Province denies claims in leaked documents suggesting ALC at risk

Municipalities encouraged to support independent commission with mandate to protect B.C.'s agricultural land.

Agriculture advocates in B.C. are worried a cost-cutting exercise being done by the province will target the protection of agricultural lands.

Advocates for B.C. agriculture are concerned the province may do away with the  Agricultural Land Commission in an attempt to save $50 million from the 2014/15 budget.

B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett, who oversees a cabinet working group with a mandate to find ways of cutting back government spending, says the province has no intention of “blowing up the ALC or bringing it inside government,” and assures the commission will continue to decide on applications to amend the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), established 40 years ago to protect farmland from development.

Bennett’s comments are in response to cabinet documents leaked to the Globe and Mail, in which a strategy is outlined for Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm to facilitate giving greater control over what happens on agricultural land to local governments and the BC Oil and Gas Commission.

Moving the commission into the Ministry of Agriculture so that it would no longer be an independent body is one of the key components of the strategy that concern BC Food Systems Network co-chair Brent Mansfield. Another is the proposed division of the province into two agricultural zones,  one that takes in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Okanagan, and the other everything north of the Okanagan. In this second zone, the Oil and Gas Commission would supposedly play a greater role in deciding on applications for land removal from the ALR.

Mansfield says the documents would appear to reflect the B.C. government’s priority commitment to liquid natural gas, and places resource extraction on top of the food chain.

“The way we support agriculture is pitiful,” says Mansfield. “Yes, we need an independent commission, but we also need a Ministry of Agriculture that’s not promoting LNG, exploration of non-farm use on agricultural lands.”

Mansfield calls any move to dismantle the ALC and prioritize oil and gas over food security “shortsighted.” He also takes issue with the lack of opportunity offered to the public to provide input on the core review (announced Sept. 24, ended on Oct. 16), and the fact that the B.C. Liberal government cancelled the fall sitting of the legislature, thus preventing debate. Which is why he says it’s excellent that local governments, such as the City of Vancouver and, most recently, the City of Salmon Arm, are writing to the province, asking that the ALC not be touched.

Salmon Arm council’s decision to speak out in the ALC’s defence stemmed from an Oct. 28 request by the city’s Agricultural Advisory Committee to write Bennett and ask that the ALC be left out of any possible budget reduction actions. Coun. Chad Eliason said Bennett won’t care and suggested council not support the committee’s request. But Couns. Ken Jamieson, the committee’s chair, and Alan Harrison were able to sway opinion in favour.

“The budget of the Agricultural Land Commission, compared to other budgets in the province, is minute, it’s extremely small, and I know in our dealings with the ALC, they are trying to be proactive, but in fact, I found they can only be reactive…” commented Harrison.

In light of the leaked documents, Shuswap agriculture advocate John McLeod, who sits on both the city committee as well as the Columbia Shuswap Regional District’s Shuswap Agriculture Steering Committee, hopes the city’s letter will stress the need to preserve both the ALC and agricultural lands. He argues that even land of low soil quality in the ALR is still suitable for agricultural use, noting the rocky terrain in the Okanagan being used for vineyards, and says that poor soil is better than no soil.

“The ALR and ALC are now under attack behind closed doors, with no democratic process of public input or process. I thought, wrongly I guess, that democracy was for the people not the few,” says McLeod. “When we work to defend the core review beliefs of a few, we risk becoming blind to the evidence that could tell us we’re wrong.”

With files from Black Press.

 

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