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Liberals put profit before food

Anna Roik

April 28, 2014

At the end of March the BC Liberals introduced the first reading of Bill 24, which will change how farmland is protected by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) and the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

The ALR was created in 1972 to protect farmland from development pressure, and encompasses about five percent of all provincial land. Currently anyone wishing to remove land from the ALR for non-farming purposes must apply to the ALC for exemption. Although there has been talk about these changes since at least last summer, the bill was drafted with no official public consultation, not even with farmers or the ALC itself, and no governmental review showing that there is any need for the ALR to be fixed because it is somehow broken.
Bill 24 will divide the ALR into two zones, and have six decentralized panels act as decision makers on land use. Zone 1 will include the Okanagan, Vancouver Island and South Coast (Lower Mainland), while Zone 2 includes the Interior, Kootenays, and the North. Instead of prioritizing farming – especially in Zone 2 –these panels will consider “economic, cultural and social values”, and “regional and community planning objectives” with equal weight. Proponents of the bill dispute that Zone 2 lands will no longer be prioritized for farming, claiming that much of the land is mountainous, swampy, boggy or otherwise unsuitable for farming. However, even where soil is of lower quality than that of Zone 1, it can be good for specific farming purposes such as forage crops or raising livestock.
Soil not oil
One of the main reasons decision-making on farmland use was concentrated in the ALC was the belief that regional authorities could not be relied on to effectively protect farmland from non-farm development. That is, they would be influenced by lobbying for short-term economic gain stead of long-term planning about food security. The ALR was created to keep options open for future food production. With the increasing popularity of the eat local food movement, and climate change leading to higher temperatures, having farmland available in the northern regions of the province will become more important in the future.
In fact, critics of Bill 24 say this is just what is happening since there is evidence that some protected farmland lies atop petroleum and mineral deposits. They believe the government wants to make it easier for oil and gas companies to gain access to these deposits without having to manipulate the process of how their work will protect or remediate soils for farm use. The fact that the introduction of Bill 24 comes just weeks after the BC Liberals opened up the province's parks to industrial development makes this even more believable.
Opposition to this bill has come from many places. One hundred of BC’s most prominent scientists have condemned the plan on the grounds that fragile ecosystems and wildlife at risk adjacent to the ALR benefit from the lack of industrial development. Hundreds of BC farmers took to Twitter and turned the trend of farmer selfies, known as felfies, into a political act under the hashtag “#farmers4ALR”. They posted pictures of themselves taken on their farm, their concerns written on signs held in their hands.
Fourteen soil scientists have written an open letter opposing  the changes. They maintain that the government's position on the unsiutabilyt of land in Zone 2 is wrong.  "These assertions are patently false when examined in the light of objective soil science data and agriculture capability ratings, ratings that incorporate a substantial body of climate data gathered during the Canada Land Inventory. In actual fact, there is far more class 1 - 4 land in Zone 2 than in Zone 1."
Even Norm Letnick, the Liberals’ new agriculture minister (appointed after the original announcement), has called for a review because of the lack of support from the agriculture community. Letnick has met with some southern BC farmers already, and plans to launch a province-wide consultation process before recommending whether to change or withdraw Bill 24.
It is important to continue to fight against these changes to the ALR that will have government legislation prioritize industrial development over food production. Food security is a serious concern, and with BC already a net importer of food, every bit of land that can grow food needs protecting. Farmers must be given what they need to feed everyone in the province. Capitalism is a system so short sighted that it puts profit before food.
If you like this article, register for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include "System change not climate change," "Marx's ecology," and "Labour and the fight for green jobs."

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