Agriculture in California is in trouble. Nearly 95% of the state is in a severe drought condition, and 71% is in an extreme or exceptional drought condition. Farmers are leaving fields unplanted as there simply isn’t water to raise a crop. As the drought drags on, farmers are going bankrupt, and recovery to pre-drought levels is beginning to look unlikely. This is a huge problem, and Canada is also at risk; we import somewhere around 2.8 billion dollars worth of California produce each year. Much of that goes to BC; we currently produce only about 45% of our food, and the rest comes from elsewhere.
Today’s changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve will do little raise this number. Firstly, 90% of our farmland has seen its protection downgraded at the stroke of a pen, leaving only a half percent of the province’s land under the strongest category of protection. From now on industrial uses will be accepted on the bulk of our farmland, ending 40 years of excellent planning. Though the government is framing the change as one that allows farmers to make a living off of marginal land (a reasonable cause), the fear is that the outcome will be mass exclusions and a decline in farming culture in the North. And though the North produces only 15% of farm gate receipts on 90% of the province’s farmland, this is mostly a result of the types of commodities being produced, namely grain, oil seeds, and beef. So though the return per acre is a lot lower than that for high value crops in the South, the amount of calories produced is significant; these are crops that we really need.
As for the Class 1 portion of the reserve in the South, one can hardly call the status quo an improvement. True improvement would involve stopping speculators from purchasing ALR land and then immediately applying for exclusion (There are currently 900 exclusions under consideration, and that number is climbing). It would enforce laws against soil mining and the dumping of construction waste on farmland, and it would stop speculators from leaving land fallow for decades. What we got was a vague promise for the implementation of performance standards, which might well mean that the exclusion process will speed up. And the ALC, far from being independent, will have to give detailed reports to government. The potential for future meddling is strong. At least vacant positions at the ALC will be filled, but that is a pretty small gain given the potential magnitude of loss.
The strange thing about this indifference or outright hostility to farmland is that the world market is giving strong signals that we are entering a period of dire food shortage. Farm trusts are rapidly buying up farmland around the globe, often returning as much as 20% on investment. All of that big money likely knows something; maybe they are taking a good look at California. In the meantime, British Columbians who care about food need to start fighting for our farms. We should be strengthening the ALR, not damaging it, and we should be working locally as well. In Surrey, their municipal rule that for every acre removed from the ALR two local acres must be brought in has basically brought exclusion to a halt. Today’s changes are unlikely to affect Surrey much, as they have a strong second line of defense. The rest of us should take note, and fight for the farmland that we are almost sure to need in the future.