farmland there and also here in the Cowichan Valley has ended up under houses and streets," she said. "That just becomes a big problem because agricultural land, it takes thousands of years to make it and it can be destroyed in seconds."

With the growing population, as well as imports challenged by climate change and the rising cost of fossil fuels, it’s key to protect agricultural land, she said.

"Anything that undermines the ability for British Columbia to be food self-sufficient is a matter for concern," Suderman said.