COVID-19 has uncovered many existential risks in our society and economy. One significant area of concern raised by my constituents and British Columbians from across the province is our food supply.
There is a strong desire that we double down on the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that British Columbians have access to resilient local supply chains that can deliver consistent, safe and affordable food.
In this Budget Estimates session with Minister Lana Popham I ask about these emerging issues as well as the recommendations of the Food Security Task Force, specifically the creation and expansion of agri-tech within the recommendations of their final report.
I provided many more questions to Minister Popham in writing and I look forward to her written responses.
Good day to the member for Saanich South, the Minister of Agriculture. It’s nice to unite Saanich here in these budget estimates. I guess the bitumen that is steaming through or railing through the member for Abbotsford West’s riding will be floating through our ridings very soon.
Anyhow, I would like to start my questioning of the minister just around food security. I know that this is an issue that we both hold very highly in our work. We’ve talked about this quite a bit, Minister. And with COVID-19 and the pandemic-related issues and disruptions in access, availability and safety of our food, it’s become an issue for many of our constituents across the province.
A couple of questions I’ll start off with here first. How do the minister and the ministry define food security? And to what level has the ministry been tracking disruptions of the food supply with respect to the most recent impacts due to COVID-19?
Hon. L. Popham:
It’s absolutely good to see my colleague from the other end of the peninsula.
How does the ministry define food security? As the member knows, and in discussions that we’ve had, that’s not a completely simple question to answer. It’s a complex term, and it’s used by many people for many different reasons. The ministry considers Agriculture’s role as working towards food supply security and helping B.C. producers and processors to grow and process more food, making more food available to our British Columbian consumers. We’re working with our colleagues across ministries because, as the member also knows, it’s not just a Ministry of Agriculture matter.
The disruptions. We’ve seen consumers be very alarmed when they’ve gone to the grocery stores over the pandemic months, and they’ve seen some of the products they purchase not being there. The shelves were bare. So what we saw from that was a reaction by consumers to over-buy products. And in fact, we didn’t have a supply issue. We actually had an overpurchasing issue, or an overenthusiastic consumer purchasing issue.
That being said, we’ve been tracking and supporting the movement of B.C. food to consumers and markets throughout this entire disruption, and we’ve been working to identify possible pressures on B.C.’s food supply chain. We’ve made sure that we’ve done that to ensure continued B.C. food safety and supply. But as the member knows from our conversation, the labour has probably stood out to be one of the biggest factors in our food security here in the province over the last few months and continuing over the summer.
We have taken many measures to ensure…. It’s not just our primary producers who have been in contact with us relaying any of the concerns that they have. We’ve been in contact with our food processors and our fishers. Over the last few months, we’ve made well over 6,000 contacts with the entire sector in British Columbia. That includes consumer groups and retail outlets as well.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. I guess as COVID-19 hit us, in the spring of 2020…. We’re going to be working through the summer, through the late summer–early fall harvest.
Recognizing that a second wave could come, could very well extend and is likely to extend into the late fall and winter, there have been a number of people that have raised issues with me about the concern that what we see right now might not be the biggest issue, that what is coming might be even a bigger issue.
Does the minister and the ministry have any sense of the stability and security of our food supply heading into the later months of this year and early 2021?
Hon. L. Popham:
Thanks for the question. To the member: we are keeping an eye on any complications that are arising because of the pandemic. As I have mentioned, labour is a big issue. Our cherry growers have seen sort of a double whammy this year. They’ve had enormous challenges because of weather, and on top of that, we’ve had some labour shortages. There are issues like that that continue to come up. With agriculture, though, every year we do see some kind of challenge.
Because we have such a remarkable and strong supply management system in British Columbia — for things that consumers rely on like eggs and milk, turkey, a lot of our meat products — we do see that that system is solid. It had a bit of a challenge adjusting to the change in demand and supply, but that got sorted out. We do have that as a very strong part of the food system in British Columbia, but we also know that there has been a lot of great success this year in growing vegetables that need more moisture, because we’ve had such a wet summer so far.
I think we’re on track to making sure that we’re growing what we need, but as the member also knows, we only provide between 40 and 45 percent of what we need here in British Columbia. A lot of the role of this ministry over the last three years has been to figure out not only how to increase domestic sales but how to produce more food in general.
We consider the domestic market a part of a very strong foundation in our food security goals. Previously there has been more of a focus put on the international market, but we can see that when something like a health disruption happens, like COVID-19, those markets crash immediately. So we do see growers that have lost those international markets. It’s been our argument that those markets are great when they can happen, but we need to make sure that our domestic markets are increased.
That’s really what we’ve been doing with our Grow B.C., Feed B.C. and Buy B.C. platform.
Thank you to the minister. I think Ryan Vantreight was the one that always reminded me of the rule of toos: “Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry; it’s always too something.” To the last comment the minister just made with respect to what we supply, I think 40 percent was the number that you quoted — meaning that a majority of the food that we consume comes from somewhere else. I think that that is to the point of a lot of the constituents that I have.
All of our constituents, from across the province, have raised the concern about the reliance on food imports and that a continued supply must continue to flow. What role does your ministry play in the import side? I recognize, and hold up, the work that you’re doing to try to increase the amount of domestic supply. What role does your ministry play in terms of the food imports?
Hon. L. Popham:
That’s a really good question. Actually, the provincial ministry doesn’t really have a role on the imports. That’s more of a federal government jurisdiction. When it comes to labelling of products, etc., it falls under the federal minister’s role, but we do sit at a table, right now about every two weeks, at the minister’s level, all ministers from across Canada and the federal minister, including the territories. Then my deputies also sit on federal-provincial-territorial deputy committees. I guess that’s where we would have input or hear of any breaking news that way, but as a ministry ourselves, provincially, we don’t have a role on imports.
Thank you to the minister for that response. It highlights, I think, the importance of the work to increase the percentage of domestic supply for British Columbians. I think it probably highlights, also, the sense of urgency that our constituents have when it comes to ensuring that a local food supply is available to them.
Just shifting gears a little bit here, talking about the work that the ministry did with respect to the Food Security Task Force report that was released earlier this year. I’ve had the benefit of having an initial, very high-level conversation with the minister on that. I just want to ask a few questions here in budget estimates.
Does the minister, or the ministry, believe that increasing agricultural technology…? Actually, let me ask this question. In the new agricultural technology and land secretariat that I think was recommendation No. 4, to create a new agritech area, the minister has created a deputy minister’s role.
Can the minister please provide some more information around who else is involved in the secretariat? What’s the plan for the secretariat? Why is it that the decision was made to use agricultural land rather than industrial or commercial land as part of the recommendation that your ministry is currently investigating?
Hon. L. Popham:
Thanks for the question. I think the first part of the question was: who’s involved in the secretariat? In addition to Deputy Minister Shoemaker, the secretariat is made up of a small team of public servants who have been reassigned on a priority basis. The secretariat’s working closely with my ministry, of course, and other ministries to ensure a cross-government collaboration.
The idea behind the secretariat is to investigate any of the challenges or barriers in growing the agri-tech sector in British Columbia. There’s a lot of agri-tech that’s already being used here in B.C. in many different parts of the sector, and there’s a lot of interest globally in agri-tech. To be clear, the recommendations that were put forward were just something for us to investigate and think about. The secretariat is looking at all types of land, including industrial land, to support opportunities to grow the agri-tech sector.
One interesting thing that happened over the last week…. I’m not sure if the member saw it in the news. There is a proposal out in Abbotsford for a quite large agri-tech park to be built, and that is not in the agricultural land reserve. So we see ideas like this coming up. We also know that in other regions of British Columbia, there may be industrial land that is available but has had a change in direction.
So there are a lot of things that we’re looking at. We’re trying to map out what agri-tech is already here, maybe what’s needed and what sort of supports need to be in place to attract companies to British Columbia. But it’s all in the investigation stage, and I have confidence that Deputy Minister Wes Shoemaker will come back with a lot of good information.
Thank you to the minister for that response. To the Member for Delta South, I’ve got one last…. Well, I’ve got several questions, but I’ve got one last question that I will ask on the record.
Before that, I will just ask that the minister…. We’ve presented the questions that we had to your ministry. There’s a series of questions that you’ll see there around the concerns that have been raised to us, and I’m certain that they’ve been raised to your ministry. In fact, I think I’ve just been carbon copied on the emails that you’ve received directly to your ministry with respect to the interaction between this new agri-tech zone, the ALR, the ALC and all of those aspects.
So perhaps we can either have a meeting outside of this or a written response just to how the ministry intends on dealing with those — I’d say conflicts, but I don’t know that it necessarily has to been seen as a conflict — interactions that are going to happen if agri-tech is going to happen on ALR land, noting, of course, that there are a lot of brownfield sites around the province, and there are a lot of other opportunities where those opportunities can be played out.
I’d also just note that there was a proposal that came to us in the B.C. Green Caucus a number of months ago with respect to closed-containment fish farms on land — on a brownfield site — that would technically, I think, fit within this agri-tech umbrella.
I’m just trying to throw together as many of my questions in one statement as possible. But I’ll just end with this, Minister, and thank our colleagues in the official opposition for giving us this opportunity here today.
You did mention that there were a handful of other recommendations that were made by the Food Security Task Force. They included an agri-tech incubator, an accelerator program, an agri-tech institute and then, as well, aligning the agricultural activities with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. I’d just love to get your feedback or your response to those other recommendations and the work that’s potentially underway to investigate those opportunities as well.
Hon. L. Popham:
Thanks to the member for the questions and so appreciate the questions in writing. So we will commit to responding in writing and then absolutely interested in having a briefing after that on any aspect of any parts of the estimates process that we’ve gone through, but specifically on the Food Security Task Force, if that’s what the member is interested in.
I just wanted to say that there have been no decisions made to create a new land use zone and specifically not on the ALR. It’s a possible option to create a land use zone, but it’s not the only option. That’s what Deputy Minister Shoemaker has been tasked to investigate. There will be a close collaboration with the Agricultural Land Commission and the secretariat. I hope that reassures the member that that lens of agriculture will be used in decision-making, and it aligns with our core values to protect farmland and to bring it into production.
I think I’ve answered most of the member’s question. If not, we can respond more in writing on that as well. But you can expect to have our response in writing by next week.