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Keeping B.C.'s Food Local: What's Next for the ALR?

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Would the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) exist today if the NDP hadn't won the 1972 election? While food security was part of every campaign's platform, it's unlikely it would have been the ALR. As we now know, even the NDP didn't plan the ALR.

After the 1972 election, Dave Stupich became B.C.'s Agriculture Minister, and under his leadership the ALR was established. The BC NDP deserve full credit for the legislation, but very few know the full story.

A review of the record reveals that Stupich used the media to lock his cabinet colleagues into supporting his efforts. He didn't have a plan and comments like, "I would not advise anyone to invest in farmland with any intention to develop it for industrial or residential purposes," sent land speculators and real estate markets reeling.

To quell the speculation and give his Ministry time to draft the new legislation, Stupich convinced his colleagues to "freeze farmland" zoning and subdivision applications through an Order-In-Council.

Arguably, Stupich's ad hoc ALR proposal resulted in decades of tension that has had everyone focusing on protection of the zone (the ALR) rather than nurturing the agricultural industry.

Protecting farmland in perpetuity is the provincial interest, but it is only half the issue. Ensuring farmers can afford to farm is the vital other half. When farmers aren't making a living, when they can't afford to feed themselves, they are forced to make choices that may put their farmland and the provincial interest at risk.

Today, high quality agricultural land is being buried in construction fill. Industrially scaled farm-based composting operations are suffocating residential neighbourhoods. Farmland owners ignore the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) rulings pursuing other non-farm activities that provide a better return than farming. How has it come to this?

Stupich tried to go further than protecting farmland. He committed to compensating farmers for their loss of development potential. This split the NDP caucus. With no cost-benefit analysis, fiscally-minded MLA's worried about the cost of compensation. A number challenged the offer; and successfully argued that land development rights rest with the Crown, not the landowner. As a result the BC NDP created a zone that protected farmland. Unfortunately, this zone couldn't address the root problem -- economic viability.

Polls show British Columbians consistently support the ALR. It is political suicide to tamper too much with this sacrosanct agricultural zone. Opening the legislation is complex and politically difficult and the ALR is too deeply entrenched in British Columbia for any government to fix it with an Order-In-Council.

Improving local production and food security requires a modern discussion, not chest beating or reactive and simple quick fixes. It is in the provincial interest for us to consider the system where, because of increasing local land, transportation and labour costs, we are dependent on global markets, to supply us with cheaper food. We need to recognize that our personal food choices are contributing to the elimination of our farms and farmers.

Rather than wax nostalgic for 1973, future generations require a mature political discussion. Food is a necessity and communities are neither sustainable nor resilient without farmland and the food that it can provide.

The ALR has never been perfect. It was a stopgap measure to stem the loss of our limited agricultural lands. No one has all the answers. So let's open up the discussion to consider how we support and enhance our ALR and our farmers. Fundamentally, it's about making farming profitable.

This discussion could start by considering:

- The ideas that were initially considered in 1972 as well as those that have emerged since. Protecting the land requires more than a black line on a map, addressing the rising cost of farmland is critical.

- Improving and expanding access to local markets. How do we get the public to purchase local food first?

- How we increase local food production? What do farmers need -- housing options, food processing facilities?

Eating isn't partisan. British Columbians want to know food is close to home. Not just in grocery stores. It's human to want a back-up plan. LNG, rodeos and other hair-brained ideas aren't more important to B.C. than the ability to produce our food. We need to stop playing politics and start leading.