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Bill 24 – The Agriculture Land Commission Amendment Act, 2014

On Thursday, May 8 I spoke out against Bill 24, The Agriculture Land Commission Amendment Act, 2014, during 2nd reading. Below is the text of my speech.

I rise today to take my place in this debate, one that I certainly imagine will take many days to come to conclusion. First off, I wish to acknowledge that the minister has clearly recognized there’s a fair amount of public concern over this bill and so has put forward a number of amendments that I look forward very much to speaking to at the committee stage.

Please let me start by saying that this is not a debate about change or a debate about the fear of change. This is the debate about the future of the ALC and, through it, the ALR, which has been protecting agricultural land in British Columbia for over 40 years.

During these 40 years the world has seen significant change. We are aware more than ever of the threat of global warming and, in particular, its projected threat in altering the hydrological cycle, long-relied-upon weather systems and how our food systems work. We need only look south to the extensive drought in California for an example of evidence showing how the impacts of global warming will play out.

We’ve also seen significant change in the local economies of communities in British Columbia’s interior. Previously-relied-upon industries like forestry are no longer supporting communities in the way that they did, creating great social disruption and, in some cases, great hardship.

In the face of these and other pressures, it would be too simple to assume that the ALR can remain unchanged. At some point, the realities that were present when it was conceived begin to change, thereby creating a new reality with different needs.

Of course as politicians we must have the courage to discuss changes to even our most important institutions when they are no longer serving the needs of British Columbians in the way they used to. I would even go so far as to suggest that a discussion of changes to how the ALR and the ALC operate might have been embraced by all sides of this House if it were to be based on how we must respond as a province in light of our changing climate.

Unfortunately, as I said at the start, this isn’t a debate about change. This is a debate that is taking place within the context of failed consultations and broken promises and, as the member behind me likes to say, jiggery-pokery.

The conversation we could be having about how to strengthen our food production is greatly overshadowed by this government’s decision to ram through changes to an institution in our province without adequate notice, without adequate consultation and without providing people with the required evidence justifying such a change.

The bill comes as a surprise to many in this House. The 2013 election campaign contained absolutely no discussion of changes to the operations of the ALC and the ALR, let alone any notice of the sweeping changes contained within Bill 24. Even as we move from the summer after the election into the fall, there were only hints that changes and promises of an inclusive, consultation-driven look at the ALR.

Now, let’s turn to the issue of consultation. I think it’s critical, before I continue, to read into the record an account of the history of this bill as outlined by my colleague Adam Olsen, the interim leader of the B.C. Green Party. He has followed this issue closely from the very start and was one of the first people to raise the issue around consultation. This is from a more recent piece he wrote on April 6, 2014, that’s available on his blog site.

“For the past 40 years the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) has protected the agricultural value of the land in its boundaries. When British Columbians have been asked whether they support protecting those agricultural values and land for food security, 95 percent say yes.

“Changing weather patterns across the planet and increased transportation costs are putting our global food supply at risk. We all know that food is more secure when produced closer to home. Yet if Bill 24, the agricultural amendment act, passes, British Columbians will be forced to rely more on food produced outside the province.

“As long as grocery store shelves are stocked and food is a reasonable price, we are content. Even though we are regularly reminded that at any time Vancouver Island only has enough food for 72 hours, we remain comfortable. Food supplies in the rest of British Columbia are only slightly more secure.

“When the provincial government decided to update the Water Act, they consulted British Columbians and reported that they received 3,000 comments, which they incorporated into Bill 18, introduced in March. As a result of the engagement, Bill 18 received a warm welcome inside the Legislature and out. Despite Bill 18’s imperfections, the government properly engaged the public, stakeholders and experts and introduced balanced legislation.

“The same cannot be said for the government’s approach to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) and its plan for the ‘adaptation’ of 90 percent of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). There has been no open and consultative approach. Instead, the government took a confrontational approach and drafted legislation in secret cabinet meetings behind closed doors.

“Why is Bill 24 even necessary? In 2010 Auditor General John Doyle released an audit, and Richard Bullock, the newly appointed chair of the commission, completed an internal core review. Using these reports, the ALC has began implementing the recommendations, and the B.C. government invested $3 million in the ALC’s ‘modernization’ in Budget 2013.”

“Then, in the summer of 2013 the Minister of Energy and Mines and Minister Responsible for Core Review announced:  ‘We’re going to look at some sacrosanct things, like certain agencies. We’re going to look at the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission.’

“Throughout the weeks following, the B.C. government delivered a public process that Vaughn Palmer accurately described as a ‘rushed exercise in ad hockery.’

“On September 6, 2013, a news release announced the schedule for the annual tour of the Finance and Government Services Committee. The first session was in Vancouver, just 14 days later. On September 24, four days after the start of the tour, the Minister of Energy and Mines announced that public input into the core review, including for the ALC, was to be presented to Finance and Government Services.

“On September 26 Kathleen Gibson and Linda Geggie presented at the Victoria meeting of the committee. They revealed that when they wrote to the Minister of Energy and Mines and to the Agriculture Minister on September 12 asking about the opportunities for input into the core review, they were told to present to Finance and Government Services.

“Following Gibson and Geggie’s presentation, the Hansard record shows members of the committee were surprised and unaware that input for the core review was part of their expanded terms of reference. When I raised this issue” — ‘I’ being Adam Olsen here — “with the committee on October 2, 2013, in Nanaimo, the committee’s Chair, the member for Penticton, reassured me” — again, Adam Olsen — “this was just the beginning. As the Parliamentary Secretary, and I have spoken to the minister today…. There is going to be ample opportunity for public input into the core review services.’

“‘You have to understand that it is only starting at this point and carries on until 2014. So through your local MLAs and, I’m quite sure, through other public processes, there will be ample opportunity. But anything that is said today will be discussed by this committee and, upon agreement of the committee, will be included in the report that will be given to the Legislative Assembly.’

“When internal cabinet documents were leaked last November, we were given a glimpse of what the government’s intentions were. In response to growing concern by British Columbians, the Minister of Energy and Mines reassured British Columbians that ‘nothing that the core review process could potentially do would reduce the protection of farmland in British Columbia.’ He said: ‘Bottom line. There is nothing that we could contemplate that would reduce or undermine the central principle of the agricultural land reserve, which is the protection of farmland and the sustainability of farming.’

“On November 14, 2013, I” — again, that’s Adam Olsen — “continued my inquiry with an open letter to the Premier. Shocked by how dysfunctional this whole process was, I asked the Premier to remove the ALC and the ALR from the core review process. I” — again, that’s Adam Olsen — “heard nothing from the government until mid-January 2014.

“On January, 2014, the Agriculture Minister responded that his government was committed to ‘protect the most productive agricultural land.’ However, that is not the mandate of the ALC. Their mandate is to protect and enhance all land within the ALR.

“All the while the Minister of Energy and Mines has made a concerted effort  to diminish the value of land outside the Lower Mainland, Okanagan and Vancouver Island.

“While announcing Bill 25, the Minister of Energy and Mines said: ‘Folks, I’ve been waiting a long time to say this…. There’s a huge, diverse land base out there that, frankly, the media and probably the urban public is largely unaware of…. There is some land within the agricultural land reserve that actually is useless to agriculture…. That land could be located in a region where there’s six months of winter. In some cases, the land is covered by forest. I’ve seen the land within the reserve that’s mountainous. It’s steep; it’s rocky; it’s swampy. It has really poor-quality soil and no feasible access to water.’

“None of the concerns he raises require the proposed changes in Bill 24. All of them can be addressed with the current powers of the commission to undertake boundary reviews. The government’s message is clear: 90 percent of agricultural land in British Columbia, the land in the north and southeast, is poor quality and unsuitable for agriculture.

“This is absurd. While the highest-quality land is in the southern British Columbia, there’s plenty of quality agricultural production in the north and southeast. The Ministry of Agriculture website proudly announces that 85 to 90 percent of grain production in the province occurs in the Peace River region.

“Finally, the Minister of Energy and Mines was asked about the failure to consult and engage British Columbians on changes to the ALC, and he simply shrugged it off, saying this: ‘I know that we could have done a better job of consultation, and I take my mea culpa.’

“The Minister of Energy and Mines’s proposals to open up 90 percent of the ALR for all kinds of development that will not be of any benefit to agriculture, and essentially remove the requirement of the commission to consider the immediate and long-term food security of British Columbia, are a reversal of what he stated in early November.

“Not only did members of the government promise public input and not deliver; they made statements to British Columbians that reassured us we had nothing to be concerned about when, in reality, everything they said they wouldn’t do, they did.”

That’s the end quote for the piece from Adam Olsen.

This is not an account that reads favourably of the government’s efforts to communicate their intentions, nor does it provide sound footing for any claims that this bill comes with the support of our agricultural community. In fact, what we’ve seen instead is a growing number of groups and individuals speaking out against this bill.

One of the more noticeable groups is the B.C. Agriculture Council, the organization that represents 14,000 B.C. farmers and ranchers. The B.C. Agriculture Council reversed its support for the bill, with the council unanimously opposing the changes.

In addition, I’ve been witness to the growing public backlash against not only this bill but also the process by which the government is attempting to make these changes. I want to take a moment to read a letter that was published in quite a number of local papers in the Kootenays, very close to the riding of the Minister of Energy and Mines. I think it provides important insight into the issue from a member of B.C.’s farming community. This letter was written by a fellow named Andrew Bennett and was published on April 8, 2014. It’s entitled this: “Scrap ALR Proposal and Save Small Farmers — A Rossland Perspective.” This is his letter.

“To the leaders of my province, I am a 34-year-old farmer in the southern Interior working with my wife and son to build a business growing and selling food. We do not have the finances to own farmland, so we operate entirely on leased parcels. Because large agribusiness and government subsidies to the industrial food system keep food prices incredibly low, it’s very difficult to compete in the market.

“We small, local farmers distinguish ourselves by offering much higher quality produce — vegetables and various meats in my case — with more nutrients, more flavour, more humane livestock management, better soil management, quicker turnaround, happier employees and so on. We also add vibrancy and resilience to our local economy.

“Perhaps what many fail to realize is that our farm, and the many other young farms just now sprouting all over the countryside, are the foundation of our future economy, the one we’ll need once we’re left with toothpicks for forests and gaping holes in the ground.”

Frankly, this sounds a bit to me like he’s reading from The Lorax.

“With all the mills shutting down, the best solution on the table is a couple thousand measly temporary jobs to build a pipeline that carries a grave risk to water and land? Very, very silly.

“Our local food economy guarantees to bring long-term prosperity by not only keeping us fed but by keeping currency in local circulation. Everyone needs to eat, and right now more than 95 percent of the $25 billion B.C. consumers spend annually on food leaves the province.”

Read that again: 95 percent of the $25 billion B.C. consumers spend annually on food leaving the province.

“We’re bleeding money.”

And I would add: what a lost opportunity.

“And there’s no need to bleed. I can grow almost everything we need right here, right now. We can keep at least $10 billion in B.C. very fast if the government conspired with us instead of against us.”

I’m not sure why he used the word “conspired,” but it’s there anyway.

“Imagine the impacts. Look at my customers. Almost all of them are professionals, many working out of province or out of country, bringing money to my small town in the Kootenays. It’s my job and the job of other local business people to keep that money going round and round right here in B.C.

“Your ALR proposal is a disaster waiting to happen. My farm depends on the well-to-do folks who have bought farmland for an estate but with no plans or knowledge for how to use it. Not being able to develop on it ensures that they are willing to cooperate with farmers such as myself. Of course, they would like to develop it! They would make more money.

“If you allow them building and subdivision rights, will they be willing to cooperate with me and the legion of up-and-coming young farmers who I collaborate with and mentor every day? No. And farmers like me all over the province will lose any chance we ever had of owning a farm, because farmland will not only crumble into postage stamps, but prices will skyrocket.

“Your Bill 24 is not a long-term proposition. Even the faintest notion of a possibility of development — like Bill 24 threatens with its two-tier approach to the ALR — directly impacts my ability to lease land, grow amazing food and sell it for reasonable prices despite heavy competition from a global market.

“My farm also depends on being able to secure farm status for these same wealthy landowners. It’s my way of compensating them for the use of their land — by lowering…taxes — without having to incur an expense that cuts into my already slim margins.

“Between the ALR and farm status assessments, that’s about all the government has ever done for me and others who, despite the challenges, continue to work hard to ensure food security, local employment and a strengthened local economy.

“The reality is that the British Columbia and federal governments make my life harder, loading small producers with unreasonable restrictions and bureaucracy, and we get nothing comparable to the hefty handouts and tax breaks large industrial farmers receive.

“The ALR and farm status being all the government has ever done for us, now you’d like to start eroding that too?

“Shame on you. You risk the future of all your children for your political gain and the financial greed in the minority you serve in the name of ‘democracy.’ Shame on you.

“You claim to speak for the ‘everyday Canadian.’ Not the ones I speak with, and I speak with more than you do. Or at least I actually listen” — spelt with capital letters. “I can guarantee that. My job depends on widespread networking with regular folks. This hardly seems to be required for political leadership.

“No, my so-called leaders, you clearly speak on behalf of a moneyed elite. Prove to me otherwise, and scrap this bill.

“Andrew Bennett, Rossland”

I reiterate that this letter appeared in numerous communities in the Kootenays. Most of the local papers there published such a letter.

Consulting with the general public is a necessity for governing in this day and age if they are to claim to have the required social licence needed to proceed on many of their larger initiatives.

Let me give two recent examples — the first being the B.C. Water Sustainability Act and the consultations that took place in the second, the northern gateway pipeline. Both of these illustrate most succinctly the requirement and the ability the government has to actually engage the public to seek a social licence.

This government conducted substantial engagement on the new Water Sustainability Act and watched earlier this session as it got the unanimous support of every single member of this House.

In addition, we’ve seen the debate around the northern gateway pipeline marked by steadfast opposition to a proposal that many people fear was preordained for approval. Nothing creates more resistance than a process that was never intended to inform the outcome. This is what appears to have taken place with Bill 24, and the bill is poorer for it.

Going beyond just the social licence component, consultation allows government to hear arguments and evidence they may have overlooked. Let’s be clear, consultation is a two-way process. It’s not just about reading a number of e-mails submitted to a minister. It was quite a positive development when the Government House Leader announced the amendment to Bill 2 earlier this session, in part, because of the concerns raised in this House by the opposition. I hope that a similar ear is being provided to the arguments taking place with Bill 24.

Finally, one of the other major issues that should underpin every critique of this bill is that the evidence does not support the arguments that have been advanced in favour of the bill. In the introduction of this bill to the media, the minister took the time to outline a number of examples of how the current operation of the ALR is inadequate to address the needs of farmers. These examples were meant to make a case for why changes to the ALR were necessary.

The problem, however, is that the ALR currently has a mechanism, through its boundary review process, to address these examples and provide exceptions where necessary.

The government’s press release also identified “regional differences” as one of the key concepts underpinning this policy and made me wonder what data underpins the decision to create the two zones, as proposed in this legislation.

On April 4 of 2014 a group of soil scientists, many of whom are my colleagues that I’ve worked with over the years, wrote to the Premier and expressed their concerns with this bill. To quote just a couple of lines, here’s what they said:

“Bill 24 creates a two-tiered ALR and a lower quality of agriculture lands and climate in zone 2 has been stated and assumed several times. However, these assertions are patently false when examined in the light of objective soil science data and agriculture capability ratings, ratings that incorporate a substantial body of climate data gathered during the Canada land inventory.

“In actual fact, there is far more class 1 to 4 land in zone 2 than in zone 1 — about 85 percent or 2 million hectares in zone 2 versus only 15 percent or 350,000 hectares in zone 1.”

That’s coming from the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture in 1978.

This is not to say that lands of the same capability are directly comparable. A class 3 soil in the Fraser Valley is different from a class 3 soil in the Peace, etc. Capability, based on the range of crops, needs to be considered along with the suitability and productivity of individual crops on specific soils in specific local climates.

“Lower capability soils can be highly productive for a particular crop. For example, a capability class 5 soil that is restricted to producing a forage crop, hay or silage, is often highly productive for that one narrow cropping option. It is for this reason class 5 lands were included in the ALR. where they form the basis for some types of agriculture — i.e. important forage-production lands in ranching areas and class 5 organic, bog soils suited to the production of blueberries or cranberries.

“Similarly, some class 6 lands are important components of livestock production, notably the natural grasslands of the southern Interior. These provide the often limited early spring and fall grazing, thereby reducing both the labour and feed costs of ranchers.”

Given that the government’s claim that the land is less productive in zone 2 has been entirely refuted by experts, I’m hoping that this is not a case of decision-based evidence-making being brought before us here, where a desired conclusion was established and the evidence simply created around it to support a preordained decision. Our agriculture is simply far too important for the sustainability of our province’s future to be used for shortsighted politicking. The changes that face our province, whether it is the increasingly evident impact of climate change or the changes facing many of our communities, cannot be addressed by shortsighted decision-making.

I started my remarks by commenting that this was not a debate about change or the fear of change. I said this, in part, to head off what I suspect will be the government’s line: that opposition to this bill is merely opposition to change and that the official opposition, in particular, would never contemplate any changes to the ALC or the ALR under a Liberal government.

The fact is that they have eliminated this line of argument by pursuing a process that almost no one can support: an unclear and insufficient consultation, followed by a bill that goes against the scientific evidence and a minister who says that despite any additional consultation, the bill is going to pass this session and it’s going to have two zones in it.

The words from the member for Cowichan Valley again come to mind: this sounds a lot like jiggery-pokery. These are not the words, the minister put forward, of someone who is committed to building a social licence that is necessary to make such sweeping changes. They are also not the words of someone who will review the evidence that is available and allow it to inform policy. These are not the words of someone who will look at science and use science to inform policy. These are the words of someone whose foundation for policy development is decision-based evidence-making.

Bill 24 is not in the best interests of British Columbia, and I will not be supporting its passage through this House. I wholeheartedly support the opposition in its continued opposition to this bill through the next week or weeks of this session.

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