Happy Birthday Agricultural Land Reserve
Next Steps for the ALR: Achieving Food Security for BC
The Agricultural Land Reserve gave British Columbia the potential for food security with two objectives: preserve farmland and encourage farming. Today, the second half of that goal remains unfulfilled. However, a study of the economics of small-scale farming points the way….
The Birth of the Agricultural Land Reserve
Forty-four years ago, on April 18, 1973, the BC Land Commission Act came into effect, with a mandate to form the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in British Columbia. Established by the newly-elected New Democratic Party government, and considered the most progressive legislation of its kind in North America, the Act created a provincial agriculture zone to protect BC’s limited cultivable lands from non-farming uses.
Despite British Columbia’s immense size, less than 5 percent of its land is suitable for growing food crops. The most fertile and productive lands are in valleys, which also contain most of the province’s urban population. In 1970, 20 percent of the fertile Fraser River Valley, adjacent to the city of Vancouver, was urbanized, with development claiming approximately 3,000 additional acres of farmland each year. Public concern over urban sprawl, food security, and provincial-wide farm preservation came together in the BC Land Commission Act.
The Act set up a commission which, working with local government, established a special land use zone—the Agricultural Land Reserve. The ALR had two main objectives: to preserve quality farmland in BC, and to encourage farming in the protected areas. By 1975, nearly 5 percent of BC’s best agricultural lands were protected inside the ALR.
ALR Impact on the Loss of Farmland
Before the Agricultural Land Reserve came into being, BC was losing farmland to urbanization at a rapid rate, with about 12,000 acres of prime arable land lost each year. After the creation of the ALR, the average estimated yearly loss of prime farmland declined to 1,200 acres per year.
As the conversion of farmland into urban sprawl visibly slowed over the next four decades, public support for the Agricultural Land Commission and its mission remained strong.
The Second ALR Objective: Encouraging Farming
While the creation of the ALR significantly slowed the loss of farmlands, the ALR’s second main objective, to develop active provincial programs to encourage farming, never reached fruition. This included projects to “enhance agricultural opportunities”—for example by purchasing land to rent to farmers on a career-long basis. These programs came to an abrupt end with the election of a conservative government in December 1975. They have yet to be re-introduced.
Can Farming Create High Value Economic Development in the ALR?
Today, as a consequence, much of of the Agricultural Land Reserve is underutilized for farming. Only the development of an economically healthy and environmentally sustainable agriculture sector in the ALR can prevent its ultimate conversion to urban and industrial use. Can this be done? Yes. And here’s how:
In 2010, the City of Surrey (pop. 516,000, in Greater Vancouver’s Lower Mainland) commissioned the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen University to assess specific ways to increase agricultural use of Surrey’s Agricultural Land Reserve. The study sought to answer the question: If underutilized ALR land were turned into small-scale agriculture, how much additional food could be produced? What kind of economic development would result? How much money and how much employment would be generated?
The researchers applied successful small-scale agricultural models to the data they gathered about the city’s ALR lands to determine what this program could produce for Surrey. The results were dramatic.
Calculating the Economic Value of Farming on ALR Land
The study showed that if the underutilized ALR land in Surrey were brought into small-scale farming production, it could satisfy 100 percent of Surrey’s consumption of 27 basic vegetables, fruits and animal products (potatoes, eggs, apples, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, carrots and more) for six months of the year. This new production could contribute over $183 million to Surrey’s economy and create as many as 1,600 new full-time equivalent jobs.
The Surrey’s Underutilized ALR Lands study showed that each acre of farmable ALR land dedicated to small-scale, human-intensive, direct market agriculture near urban areas can generate between $30,000 to $50,000 per acre.
The key, then, to the Agricultural Land Reserve’s survival is direct provincial support for small-scale, human-intensive, direct market farming.
The NDP’s Historic Mission: Renew the ALR
Forty-four years ago, a remarkably effective NDP government gave a gift of inestimable value to future generations of British Columbians: the potential for permanent food security. It is the historic mission of today’s New Democratic Party to revitalize the ALR and follow up its promise to create a sustainable renaissance in British Columbia’s agriculture.