What has been labelled as an “authentic and meaningful” consultation review of the Agriculture Land Reserve is long overdue, according to B.C.’s Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.
But local MLA Norm Letnick is questioning if the review is truly an open-minded approach or just an avenue for the NDP to impose its preferred ALR and Agricultural Land Commission policies.
“My hope is it will truly be a valuable exercise and their minds are not already made up on what will happen,” Letnick said.
Letnick, the Liberal MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country and past provincial agricultural minister, cited the past Liberal government’s review of the ALR, which sought input from across the province.
“We had a robust consultation process holding meetings in six different communities and received more than 100 presentations. It was led by input from the stakeholders, who to a large part were farmers,” Letnick said.
“This time the review committee is sitting for face-to-face meetings with hand-picked associations, and farmers are largely excluded from that, so I am a little skeptical of how thorough a review this will be for public input.”
The Liberal process led to the controversial creation of a Zone 2 under the ALR, which excluded the Okanagan, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island which were grouped together as Zone 1, to give more flexibility to permitted land use in larger Interior farm holdings.
“The NDP has been consistent in their opposition to that Zone 2 change and the agriculture minister has stated she would like to see a single ALR zone for the entire province, so now it appears she is fulfilling that commitment through this process,” Letnick said.
Speaking to Okanagan fruit growers last week, Popham explained the review’s objective is to make the ALR stronger than it has ever been.
“Corky Evans (long-time New Democrat MLA from the Kootenays) used to say the ALR was great for preserving agriculture farmland but did little to help farmers. So I want this review to look at everything today that was unforseen in developing after the ALR was established in the 1970s,” said Popham.
“I think a lot of the topics that come up in that process will be regionally based, but there are issues such as farm-worker housing and growing cannabis on ALR land that need to be addressed.”
Popham said she expects the review committee to have a report on her desk by the end of this summer with recommendations for her to pursue either through regulatory or legislative changes.
“We’ll decide then what to do next but I would anticipate those suggestions being put into effect over next fall and the following spring.”
Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis is one of nine people selected by Popham to serve on the advisory committee, the lone representative from the Okanagan-Thompson region.
Louis thinks he was chosen to sit on the committee to provide an Indigenous people’s perspective and his interest in expanding his own band’s agriculture production potential.
Louis said agriculture had been undergoing a slow death in recent years with the provincial and federal governments both gravitating more to promoting high-tech growth and raw resource extraction such as forestry and mining.
“It used to be a person would travel to the Okanagan and say stop in Vernon and you could find 14 or 15 fruit stands around. Now today, you are lucky if you can find one,” he said.
He said the ALR is one component of preserving the agriculture industry, but secondary and value-added product development along with continued marketing to find new international markets is equally important, said Louis.
“You can see how the Okanagan wine industry has evolved, winning awards and gaining international recognition. We can create that same thing with other agriculture products.
“It’s sad to see how our beef industry has been decimated in recent years. But you look at Australia selling beef to other countries, and it makes you wonder with the quality of beef produced in Western Canada, why aren’t we able to compete with them and other countries. Where are we? We are not even on the map.”
Louis said while the focus of late has been on the North America Free Trade Agreement, he noted that Canada has 88 trade agreements with different countries and regions of the world which offer an opportunity to export more agricultural products.
Letnick noted that every government since the NDP introduced the ALR legislation has attempted to enhance agricultural production in our province.
“Last year we saw record agricultural sales, profits, employment numbers, exports and domestic consumption, so we believed that according to the numbers we were headed in the right direction,” he said.
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