'We have no alternative': White paper warns lost B.C. farmland could be catastrophic

A paper released Tuesday urges B.C. to protect what little farmland it has, arguing that sprawling estates and factories are glutting up "precious" arable tracts that future generations will need to survive.

Sustainability experts urge protection of B.C.'s 'precious' arable land as real estate, industry pose threat

Kent Mullinix co-authored a report condemning policies that allow homes and businesses to use up B.C.'s rare farmland. (Kwantlen Polytechnic)

A white paper released Tuesday urges B.C. to protect what little farmland it has, arguing that sprawling estates and businesses are glutting up "precious" arable tracts that future generations will require to survive.

Kent Mullinix, co-author of the paper and sustainable food expert with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the rising price of land is preventing fertile areas protected under the province's Agricultural Land Commission Act from being used for their designated purpose: producing food.

And that misuse will directly impact food security in years to come, Mullinix says.

A double-whammy of population growth plus climate change means the province will be "challenged to produce food in the future," he toldB.C. Almanac's Michelle Eliot.

Fraction of land used for food

Vast swathes of mountain and ice make 95 per cent of the province unsuitable for farming, the paper reports. Of the five per cent left, only half is currently used for crops and livestock.

Under scrutiny in Tuesday's report are policies that increase the cost of that farmland, such as tax breaks for rural landowners who engage in "minimal agricultural production," the report says.

The Ministry of Agriculture wants to revamp the legislation that protects B.C.'s farmland. (Government of B.C.)

It recommends, among other changes, raising the income threshold from farming to $7,000 for those applying for the tax break.

Speculation and competitive use from homes and businesses also contribute to skyrocketing land costs that discourage agriculture.

Legislation gets makeover

The Agricultural Land Reserve, a land-protection program founded in 1973, aimed to protect farmland from encroaching urbanization and industry — staving off both strip malls and strip mining — but Mullinix argues that its strength is being chipped away in part by a rule that allows developers and speculators to apply for exemptions.

Agriculture minister Lana Popham said in a statement that she welcomes the study as the province seeks public input to revitalize the ALR.

Farmers in the Lower Mainland are threatened by the rising costs of producing food, which Tuesday's report attributes in part to land speculation, urbanization and tax loopholes. (Shutterstock)

The report's authors say that revitalization needs to "challenge entrenched ideas" about land ownership, private property and the "sanctity of the free market ideal."

They hope changes could restrict ownership of ALR land to farmers and make it easier for them to earn a living — a necessary condition in today's market, says Gunraj Gill, spokesperson for the Richmond Farmland Owners Association.

"People were able to live off farming in the past," Gill said. "That's not the case anymore."

Gill said farmers in the Lower Mainland have withstood a barrage of so-called "mega-mansions" which they say take advantage of current ALR tax breaks and put the farming community at risk of dissolution. 

Homes like this one — upwards of 20,000 square feet in size and built on several acres of farmland — are scattered across Richmond. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Compounding the struggle, he adds, are low food prices, making farming less lucrative as a career. Gill says a number of farmers in Richmond have needed side jobs just to make ends meet.

Food security a priority

Competition for land and the rising costs of doing business makes food production a difficult path, Gill adds, but says the farmers he knows want to stick with it.

"They can lead the province as long as they're allowed to stay on their land," he said.

The situation in B.C. reflects a wider question of food security, Mullinix says.

Worldwide, he warns, arable land is at a premium. "We are farming essentially all there is to farm," he said.

"We have to regard this land as a precious, non-renewable resource. We have no alternative."

With files from CBC Radio One's B.C. Almanac

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