British Columbia

High on the agenda: Delta mayor champions produce over pot at UBCM

Tomato, 'tom-ah-to,' no room for pot though. The Corporation of Delta says the province needs to protect farmland from big pot producers as 35 applicants look to convert operations into marijuana growing facilities.

B.C.'s food security is at risk as demand to grow pot on ALR land increases, says Lois Jackson

One grower in Delta, who plans to switch from vegetables and fruit to marijuana production, estimates it will increase revenue by 10 to 15 times. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

Hot house or pot house?

As the Union of British Columbia Municipalities gathered in Vancouver to discuss everything from marijuana legalization to the abolition of Daylight Savings Time, Delta Mayor Lois Jackson spoke up in defense of tomatoes.

The Corporation of Delta has received 35 applications from companies looking to grow marijuana on land belonging to the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), according to Jackson, who said she's concerned for food security in the Lower Mainland.

The ALR is a provincial zone in which agriculture is recognized as the priority use. Farming is encouraged and non-agricultural uses are restricted.

"We have very little land in B.C.," Jackson told Gloria Macarenko, host of B.C. Almanac. "Do you want to rely on the United States of America for your food?" she said.

Potential cash crop

Agriculture is a part of Delta's identity. The seaside industrial farming community is responsible for half the production of green beans and potatoes in B.C., according to the municipality's web site.

Jackson said she doesn't want to see Delta become the pot growing capital of the nation because its role in food production is too valuable.

But the potential value of the cash crop has not been lost on farmers.

In June, 2017, a large greenhouse operator announced plans to convert a 1.1 million square foot greenhouse facility into a medical marijuana growing facility.

Village Farms said the facility could yield up to 75,000 kilograms of pot each year. The move was done in partnership with Emerald Health Therapeutics, a B.C.-based company that owns a licensed medical marijuana production company.

The company said its greenhouse model of growing pot could help keep the costs of medical pot down, with projected production costs coming in at less than $1 per gram while generating up to 15 times the company's current vegetable-based revenue.

In a joint venture with Emerald Health Therapeutics, produce company Village Farms plans to convert this 1.1 million square foot greenhouse in Delta B.C. to cannabis production. (Provided/Emerald Health Therapeutics and Village Farms)

Jackson did express concerns that overpriced medical pot could allow the black market to continue to flourish, but doesn't believe massive greenhouses on ALR land are the solution to the keeping the price of pot low.  

"Unless you'd rather have all the pot and no tomatoes," she said.

In 2011, Delta released a community agriculture plan which addressed a broad range of issues facing the ALR. Marijuana production was not one them.

The Agricultural Land Commission determined that growing medical marijuana is allowed on ALR land, despite concern from municipalities like Vancouver, which advocated for regulations that would categorize pot growing as an industrial activity.

Public consultation open

It's unclear if the ALC's decision will apply to recreational growers but Jackson said she is confident the NDP government is listening, especially Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

"He's from local government, he knows what we're talking about, he knows we're all different," she said.

The UBCM passed its resolution framework for how it will work with the province to prepare for marijuana legalization at the federal level, Wednesday morning. That legislation is expected to come into effect in July, 2018.

The provincial government also announced an online public consultation process that will continue until Nov. 1, 2017. Farnworth said the site has already had 30,000 visitors and 15,000 submissions. 

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