By Roy L Hales
British Columbia grows less than half of the fresh produce it needs. Much of what we consume comes from California. The ongoing drought conditions, and a weak loony, have sent vegetable prices spiralling 11.7% this year. Fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables are becoming an occasional luxury for some middle-low income B.C. families. Though this will only worsen worse as global temperatures continue to rise, the government of BC is far more preoccupied with the get-rich promise of mega-energy projects. Once it is completed, Site C will submerge prime agricultural lands.
Site C Will Submerge Much of BC’s Prime Agricultural Lands
It has been a year since Abra Brynne, Co-Chair of the BC Food Systems Network (BCFSN), announced, “Almost half of the ALR lands are in the North, with 72% of BC’s remaining prime quality lands in the Peace River Valley. Future generations cannot afford to lose that food growing potential. There is just too much at stake.”
In her submission to the Joint Review Panel on the Site C Dam, agrologist Wendy Holm stated that 44% of the foods that could be grown in BC are imported and most of them could be growth in the Peace River Valley.
“All around the world people are waking up to the fact that we are kind of at peak farm. There isn’t any new land to really bring into production – and we’re losing land. And if you look at what’s happening in California [where drought has put 800,000 acres out of production], that has massive implications for B.C. and Canada,” Dr Dr. Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, told the Globe and Mail. ” … It’s unlikely California will ever recover to its previous level of production. And with that happening there we’ve got to be saying to ourselves, ‘Okay, this is a chance where we can actually become a real producer. It’s getting warmer every year. And we’d better protect that land.’”
This was a theme recently reiterated by Sierra Club BC campaigner Ana Simeon, who added, “We have yet to connect the dots between climate change, agricultural land and food prices. Municipalities and regional districts seem to be the only ones making concrete plans for how to function as all this stuff intensifies. Meanwhile, Premier Clark pays lip service to “food security” in the Throne Speech but in the same breath vows to get Site C dam past the point of no return.”[1. email from Sierra Club BC campaigner Ana Simeon]
The province’s actions totally contradict BC’s Climate Change Action Plan (2010-2013), which states:
“Climate change is anticipated to affect global food systems by resulting in: food shortfalls, altered trade patterns, population migrations and growing interest more secure local food supplies. Within this context, contraction of BC’s food production and processing capacity is unacceptable. Rather, BC must seek to expand its capacity for food production, re-build lost production and processing infrastructure and develop expertise to serve local markets and to develop new products.”[2. BC Agriculture Climate Change Action Plan2010-2013, p 6]
The Coming Mega-drought
A recent study from the University of Victoria suggests the situation may even be worse. British Columbia’s hydrologists use fifty years of stream flow to formulate their responses to climate change. However tree ring data show there were 16 droughts exceeding this in the preceding three centuries.
“When you look at how severe droughts can get and then you add climate change and land use change on top of that, it would be reasonable to expect that when one of these extreme events does happen it will be more severe than anything that has happened in the past 350 years,” said Dr Bethany Coulthard. [3. Roy L Hales interview with Dr Bethany Coulthard, co-author of “Is worst-case scenario streamflow drought underestimated in British Columbia? A multi-century perspective for the south coast, derived from tree-rings,” Journal of Hydrology, Volume 534, March 2016, Pages 205–218]
This means that crop and livestock losses will exceed our worst case scenarios. Some foods will become scarce and prices will increase dramatically. The worst impacts will fall upon the British Columbians least equipped to deal with them.
So what has the provincial government done to protect its’ citizens?
On May 29, 2014, Christy Clark’s government passed Bill 24, which divided BC’s agricultural lands into two zones. The Lower Fraser valley, Vancouver Island and Okanagan would remain under the existing regulations. The vast bulk of the province’s land reserves are in “zone two,” where it is easier to rezone them for other uses.
“Without consultation, this government has introduced legislation to remove 90% of BC’s farmland from the ALC’s (Agricultural Land Commission) independent mandate to protect farmland and farming,” wrote MLA Vicki Huntington, in 2014.
The following year, a Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson told the ECOreport that the ALC still made the final decisions about the lands within zone 2.
“The ALC is an administrative tribunal, arm’s length from government, and government does not interfere in that independent decision-making process. The ALC looks at many factors when carrying out its mandate and each application has its own distinct set of circumstances and is considered on its own merits.”[3. 2015 email from BC Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson]
Days later, Premier Christy Clark’s government passed an order in council, allowed them to transfer 4,000 hectares out of the ALR without consulting with the ALC. This land will be flooded if the Site C Dam is built.
The government followed this up by firing ALC Chair Richard Bullock, who was too independently minded for their liking.
Adam Olsen, then interim leader of the Green Party, responded, “It is completely irresponsible for us to undermine the capacity of our province to feed our citizens. We must not rely entirely on other jurisdictions to provide our food, It is short term thinking and we must have a long term view on how we are going to feed ourselves.”[4. Roy L Hales interview with Adam Olsen, Interim Leader of the B.C. Green Party]
“The massive exclusions of agricultural land for Site C is a very serious issue. We are importing (food) from California when we could be producing it ourselves. Unfortunately, agriculture and food systems are not being prioritized as much as it should be,” agreed Brent Mansfield, co-chair of BCFSN.[5. email from Brent Mansfield, co-chair of BCFSN]
More recently Lana Popham, the (NDP) MLA for Saanich South, on Vancouver Island, wrote, ” … The largest exclusion of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve in B.C.’s history was done in contravention of the law and in secrecy with zero public debate. In the push to create the Site C dam, more than 4,000 hectares of farmland was removed from the ALR by the stroke of a pen. This land is among the most fertile and potentially productive farmland in B,C. It could feed one million people in perpetuity. The government intends to flood it, destroying its agricultural potential forever.”
Hoped For Federal Intervention
Many hoped that the new Canadian Government might intervene.
During the election, the Liberal party pledged their support for the nation’s agricultural sector. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau subsequently published a mandate letter in which he told the new Agricultural Minister to “develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.
Trudeau also promised First Nations “a new relationship to Ottawa.” This is important because Treaty #8 gave local First Nations use of the lands impacted by Site C.
Ignoring its’ perceived treaty obligations, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Transport Canada recently issued federal permits to allow construction of the dam.
In response Grand Chief Stewart Phillip released a statement saying, “The honeymoon is over! Treaty 8 has just been granted a hearing in the Federal Court of Canada this September. Rather than respecting the treaty rights of Prophet River and West Moberly and the legal process by pausing or even slowing down site preparation and construction, the Trudeau Government, like cowardly, thuggish thieves in the dark, quietly issued federal permits before a long weekend to allow for the acceleration of construction.”
Reversing BC’s Agricultural Policies
What can British Columbians who are concerned about protecting their province’s agriculture do?
The simplest answer appears to be reverse the Liberal government’s flawed agricultural policies.
“There used to be a Legislative Standing Committee for Agriculture that worked in a non-partisan way with farmers and experts across the province to generate new ideas and strong policy. The B.C. Liberals axed that back in 2001,” writes Popham.
Ana Simeon suggests restoring the recently gutted ALC and giving it new powers.
“The authority of the Agricultural Land Commission must be strengthened to include decision-making power over major energy and mining projects likely to impact agricultural lands. The “highest and best use of the land”, a designation currently used for mining activities that often permanently destroy the land’s productive capacity, must be re-defined to give agriculture priority over projects such as Site C dam, which will eliminate almost 16,000 acres of agricultural land, including Class 1 and 2 lands,” she says.
“Food-producing lands must be recognized for what they are: essential to human survival and well-being in an era of climate change, and a strategic asset of the highest public interest for the province and the nation.”
An Adaption Strategy
An adaptation strategy for human well-being would include:
• Modelling for climate change impacts on food-producing lands.
• Identifying those lands that are likely to continue to yield produce under changing conditions.
• “Climate-proofing” the ALR by including those lands, especially in northern B.C.
• Strengthening protections for food-producing lands as key strategic assets and a sector of the highest public interest for human survival in times of climate change, similar to what governments have done in the past to ensure functioning of key sectors in times of war.
• Redefining the “highest and best use of the land” to give agriculture a higher priority than mining or energy generation.
• Prioritizing investment in, and giving preferential treatment to, economic activities that meet essential human needs.
Top Photo Credit: Crops being grown on the land the dam will submerge -Courtesy Peterson’s Peace River Pics