BC’s food security faces unprecedented pressures as ex-Saanich mayor takes the reins of the ALC
by Michele Murphy, photo by Ed Johnson
Frank Leonard is back in the news this past May as the BC Liberal government appointed him the new chair and interim CEO of the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). The newly-defeated Saanich mayor comes to the new appointment without benefit of an agricultural background, but what he does have is experience juggling opposing priorities.
Leonard’s appointment comes on the heels of the controversial firing of passionate ALR champion Richard Bullock from the ALC board with just five months left to go on his contract.
The firing of Bullock has brought widespread objections and concerns from across the agricultural community, and many, including Bullock himself, say he was canned for doing the job of standing up for B.C.’s agricultural land too well.
The response from the agri-community was swift, passionate and critical. BC Agricultural Council chair, Stan Vander Waal, said that the council was sad to see Richard go and that “his knowledge of B.C. agriculture and his commitment to keep farmland for farming is second to none.”
Locally, the CRD’s food-security coalition, CR Fair, asked if Bullock’s firing was a result of him doing his job too well, while the chair of the Opposition Standing Committee for Agriculture and Food, Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, felt that the firing signified the BC Liberal government’s intent to continue the “war of BC’s agricultural land.”
“You really have to question what’s going on here,” she said. “Richard Bullock was widely respected by farmers across the province. Now he’s suddenly fired, without warning…. They didn’t like that the ALC chair was standing up for B.C.’s agricultural land, so they fired him. It’s that simple.”
The firing and hiring is part of a larger change-up to the protection and treatment of BC’s farmland. Bullock said in an interview with the Globe and Mail on May 14, 2015 that he was told that the government is headed in a different direction and that they thought they needed new leadership.
That different direction would be covered in Bill 24, the controversial new ALR legislation that was passed last year. Many, including the outspoken Bullock, feel that there has never been a larger threat to the much-coveted ALR act since the NDP government passed it through the legislature during its short tenure in the 70s.
The ALC act amendment bill sees the creation of regional boards to oversee regional planning as well as changes to the allowable land use of almost 90% of ALR land. It will
divide the ALR into two zones, and the commission will be required to provide more flexibility in land use in the larger zone allowing activities such as food processing and potential oil and gas development, including fracking. (Saanich and the Peninsula’s 16,800+ acres of ALR land all fall within zone one.)
Current Agriculture Minister Norm Letnik said he is comfortable that the new law will preserve farmland and ensure that “we have a strong ALC that is independent of politicians.” Others are not as comfy with it.
Richmond councillor and former NDP MLA, Harold Steves, considered to be the “Father of the ALR,” said of Bill 24, “It’s a way of gutting the Agricultural Land Reserve and pretending it’s still there.”
Bill 24 is not the only perceived threat to BC’s farmland. This spring it has come to light that thousands of hectares of BC farmland are being planted with trees to be used as carbon offsets by off-shore corporations. These carbon sinks include imposing a restrictive 100-year covenant on the ALR land. The ALC’s ability, and now willingness, to fight this or negate the loss of active food-producing land is in serious question.
To add to the list of ALR issues, the construction of the contentious Site C dam is scheduled to begin this summer amidst growing opposition to the project from several angles, not the least of which is the flooding of over 31,000 acres of agricultural land.
“I think we’ve got all sorts of things coming at us. First of all [is the pressure] to do all sorts of things on agricultural land that have absolutely nothing [to do] with agriculture and a lot to do with everything else…. And up there in the northeast, there’s huge issues with the oil and gas plays going on, on agricultural land,” said Bullock in his recent Globe interview
When asked to comment on the the multitude of pressures that the ALC will face, Leonard said, “I’m excited about the opportunity to do a great job for our province.”
Whether it’s the use of farmland for natural gas fracking, the pressures from industry and development to release ALR land, Site C, second-generation landowners wanting to develop urban farmland, the effects of California and Washington State droughts on BC’s food supply and costs (67 per cent of BC’s vegetables come from the US), or the new world of carbon offsets, Frank Leonard will have his hands full carrying out his mandate of preserving BC’s agricultural land and encouraging farming.
Juggling may be exactly the skill set that the new ALC chair needs.
FIND OUT MORE:
Harold Steves the Father of the ALR
Site C Dam: A Waste of Farmland
The BC Liberal Government Is Foolishly Moving To Allow Fracking On Farmland
Wake up Call: California Drought & B.C.’s Food Security
B.C. government fires outspoken chair of Agricultural Land Commission