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Poll: Majority of British Columbians See Farmland as Vital to Public as Forests and Water

More than four out of five respondents to a public opinion poll released Wednesday believe that B.C. farmland — like forests and water — is a vital public asset.

In addition, 82 per cent of those responding also indicated that “selling out the [Agricultural Land Reserve] ALR is a failure of leadership and a betrayal of the public trust.”

As many as 76 per cent of those taking part in the poll said the ALR protects farms, valleys and greenspace for wildlife habitat and recreational enjoyment.

Laws protecting the ALR should be strengthened or maintained, according to 71 per cent of respondents.

The poll — BC Public Attitudes Toward Agriculture and Food 2014 — also showed 58 per cent of respondents believed “there are no acceptable reasons for removing any more farmland from the Agricultural Land Reserve anywhere in B.C.”

The province-wide online poll was sponsored by the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia and the Vancouver Foundation. Carried out by McAllister Opinion Research, the survey canvassed 1,704 B.C. residents aged 18 and over between July 17-29. The sample is considered accurate to within ±2.36 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The two foundations said they commissioned the study to inform discussion and decisions on the future of the ALR, a provincial land-use zone that protects farmland and land with potential to be farmed. The ALR currently makes up 5 per cent of B.C’s land base.

Pollster and president of McAllister Opinion Research, Angus McAllister, told DeSmog Canada that British Columbians have always been supportive of the ALR.

"Support for maintaining or even expanding the Agricultural Land Reserve is very high, especially among older voters,” McAllister said. “However, this support is really nothing new.”

“B.C. voters have always expressed strong support for the ALR, regardless of political stripe.”

He added, “what is striking this time however, is the strong linkage between public discomfort with changes in the ALR and rising concerns about food security.”

McAllister said concern over contaminated food imports plays a role in local support for B.C. farmland and food production. “Concerns about…food products imported from countries like Mexico and China are higher than I've seen in 15 years,” he said. “Concerns around the food supply are hard-wired to some very basic survival instincts, and that is never something to ignore."

The survey was conducted after Bill 24 — The Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act — was passed in the B.C. Legislature in May. Essentially, Bill 24 split the 40-year-old ALR into two zones.

Zone 1 consists of the Fraser and Okanagan Valleys and southern Vancouver Island, an area representing about 10 per cent of the original ALR. According to the Liberal government, decisions in Zone 1 will continue to be made on the basis of the original principle of preserving agricultural land.

Zone 2 covers the rest of B.C., the government says, where growing seasons are shorter and there are lower value crops. In Zone 2 “decisions will now, in addition to the original principle, include additional considerations to provide farmers with more flexibility to support their farming operations.”

Critics have pointed out that Bill 24 threatens critical farmland by opening up previously protected areas to non-agricultural uses, including oil and gas development.

In August farmers from the Kootenay region demonstrated outside the B.C. legislature, saying they hadn’t been consulted on the changes.

Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist with 40 years experience in public policy and agricultural politics told DeSmog Canada Bill 24 “opens the door for Site C,” a controversial megadam project that will impact 13,000 hectares of farmland in the ALR if approved.

With the changes made under Bill 24, “the land reserve will be considered toothless,” Holm said.

“There’s tremendous potential in the north,” she added. “There’s enough land to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for a million people.”

Among those organizations criticizing the passage of Bill 24 was the BC Food Systems Network.

“We are, of course, deeply disappointed in the passage of Bill 24 and this closure to the huge outcry from the B.C. public to protect farmland in our province,” Abra Brynne, BC Food Systems co-chair, said in a statement.

Farmland advocates fear changes from Bill 24 will increase the price of farmland for young farmers and will also increase the removal of viable farmland for commercial, industrial and real estate development, the statement said.

“This would result in reduced capacity for provincial food security in the face of climate change, as well as increased reliance of imported food, concerns over safe and sustainable agricultural practices in other jurisdictions, and increased food prices due to rising transportation costs.”

The poll released Wednesday also showed that respondents identified, when asked about the priority uses for land in British Columbia, “natural freshwater systems” (83 per cent), closely followed by “farming and growing food” (81 per cent).

It also showed that 80 per cent of respondents were concerned about dependence on other countries for our food security. In addition, 73 per cent said the ALR is a cornerstone of food security and the B.C. economy.

In a media release accompanying the poll findings, Jack Wong, CEO of the Real Estate Foundation of BC, said local, sustainable food systems are a priority issue for the foundation because of the link between food security and community well-being.

“With challenges such as development pressure on agricultural land and changing weather patterns, it is of vital importance to have forward-thinking policies that protect land for growing food, now and for future generations.” Wong was quoted as saying.

Kevin McCort, CEO of Vancouver Foundation, said the survey demonstrates that British Columbians believe strongly in safeguarding our farms and green spaces to ensure long-term health, well-being and resilience in our communities.

“The Agricultural Land Reserve is a vital public asset contributing to our ability to reliably produce fresh food, preserve local farmland and freshwater supplies, and to support local B.C. farmers and ranchers,” McCort said.

Image Credit: B.C. farmland by Kris Krug via Flickr

Chris Rose is a journalist and communications consultant. Born in Vancouver, his interests include politics, history, demographics, the economy, the…

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