Citing lack of public consultation, Kootenay West MLA, Katrine Conroy, presented a motion to refer the government’s proposed Bill 24, altering the existing Agricultural Land Reserve.
“I’m introducing a motion to refer the matter to the Select Committee, that will give us a chance to debate the motion and why it should go back to the drawing board,” said told the Times from Victoria Wednesday.
Bill 24, the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) Act, would divide the province into two zones.
The Lower Mainland and Okanagan would retain the regulations and restrictions of the original ALR act and the rest of the province, including the Kootenays, would have relaxed regulations allowing property owners to have land removed from the ALR more easily allowing for resource and real estate development on lands once reserved for food production.
“Everybody should be asking Bill Bennett (Liberal MLA for Kootenay East) what his agenda is,” Conroy said, “I can’t get an answer. So many people are saying, ‘Don’t do this,’ many of the people they had said supported it.”
In recent years the terms “100-mile diet” and “eat local” have become increasingly popular with an increasingly large portion of the population who are trying to encourage healthier eating that doesn’t involve food that was harvested months ago and shipped sometimes thousands of miles before arriving at your local super market.
Farmers’ markets are becoming a fixture in cities and towns around Kootenays, many of them featuring fresh fruits and veggies produced by farmers and orchardists who work land within a few miles of the markets.
But a recent push by the provincial government to re-write the act that protects farmland in the province, largely promoted by Bennett, could potentially affect the areas in which food is produced.
Conroy said that the B.C. Agriculture Council, which represents 14,000 farmers and ranchers in the province, as well as the Certified Organic Associations of B.C., numerous regional districts and representatives of the Peace region have all voiced their objections to the proposed changes.
“Who is going to benefit from this? Certainly not farmers,” Conroy said. “Developers and people who want to flip property, that’s who would benefit. This was a push without proper consultation and I believe the majority of people are opposed.”
The ALR was created in 1973 by the NDP government at the time, to identify arable land in B.C. and created an administrative board, the Agricultural Land Commission, to oversee and protect it.
Joan Sawicki is a land use planning consultant who actually worked with the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) from 1972 to 1978 drawing the boundaries for the ALR and has been following the work of the ALC since then.
She was elected as MLA for the riding of Burnaby-Willingdon for the NDP and served from 1991 to 2001, also serving as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1992 to 1994 and Minister of Environment, Land and Parks from 1999 to 2000.
“I’ve been following this for 40 years never have I seen such welcome opposition to a bill as this one,” she said from the Lower Mainland. “This bill has nothing to do with protecting agricultural land. They either don’t understand the impact of what they’re proposing or they are trying to destroy the ALR.
“The ALR has preserved the option to grow our own food and for British Columbians the ALR has been part of our psyche. We don’t have much agricultural land and when you look at what places like California are going through with the drought for a province to throw away protection for scarce farmland, It is just so short-sighted.”
Other’s closer to home involved in local food production are also questioning the wisdom of the bill.
“I can see both sides of this,” said Rachael Roussin, a local food activist from Rossland. “It is hard because farmers in this region struggle, the price for food is so low, if farmers could do more on their land to make money I can see how that would be attractive.
“But I’m more concerned about future resiliency. Once you change it, take land out of food production, you can’t go back in time. It’s short-term gain versus long-term resiliency. There may come a time in the future when we need to produce more food in B.C.”
At press time, Conroy, who actually lives on ALR land and is a cattle rancher, was waiting to speak against Bill 24 in the legislature, and is determined to do all she can to prevent the bill’s passing.
“It’ll be a sad day in the legislature if this passes,” she said. “I need to hear from people; email, letters, call my constituency office. I just hope common sense prevails.”