I’m a passionate advocate for protecting agricultural land. And I’m pleased to be able to work with Minister Lana Popham to strengthen the Agricultural Land Commission Act.
But, within the ALC Act is a critical gap with respect to wetlands, water quality (and volume) and protecting our watersheds.
Currently the ALC Act allows for, and encourages, draining wetlands to increase access to agricultural production. As droughts increase in frequency and severity we are going to have to protect our watersheds with the same level of vigour as we protect food producing land.
There is no question these conflicts test us. I had the opportunity to ask Minster of Agriculture, Hon. Lana Popham, about these issues.
In recognition of World Water Day last week, I stand to ask about an issue that has long troubled me.
For the most part, the ALR protects arable land from urban sprawl. But within its laudable and important purpose, it contains a critical environmental flaw. The ALC Act allows and encourages the draining and filling of ALR land. While this may provide agricultural benefit, it can also destroy wetlands that have immense ecological value. They are critical to our ecological circulatory system, storing and filtering water and controlling volume and quality in our watersheds. There are no provisions within the ALC Act that allow these values to be recognized on agricultural land.
My question is to the Minister of Agriculture. We agree with the critical importance of protecting and defending food-producing land, but we must ensure that agricultural activities are not jeopardizing other important ecological habitats. Has the minister considered implementing regulations to support the preservation of other ecological values on ALR land?
Hon. L. Popham:
Thank you for the very important question from the member.
Our government knows that wetlands provide a critical habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife and, in fact, make up about 5 percent of our land base in this province. We know how important it is to have healthy wetlands. Often these wetlands are in an agricultural setting.
I’ve been very happy to be working with and hearing about programs where ranchers and farmers are actually embracing the idea of having natural ecosystems working with their farms and, in fact, making a healthier farming setting as well.
I’d be happy to talk to the member about a specific program called Farmland Advantage that’s happening up in the Cariboo area. Basically, it took a wetland that had been farmed for quite some time. There were not very many wild birds or animals in this wetland area. The farmer embraced that and has now brought back those critical birds and animals into that area. He’s also an incredible rancher. And so there are ways that we can work together with agricultural and natural areas, and I’m really happy to have that conversation with the member.
Member, Saanich North and the Islands on a supplemental.
Thank you to the minister. The governance of the ALR needs to recognize that ecological values are valuable to society and should also be protected. I’m happy to hear the example of the individual that’s taken this, but I think that it’s important that it’s captured within the governance of the ALR.
For thousands of years, these wetlands were an essential part of the local landscape. It’s a place where animals, birds and plants thrive, as the minister acknowledged. It’s an ancient supermarket of sorts for my WSÁNEĆ ancestors that harvested foods and materials there that were important for their quality of life.
But there’s a problem with the incentives. There’s a constant battle with nature that could easily be solved if the preservation of specific ecological values were given tax credits like the production of the small amount that is currently captured within the legislation. Maintaining wetland habitats should be recognized as an allowed non-farm use, and draining wetlands should require explicit permission from the ALC.
My question is to the Minister of Agriculture. Will she consider looking at the incentive structures provided to farmers in B.C. in relation to preserving ecological values on ALR land?
Hon. L. Popham:
Point taken by the member. It’s an excellent point. I think there’s been more and more discussion about the value of ecological goods and services with agricultural land in natural areas. The Agricultural Land Commission does recognize the importance of wetlands, and that is why there are functioning wetlands that are happening on agricultural land reserve farms right now. We also have an environmental farm plan program through my ministry that works with farmers who want to work with these wetlands and natural areas. So let’s have a chat. Let’s have coffee later, and we can discuss how we can make that work better.