The way farmland is managed in British Columbia and across Canada is being put under the microscope in a three-year study that will involve nine researchers from six different universities.
The biggest cities in Canada are where the best farmland is, said David Connell, an associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, and that has led to constant and increasing pressure to develop agricultural land for golf courses, condominiums and shopping malls – or rodeo grounds, as happened this year in Fort St. John, B.C.
"How important is the preservation of our best farmland to the public in B.C. and to citizens of communities across Canada?" he asked. "Are local, provincial and federal bodies implementing policies that reflect the priorities of citizens? We are going to try to measure that [in the research project]."
Dr. Connell, who is leading the study, said a flurry of news reports over the past week about a controversial cabinet proposal to strip B.C.'s Agricultural Land Commission of most its power is a reminder of the high level of public interest in the pressures at play in the management of farmland.
The rodeo development on farmland in northeastern B.C., which includes a parking lot and seating for 3,000, was news this week because it was supported by B.C. Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm, even though the ALC rejected an application to withdraw the land from the province's Agricultural Land Reserve.
"Ultimately in the end, we're trying to look at how to strengthen policies and regulations that protect farmland," Dr. Connell said.
He said the ongoing debate in B.C. about whether the ALC adequately protects prime agricultural land, or unfairly hinders development, is reflected nationally.
In a written description of the research project, Dr. Connell makes it clear that developers have largely been winning the debate, because the data show farmland dwindling dramatically.
"In spite of efforts over the past 40 years, Canada has experienced a continual loss of prime farmland across the country," he wrote. "Since 1971, urban activities have been responsible for the conversion of 12,000 square kilometres of farmland, roughly twice the size of Prince Edward Island. ... The issue is especially acute in Ontario, which contains the country's largest supply of prime agricultural lands, but has been documented elsewhere, including Alberta and B.C."
Dr. Connell said there is pressure on agricultural land throughout B.C., but the area of greatest impact is in the Fraser Valley.
British Columbia has about 4.7 million hectares in its Agricultural Land Reserve, which was established in 1973. The Agricultural Land Commission, which oversees the ALR, gets 500 to 800 requests for withdrawals of farmland a year, approving the removal of about 500 hectares, while adding land through reviews.
The B.C. Liberal government says it has added more than 39,000 net hectares to the ALR over the past decade, but Dr. Connell said researchers need to look beyond that number.
"The quality of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve has decreased, with more prime farmland ... being excluded than being included," he said. "Likewise, most of the additions to the ALR have taken place in northern B.C., where growing conditions and soil quality are not as good. This means that the best farmland in the Lower Mainland is being replaced with less productive land in the north. So while it looks like the total amount of farmland has not changed, the quality of the land has deteriorated."
Dr. Connell said the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council provided $464,000 for the research, selecting the project from 1,799 submissions from across Canada.