Fruit farming, including this orchard in Summerland, is a significant part of the British Columbia economy. (Summerland Review file photo)

COLUMN: Measures needed for agricultural sector

Provincial decisions are affecting farming and farmland

At the end of January, 2020 the provincial government released the B.C. Food Security Task Forces report: Future of B.C.’s Food System.

The task force, consisting of three members appointed by the premier, stated that B.C. can become “a preferred jurisdiction for farmers and agriculture-related businesses” by following four steps:

• rethinking B.C.s approach to agriculture and food production by adopting the United Nations sustainable development goals

• taking steps to foster innovation and agritech development

• equipping future agricultural leaders with the necessary skills and knowledge to keep B.C. competitive

• creating specific agricultural-industrial zones within the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) to both increase food security and develop a thriving agritech industry

READ ALSO: COLUMN: Efforts preserve and promote local agriculture

READ ALSO: ‘Underwhelming’ support for agriculture industry: BC Fruit Growers’ Association

Later in the report the task force provides some detail on the fourth step by recommending that “up to a quarter of a percent of the Agricultural Land Reserve be made available for agricultural-industrial activities at the discretion of a commissioner of agricultural-industrial lands.”

The recommendation is not to remove this land from the land reserve. However, once industrial buildings with concrete floors are erected on farmland, the opportunity for field-grown crops is lost forever.

This seemingly inconsequential area (0.25 per cent) is approximately 11,500 hectares.

Equally noteworthy, is that the Food Security Task Force neither included the Agricultural Land Commission in their stakeholder consultations nor will the land commission be part of the decision about where the agri-industrial zones will be located.

Further, the land commission was not consulted before the May 1, 2020 appointment of additional Ministry of Agriculture staff to lead the implementation of the fourth step.

The appointment announcement references the impacts of COVID-19 on food security as a reason for the decision. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food security is defined as existing “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Certainly, the pandemic has brought food security to the forefront. There are, to name a few: interrupted production at meat and frozen fruit processing plants as workers fall ill; a scramble to safely shelter domestic workers who (along with temporary foreign workers) are the backbone of the Okanagan agriculture sector; disruptions in food distribution and delivery; and consumer panic buying.

Each of these issues have, in part, brought to light the fragility of our food system.

While there is an increased understanding of this issue, there is also increased concern from some experts in the agriculture sector who question the findings and recommendations of the B.C. Food Security Task Force.

The Institute for Sustainable Food Systems submitted their concerns about the recommendations in The Future of B.C.s Food System in their Response to Findings and Recommendations of the B.C. Food Security Task Force earlier this year.

The land commission also sent a letter to the government expressing serious concerns with the task force recommendations and requesting that they be consulted prior to a decision being made.

Then, in a May 19, 2020 open letter to Premier Horgan and to Minister of Agriculture, 23 individuals — including several former provincial ministers and provincial staff, UBC, UNBC and SFU faculty, two members of the Agricultural Land Reserve/ALC Revitalization Committee, farmers, several former ALC members and food policy analysts — wrote they are “extremely concerned about the impact on agricultural land and the farming community of government’s decision to implement Recommendation #4.”

All British Columbians can be considered stakeholders in this valuable natural asset.

Whether the land is used for food production, forage, grazing and/or traditional food gathering, we all share an interest in agriculture.

After all, we all eat.

Summerland council will be receiving a delegation from Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems on June 8 to learn more about their response to the Task Force recommendations.

It is my hope that all willing voices step up to be heard during a provincial consultation and engagement process. Whatever your opinion, we all deserve to be heard before decisions are made by the provincial government to table legislation on implementing the Food Security Task Force’s recommendations.

Toni Boot is the mayor of Summerland.

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