ALC: Government shrugs off lack of consultation on changes to food security

For the past 40 years the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) has protected the agricultural value of the land in its boundaries. When British Columbians have been asked whether they support protecting those agricultural values and land for food security, 95% say yes.

Changing weather patterns across the planet and increased transportation costs are putting our global food supplies at risk. We all know that food is more secure when produced the closer to home. Yet, if Bill 24 (Agricultural Amendment Act) passes, British Columbians will be forced to rely more on food produced outside the province.

As long as grocery store shelves are stocked, and food is a reasonable price, we are content. Even though we are regularly reminded that at any time Vancouver Island only has enough food for 72 hours, we remain comfortable. Food supplies in the rest of British Columbia are only slightly more secure.

When the provincial government decided to update the water act, they consulted British Columbians and reported that they received 3000 comments that they incorporated into Bill 18 (introduced in March).

As a result of the engagement Bill 18 received a warm welcome inside the legislature and out. Despite Bill 18’s imperfections the government properly engaged the public, stakeholders and experts and introduced balanced legislation.

The same cannot be said for the government’s approach to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) and its plan for the “adaptation” of 90% of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). There has been no open and consultative approach, instead the government took a confrontational approach and drafted legislation in secret cabinet meetings behind closed doors.

Why is Bill 24 even necessary? In 2010 Auditor General John Doyle released an audit and Richard Bullock, the newly appointed Chair of the Commission, completed an internal core review. Using these reports the ALC has began implementing the recommendations, and the BC Government invested $3 million in the ALC’s ‘modernization’ in Budget 2013.

Then in the summer of 2013 Hon. Bill Bennett, the Minister responsible for the core review, announced,

“We’re going to look at some sacrosanct things, like certain agencies. We’re going to look at the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission.”

Throughout the weeks following, the BC Government delivered a public process that Vaughn Palmer accurately described as a “rushed exercise in ad hockery.”

On September 6, 2013 a news release announced the schedule for the annual tour of the Finance and Government Services Committee, the first session was in Vancouver just 14 days later.

On September 24th, four days after the start of the tour, Minister Bennett announced that public input into the core review (including for the ALC) was to be presented to Finance and Government Services.

On September 26th, Kathleen Gibson and Linda Geggie presented at the Victoria meeting of the Committee. They revealed that when they wrote to Minister Bennett and Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm on September 12th asking about the opportunities for input into the core review, they were told to present to Finance and Government Services.

Following Gibson and Geggie’s presentation, the Hansard record shows members of the committee were surprised and unaware that input for the core review was part of their expanded terms of reference.

When I raised this issue with the Committee on October 2, 2013 in Nanaimo, the Committee’s Chair Dan Ashton reassured me this was just the beginning. He said,

“As the parliamentary secretary, and I have spoken to the minister today…. There is going to be ample opportunity for public input into the core review services,” Ashton continued. “You have to understand that it is only starting at this point in time and carries on until 2014. So through your local MLAs and, I’m quite sure, through other public processes, there will be ample opportunity. But anything that is said today will be discussed by this committee and, upon agreement of the committee, will be included in the report that will be going to the Legislative Assembly.”

When internal cabinet documents were leaked last November we were given a glimpse of what the governments intentions were. In response to growing concern by British Columbians Minister Bennett reassured British Columbians that,

“Nothing that the core review process could potentially do would reduce the protection for farmland in British Columbia,” he said. “Bottom line. There is nothing that we would contemplate that would reduce or undermine the central principle of the Agricultural Land Reserve, which is the protection of farmland and the sustainability of farming.”

On November 14, 2013, I continued my inquiry with an open letter to Premier Christy Clark. Shocked by how dysfunctional this whole process was I asked the Premier to remove the ALC and the ALR from the core review process. I heard nothing from government until mid-January 2014.

On January 20, 2014, Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm responded that his government was committed “to protect the most productive agricultural land”. However, that is not the mandate of the ALC – their mandate is to protect and enhance all land within the ALR.

All the while Minister Bennett has made a concerted effort to diminish the value of land outside the Lower Mainland, Okanagan and Vancouver Island. While announcing Bill 24, Minister Bennett said,

“Folks, I’ve been waiting a long time to say this…There’s a huge, diverse land base out there that, frankly, the media and probably the urban public is largely unaware of … There is some land within the agricultural land reserve that actually is useless to agriculture… That land could be located in a region where there’s six months of winter, in some cases the land is covered by forest. I’ve seen land within the reserve that’s mountainous. It’s steep. It’s rocky. It’s swampy. It has really poor-quality soil and no feasible access to water.”

None of the concerns he raises require the proposed changes in Bill 24; all of them can be addressed with the current powers of the Commission to undertake boundary reviews. The government’s message is clear, 90% of agricultural land in British Columbia, the land in the north and southeast is poor quality, and unsuitable for agriculture.

This is absurd. While the highest quality land is in southern British Columbia, there is plenty of quality agricultural production in the north and southeast. The Ministry of Agriculture website proudly announces, that 85-90% of grain production in the province occurs in the Peace River region.

Finally, Minister Bennett was asked about the failure to consult and engage British Columbians on changes to the ALC, and he simply shrugged it off saying,

“I know that we could have done a better job of consultations, and I take my mea culpa.”

Minister Bennett’s proposals to open up 90% of the ALR for all kinds of development that will not be of any benefit to agriculture, and essentially remove the requirement of the commission to consider the immediate and long-term food security of British Columbia, are a reversal of what he stated in early November.

Not only did members of the government promise public input and not deliver, they made statements to British Columbians that reassured us we had nothing to be concerned about when in reality everything they said they wouldn’t do, they did.

The proposed changes to the ALC will affect generations of British Columbians yet it was done without the public consultation they promised and in spite of the public’s desire to inform the legislation.

The process over the past few months is not good enough. British Columbians need to stand up for food security; we need to make it clear to Premier Christy Clark and Minister Bennett that we do not support their proposed changes.

Here is how you can make a difference! Write letters to the editor, and your MLA, call the talk shows and please sign our petition.

Join me in calling on the BC Government to delay consideration of Bill 24 (the ALC Amendment Act) until such time that a robust and comprehensive public consultation is completed.

Adam Olsen

Stellys Cross Road, Brentwood Bay, BC, V8M 1J7