Peter Ladner: Debate over agricultural land reserve is long overdue

By Peter Ladner

Diane Katz’s recent Fraser Institute study calling for the agricultural land reserve (ALR) to be dismantled is easy to dismiss out of hand.

Protecting the ALR has become close to a religion for lots of people: anyone challenging it is deemed an infidel and banned from the temple of orthodoxy. No policy that ties up 4.7 million hectares of land, including 21% of all the land in the Lower Mainland, should be above scrutiny, especially when it’s had such little effect on fixing agricultural woes. It hasn’t stopped the decline in owner-operated farms, it hasn’t increased the percentage of food being grown locally; it hasn’t resulted in more young farmers going into farming; it hasn’t stopped the decline in farmland dedicated to field crops and vegetables.

And even if it did stimulate more production of local food, Katz argues that locally produced food is neither healthier, safer, better tasting, environmentally friendlier nor more appealing to consumers than imported food. (I’ll leave that one for another discussion.)

There’s no doubt the ALR is a contributor to high residential land prices, with Vancouver being one of the least-affordable places to live in the world.

Given these problems, is dismantling the government-protected ALR the solution? Katz says it is.

“Ultimately, the preservation of farmland should be relegated to the private sector,” she said. “To the extent open space is valued, investors can be relied upon to supply it – in the absence of government interference.”

Is she serious? Who’s investing in permanent open space these days?

Katz’s open-it-up solution points to a sprawling suburban city, where all the people who want detached homes – and all the unpriced traffic congestion and pollution and obesity and free roads and long drives to the grocery store and sewer lines that come with them – can have them.

She ignores the work of groups like UBC professor Patrick Condon’s Sustainability by Design project, which mapped out complete compact communities for four million people in the Lower Mainland without stepping on any green space or agricultural land.

Nobody serious about maintaining and improving our food supply is suggesting that normal people are going to give up grains, coffee, chocolate and oranges any time soon because they can’t be grown locally. B.C.’s farmers depend on export markets for the bulk of their dwindling incomes. Free trade is our friend – but so is increased self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately, Katz refuses to acknowledge global changes that imperil the steady flow of imported food and the future of large-scale, centralized industrial agriculture. Nowhere in her study does she even mention the pending spikes in fossil-fuel costs, which affect not only transportation but all the fossil-fuel inputs – from the cost of manufacturing farm equipment to the mining, manufacturing and shipping of fertilizers, to the fuel for central processing plants, refrigeration and storage.

Nor does she acknowledge the rising temperatures, drought and depletion of unpriced water that is making the agricultural future of food exporters like California and Australia increasingly uncertain. Rising fuel prices also threaten the future of greenhouses that have shown great gains in productivity per acre – assuming they stay warm.

Katz’s punchline is that the ALR “deprives … the public [of] the tremendous benefits of markets.”

Indeed it does, just as zoning Stanley Park as forest deprives the public of the market benefits of selling the trees and taking advantage of all that waterfront for residential towers.

Once those farmlands are paved over, they’re gone, along with the option for future generations to gain more control of their food security.

Katz is absolutely right that we’re overdue for a debate about the future and usefulness of the ALR. Human ingenuity and market forces should be part of that future, but they’re no more sacred than today’s ALR boundaries.

Peter Ladner: pladner at biv dot com: (this e-mail address is being protected from spambots // <![CDATA[// <![CDATA[
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