British Columbia

B.C. food security report sparks debate on technology and agricultural land reserve

Food security experts in British Columbia are squaring off over the province's recent report on how the province can generate more of its own food. 

Experts, municipal leaders say converting any part of the land reserve will fuel speculation and raise costs

B.C. recently released a report on the role of technology on farms and how it can increase food production. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Critics of a recent report from a provincial task force say it champions corporate food producers over small family farms and could put the Agricultural Land Reserve at risk.

In January, the province released The Future of B.C.'s Food System, a report that recommends technology like moisture sensors, indoor growing on vertically stacked shelves and robotics to increase food production and self-reliance. The report says climate change, fewer people working in agriculture and a growing population all contribute to the need to pursue new farming methods.

The Metro Vancouver Regional Planning Committee discussed the report on Friday. The chair of the region's agriculture advisory committee, Mike Manion, said there is a need to improve efficiency on farms and help with labour shortages. 

"Clearly there is a role for tech in agriculture," Manion said to the committee. 

Land reserve worries

Some of the report's recommendations include support for developing B.C.-based solutions for agricultural technology, creating a knowledge hub to drive innovation and research, and adopting the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals as guidelines. 

But Manion said the agriculture advisory committee's main concern was the report's recommendation to set aside 0.25 per cent of the province's Agricultural Land Reserve to create a new agricultural-industrial category of farmland.

It would be up to the province to define what exactly could be included in that category, but the general concern is that structures would be built on arable farmland. 

Many food production experts say technological advances can help with the labour shortages on B.C. farms. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Rising property values across the province have made it more difficult to keep land affordable for farmers, Manion said, and allowing even a small portion of the reserve to be developed would further fuel speculation and costs. 

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves echoed that sentiment, warning that the change could make for a slippery slope.

"Once you start along this road, you simply can't stop it," Steves said at the meeting.

Lack of space 'a huge problem'

Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and one of the provincial task force's members, says she's surprised to hear about the criticism. 

"The recommendation is designed to increase food production locally," Newman said.

"One of the key things some in the agri-tech industry brought to us was they don't have any space to do what they want to do. That's a huge problem."

Newman says the converted land would be taken from underutilized parts of the reserve with lower soil quality. 

'Demise of family farming'

Kent Mullinix, director of sustainable agriculture and food security at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the recommendation is troubling and many parts of the report are misguided. 

Mullinix thinks a focus on technology will only serve to attract large corporations that can afford to invest in it. 

Kwantlen Polytechnic University food sustainability professor Ken Mullinix says supporting more technology on B.C. farms will put smaller farms at risk. (Julia Page/CBC)

"The adoption of technologies by farmers over the last 50 years has largely led to the demise of family-based farming and the well-being of farmers," Mullinix said. 

"The whole proposition of emphasizing agri-tech is essentially a proposition to advance the corporate hegemony and concentration in our food system."

Mullinix agrees B.C. should increase food production and self-reliance, but he thinks the province needs to look at the policies in place that make farming unsustainable for many small producers. 

Technology 'not a cure-all'

Newman says the recommendations don't pit small farms against large corporations. Even the small farms the task force spoke with said they needed some form of technology to improve their operations, she says.

"Every part of human life uses technology," she said. "It's not a cure-all, obviously, but it's got to be part of the picture."

Task force member Lenore Newman says technology and farming have long been intertwined. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

Newman says there has been a lot of support for the recommendations from farmers large and small, and feedback from around the world has been positive. 

Technology in farming has historically been neglected in B.C., Newman says, which is why the task force was assigned to focus on it. She hopes B.C. could join countries like the Netherlands, Singapore and Israel to become leaders in food production. 

New provincial secretariat

In a written statement, the Ministry of Agriculture says the province appointed Wes Shoemaker as the head of the new agri-tech land use secretariat to gather feedback on the report's land reserve recommendation.

Shoemaker will consider land use opportunities throughout the entire province, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said.

The ministry says it's studying whether and how the recommendations fit within the province's "core values of promoting farming and protecting farmland."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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