KPU Institute for Sustainable Food Systems Finds that B.C. Farmland is Underutilized

An ISFS white paper found that the province isn’t as self-sufficient in food production as it should be

Only 5% of British Columbia’s land base is suitable for agriculture, according to the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems. (flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

Farmland in B.C. is going to waste under current provincial policies, according to a white paper recently released by Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS).

The ISFS has spent the past 11 months creating a comprehensive document titled Protection is Not Enough: Policy Precedents to Increase the Agricultural Use of British Columbia’s Farmland which identifies the flaws in the province’s management of the five per cent of its land that is suitable for agriculture.

According to this research, only about half of that small proportion of land is being properly utilized and, as a result, British Columbia’s food self-sufficiency is hurting.

“We don’t know what degree of food self-reliance we have [in British Columbia] but it’s not great,” says Dr. Kent Mullinix, Director of the ISFS. “The fact of the matter is that we could improve our food self reliance and our economic status considerably by getting this land into production.”

Mullinix says that the ISFS wanted to engage researchers and policy makers with the project but also wanted to give senior-level students the opportunity to research a policy-related challenge and how to solve it.

Angeli dela Rosa and Eric Wirsching from KPU’s sustainable agriculture program and Russell Liu from the policy studies program were selected to conduct research for the project under the supervision of ISFS research associate Kristi Tatebe. The students and staff worked all summer to find policies around the world that could be relevant to British Columbia’s farmland usage issues.

Mullinix explains that a “free market ideal” has informed the provincial government’s approach to regulating agricultural land since the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) was established in 1973. The ALR was created with two purposes: to protect agricultural land and to encourage productive agriculture. According to Mullinix, the latter goal was dropped almost immediately after the ALR’s establishment.

Under the ALR, there are no qualifications as to who can own or use agricultural land. As a result, land is often divided and built on, used for rural residences or hobby farms, or otherwise left unused for food production. Mullinix calls this a policy failure.

“Over the last 40 years, we in North America have been relatively enamoured with the free market ideal, and so bottom line is people get to use that land for whatever they want to use it for,” says Mullinix. “Concomitantly, you put your agricultural land to the ‘highest and best use’ and really what that means is however you can make the most money in the shortest time frame. There’s no consideration of sustainability or earth stewardship or anything like that.”

The white paper outlines 13 policy recommendations that the authors believe will help solve these problems. Some include offering tax relief to support agricultural production, rezoning equivalent land for agricultural use everytime land is rezoned for uses other than farming, and putting restrictions on the ownership of farmland so that only people with the intent and ability to use the land to its potential can purchase it. For each policy recommendation, precedents are provided to show how it works elsewhere.

“One of the reasons that we put forth the kind of policy precedents that we did and the recommendations that we did is we absolutely recognize that business as usual isn’t going to do it and tinkering around the margins isn’t going to do it,” says Mullinix.

The B.C. government is currently engaged in a review of the Agricultural Land Commission and Agricultural Land Reserve with the objective of strengthening both. As noted in the white paper, this makes the release of the ISFS document very timely. Mullinix is hopeful that the provincial government is going to be receptive to the types of policies recommended in the white paper, even though some could prove controversial on the grounds of private property rights and challenging the free market ideal.

“The idea of only a trained agriculturist with a bonafide agriculture business plan and objective being able to own agriculture land, while that makes great sense to us, is almost heretical [to free market proponents],” explains Mullinix. “So the question becomes, ‘How powerful a policy does the public and the government have the appetite for?’”

He stresses that the preservation, use, and management of British Columbia’s agricultural land is of vital importance, particularly as climate change threatens food sustainability in North America. Mullinix hopes that the paper will inspire those living here to think about new ways to approach food sustainability.

“This was the purpose of the white paper, focus attention because people know this is going on and people are not happy about it. People know that with climate change and all these competing interests that we need to get serious about this before [agriculture suitable land] is all gone.”