If you want to prepare a delicious meal you are well advised to consult a cookbook. I was reminded of this common sense recently when reviewing plans put out by the Ministry of Agriculture.
I’ve watched with great frustration over the past eight years as the Ministry of Agriculture has become a shell of what it once was. Many involved in agriculture agree that core ingredients are missing.
There used to be a Legislative Standing Committee for Agriculture that worked in a non-partisan way with farmers and experts across the province to generate new ideas and strong policy. The B.C. Liberals axed that back in 2001. I’ve been calling for it to be reinstated since I was first elected in 2009 but the current government prefers to listen to itself.
In response I created my own non-partisan Committee for Agriculture made up of six MLAs, including an independent legislator. We’ve travelled throughout B.C. holding public meetings, with more meetings planned for the future. We’ve listened carefully to hundreds of good ideas. We released our first report last year and are working on another for release before the end of this year. (Visit www.bcagcom.ca for more information.)
The most important part of any long-term food security plan is to protect the land which is best for crops and livestock. Regrettably, the most impactful thing done by the current government with respect to farming is to pass a law which severely compromised the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). They followed that up by firing the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission who had an extensive background in farming and a demonstrated commitment to strengthening agriculture in the province.
Recently the largest exclusion of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve in B.C.’s history was done in contravention of the law and in secrecy with zero public debate. In the push to create the Site C dam, more than 4,000 hectares of farmland was removed from the ALR by the stroke of a pen. This land is among the most fertile and potentially productive farmland in B,C. It could feed one million people in perpetuity. The government intends to flood it, destroying its agricultural potential forever.
Another indispensable part of an agricultural plan is having policies to promote farming. I am calling for a provincial procurement policy that would increase the amount of B.C. food purchased by B.C. public institutions. For example, if we created a policy that required just a fraction of food purchased for B.C. hospitals and long-term care facilities to be grown and processed in B.C. we would create a stable domestic agricultural economy and ensure B.C. has more food security in times of crisis. This single change would be the largest shift in agricultural policy in B.C. since the ALR was established. The money we would use is money we are already spending. In the Lower Mainland we spend $50 million on hospital meals alone. This change would have a massive multiplier effect, incenting food production and processing all over the province.
This type of policy is being used in other jurisdictions and it’s successful. Why do we not have that type of progressive policy in B.C.? The minister of agriculture doesn’t support it: he argues we shouldn’t dictate purchasing policy to hospitals. The public shouldn’t direct public institutions through policy? That makes no sense. Our tax dollars are currently spent to purchase out-of-province and out-of-county food products. Why would we not keep some of that in our province?
We are not going to strengthen agriculture in B.C. if we don’t restore the Ministry of Agriculture to a place of importance in the B.C. government. We need a commitment to long-term strategies that are resilient to global challenges like climate change and international instability. We can protect farmland, strengthen farming and ensure a local food supply, we just need the right recipe.
Lana Popham is the MLA for Saanich South.