Protecting farmland and strengthening food security: The story of BC's Agricultural Land Reserve

Long before the climate crisis brought the world unprecedented heat waves, explosive wildfires and extreme drought that all threaten our food security, BC NDP activists and leaders warned of the long term dangers of paving our scarce but extremely productive farmland.

“We cannot allow ourselves to become increasingly dependent on farmers in other countries to grow our food,” said Premier Dave Barrett.

British Columbians are surrounded by magnificent mountains and stunning rivers and lakes, but less than 5 per cent of our land is suitable for agriculture.

Most of it is in valleys with nearby urban centres. The Fraser River delta, for example, is home to our most productive farmland, and 60 per cent of British Columbians. The proximity gives BC farmers ready access to markets, but it also makes farmland subject to intense pressure from developers. And once agricultural land is bulldozed for commercial, residential or industrial use, it’s gone forever.

In the 1960s, about 6,000 hectares (60 square kilometers) of prime farmland was lost every year. Rezoning agricultural land for other uses was a guaranteed path to windfall profits. It was also the key to a ready pool of campaign cash for municipal councilors and candidates who were ready to overlook the permanent long term damage.

Protecting farmland and supporting farmers

From the outset, the newly formed BC NDP, like its predecessor the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, adopted clear policies to protect farmland and strengthen our ability to feed ourselves. This was a key component of the party’s 1972 platform, A New Deal for People.

Immediately after the NDP’s election victory, land speculators and developers filed a rush of rezoning applications and began to organize protest groups. The Barrett government responded with a cabinet order that halted subdivisions, rezoning, and other applications for non-farm use of agricultural land.

The subsequent Land Commission Act, adopted Apr. 18, 1973, created BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve. It was part of a package that included income assurance for farmers and an initiative that gave young farmers access to land through a 20 year lease with an option to purchase.

In addition to preserving farmland, the Land Commission was assigned the objectives of purchasing lands for greenbelts, park reserves, and land banks for development.

Photocopiers and mimeograph machines, many located in real estate offices, soon began to crank out a torrent of abuse. Supported by big money interests “independent” groups, like the Freedom of Individual Rights Effort (an awkward name in search of a catchy acronym), held protests. A leaflet distributed at a meeting in Ladner featured a swastika and the headline, “Mussolini, Hitler… and Dave Barrett.”

The Barrett government didn’t blink.

“This far reaching, progressive legislation was a component of sustainability long before the term came into vogue – preceding the Brundtland report by 14 years.” Barry E. Smith, A Work in Progress – The British Columbia Farmland Preservation Program, 2012

The need for vigilance

Even though the vast majority of British Columbians strongly supports the preservation of farmland, the pressure from developers and speculators will never go away.

Wary of the political cost of doing away with the Agricultural Land Reserve, Social Credit governments chipped away at it. They weakened the independent Land Commission. They eliminated provisions for greenbelts, park reserves and land banks for development – all of which would have created a natural transition between farmland and residential or commercial areas.

By cabinet order, the Socreds overrode the Land Commission to exclude from the reserve 250 hectares for Gloucester Industrial Estates in Langley, the 300 hectare Spetifore lands in Delta, and the 181 hectare Terra Nova lands in Richmond.

In 1988, the Socreds inexplicably decided that golfing was enough like farming to greenlight golf courses on agricultural land. By the time Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was sworn in, there were 181 applications covering 8,400 hectares for golf courses. Many of them included proposals for residential development and resort hotels.

Patching the holes

In the 1990s, NDP governments took several steps to strengthen the protection of farmland.

“After 20 years, it’s no longer a question of whether we should have an Agricultural Land Reserve,” said Premier Mike Harcourt. “The issue now is how to make it better. We can’t keep putting pressure on our agricultural lands. We’ve got to find ways of moving urban growth up, not out… up in urban densities and up onto hillsides, not out into rich valley farmlands.”

The Harcourt government placed an immediate moratorium on golf course developments, and subsequently removed golf courses as a permitted use on agricultural land. Nonetheless, 89 applications proceeded subject to local government approval and conditions set out by the Agricultural Land Commission.

The NDP also eliminated direct appeals to cabinet except in matters of provincial interest, and after controversy over the Six Mile Ranch decision moved to more narrowly define what constituted the provincial interest.

In addition, the Glen Clark government proclaimed the Right to Farm Act. This recognizes that while people who live near farms may not enjoy the booms of noise makers that keep birds from eating the blueberry crop, nor the smell of manure spread to fertilize the fields, these seasonal annoyances are necessary to successful farms.

“It is impossible not to be impressed by the qualities of the political act which grasped the farmland nettle in British Columbia. It is skillful, logical, bold and strong.” - J.W. Wilson and J.T. Pierce, The Agricultural Land Commission of British Columbia, 1982

The 21st century

The return of the Socreds, rebranded as the even more ideologically driven B.C. Liberal Party, marked a return to more weakening of BC’s ability to grow its own food. Driven by their visceral need to help the rich get richer, the BC Liberals attacked the Agricultural Land Reserve throughout their time in office.

Rather than allowing the Land Commission to enforce consistent policies throughout the province, they created regional panels. They delegated decision making to other bodies. These included the Oil and Gas Commission, a body not previously known for its dedication to preserving farmland.

Inexplicable on any scientific basis, the BC Liberals created a two-tier land reserve. Agricultural land in Vancouver Island, the South Coast and parts of the Okanagan would continue to be fully protected. Everywhere else – 90 per cent of BC’s farmland – would be in a second tier with much weaker protection. Short term “community need” could be used to justify other uses on farmland needed for our long term food security.

In Penticton, farmland was converted to sports fields. In Summerland, it was a subdivision and golf course. And in Abbotsford, a large industrial and commercial complex was approved even though other non-agricultural land was available.

In 2015, the BC Liberal cabinet overrode the Agricultural Land Commission to exclude from the reserve 4,000 hectares of farmland in the Peace River Valley, and fired commission Chair Richard Bullock who had opposed the move.

Restoring farmland as the first priority

Since the election victory of 2017, John Horgan and the NDP have consistently worked to protect farmland and food security.

They brought back province-wide criteria for designating agricultural land. No more two-tier land reserve. They restored a province-wide land commission with commissioners from each region. No more regional panels where three individuals could be pressured to exclude farmland.

The Horgan government introduced a clear requirement that the priority for the Agricultural Land Commission is to protect and enhance farming, not transient community needs.

They strengthened enforcement powers.

In parts of the Lower Mainland, the construction of mega-mansions has driven speculation and taken farmland out of production. Some of these giants are well over 20,000 square feet. That practice has now been banned.

And the Horgan government has cracked down on the dumping of construction debris, toxic waste and other fill on farmland. Illegal fill and soil removal are now subject to a fine of up to $1 million or six months in jail.

Agriculture and related enterprises employ thousands of people in BC Despite our province’s scarcity of farmland, BC farmers produce an extraordinarily wide range of fruits, vegetables and meats, and supply about 48 per cent of the food we eat. Food and beverage processing is our largest manufacturing industry.

Today and for the future, farmland is the foundation.

It is essential to long term food security for British Columbians. Despite that fact, the pressure on our farmland will not fade away. And it is magnified by political parties whose priority is giving comfort to those who seek a quick buck with little regard to the long term consequences for everyone else.

As we have for 60 years, the BC NDP will continue to do all in our power to protect farmland and strengthen food security. It’s one more way the BC NDP is working for you.