Stakes in the ground

by Moura Quayle

Moura Quayle is dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. Following is a summary of Stakes in the Ground, a report she prepared for B.C.'s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Last month, Agriculture Minister Corky Evans appointed two new members to the Agricultural Land Commission in response to the report. The full report is on the ministry's Web site at

Picture Six months ago B.C.'s minister of Agriculture and Food asked me to review and report on what is meant by "provincial interest" under the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) Act.

People from Dawson Creek, Creston, Williams Lake, Nanaimo and beyond voiced passionate and pointed opinions about the state of agriculture in B.C.

Comments ranged from "Young farmers cannot get the financing they need to buy the land" to "The ALR [Agriculture Land Reserve] is precious -- no means no" and "How are communities going to grow if they cannot expand into the ALR?"

As we approach the millennium, issues of globalization, food safety and security, bio-regional ecology, sustainable communities, rural and urban community form and technological growth should be influencing our policy-making.

Therefore, we need a much broader approach to the future of agriculture. Preservation policies in isolation are not enough. However, when we are defining provincial interest in the agricultural land commission act and deciding if land should be taken out of the land reserve, the preservation argument holds strong.

The definition I propose recognizes that provincial interest is a province-wide public interest with long-term consequences.

The preservation of any resource is based on scarcity, sensitivity and difficulty of replacement. Agricultural lands are no exception.

Less than three per cent of B.C.'s land is capable of supporting agriculture. Just over one per cent is considered prime agricultural land and less than 0.01 per cent is capable of producing the tree fruit we associate with "grown-in-B.C. pride."

Before the agricultural land reserve was established in 1973, more than 6,000 hectares of prime agricultural land was lost to urban development each year.

Other uses for land in the agricultural reserve should only be considered if they cannot be relocated, or result in a "no net loss" to the area's agricultural capabilities -- that is, replace the land in the reserve with an equal, larger or better agricultural site.

When cabinet reviews an application for inclusion, exclusion or designation change in the ALR, the decision-making process should be open and accountable. Some ways of accomplishing this include:

One of the concerns raised in the consultations was that no one will want to farm in the future if we do not improve the conditions and rewards. And if no one wants to farm, how do we retain and increase our provincial food security -- home-grown food?

Farmers no longer urge their children to follow in their footsteps. We need an immediate strategy to encourage young people to study agricultural-related professions and activities, and ways to encourage innovation in agriculture. How can people's creative ideas be supported and implemented?

I have recommended establishing a B.C. lands trust whereby citizens would be encouraged to donate land or cash assets to the trust to provide support for "beginning" farmers and for innovation.

We must renew the pride of a future in farming.

An agriculture infrastructure fund could recapture funds lost by changes to the ALR and support resident farmers and producers, thus creating jobs and turning agriculture into an even stronger economic generator. The fund would also support farmers in their roles as stewards of habitat and guardians of the environment.

There are many more questions. How do citizens find out about agriculture? How much do people actually know about where their food comes from? How safe is it and who produces it?

The agricultural sector has incredible potential for growth and job creation. Consumer demand for "whole" and organic foods is increasing.

There is an opportunity for British Columbia to lead the way in sustainable agriculture initiatives. This means we must fund basic agricultural research and balance it with applied industry-based research for innovative solutions in agriculture and food production.

We have an incredible opportunity to expand an industry ranked as the third-largest employer in the province, larger than mining or fishing.

I also recommend combining the agricultural and forest land commissions as well as broadening the ALC's mandate to incorporate land management.

It is also timely for the ALC and B.C. municipalities to develop plans for marginal agricultural lands and evaluate potential changes on the basis of agricultural capability, no net loss and effects on adjacent agricultural lands.

Without the courage to hold firm, with stakes in the ground, there will be no incentive to face competing land uses.

We must halt the slow but steady erosion of our food resources and support our agricultural industries. We must dig in, take responsibility, and make sure that future generations have a vibrant agricultural land base.