Parties offer competing visions of ag future

by TAMARA LEIGH

MAY 2017 | VICTORIA – Agriculture took a surprising spin in the public spotlight before the writ even dropped for the provincial election this year. The BC Green Party took advantage of the calm before the storm to put forward the party’s first attempt at a cohesive agriculture policy. The BC NDP quickly followed, releasing its agriculture plan well ahead of the main party platform.









One could say that the BC Liberals had already released their platform in Budget 2017 in February, and judging by the muted platform released in April, they are campaigning on a hold-the-course strategy.

“Go back to last year’s strategic plan for agriculture and seafood. That is the five- year plan that we are trying to put into action, and so far we have had great success,” says Norm Letnick (Kelowna-Lake Country) with the comfort that comes with being the sitting agriculture minister.

Letnick rarely misses a beat, referencing ministry statistics and strategic plans with ease. He’s a known commodity in BC agriculture, having held office as Minister of Agriculture for four years.

Lana Popham (Saanich South) has led the agriculture file for the NDP for the past eight years. This election, her party has laid out a hands-on strategy to shift the provincial emphasis on agriculture from exports to securing the domestic market.

“For the BC NDP, it’s really important to change the cycle of agriculture policy that has been created by the current government where the promises, policy changes and funding commitments all work on an election cycle,” says Popham. “The goal of our plan is to create a long-term agriculture plan that takes the main focus off of international trade and refocuses on the domestic market and domestic supply and demand.”

While the NDP support international trade and developing export markets, they are keen to capitalize on what Popham characterizes as “a missed opportunity” in not doing more to develop real demand in domestic markets.

The NDP’s big policy plan is Feed BC, a commitment that would require hospitals to spend a third of their food budget on BC products.

“This is a game changer,” says Popham. “As a whole province we can aim towards specific crop planning once we sit down with the institutions. Growers would know they need to supply so many pounds, and it may incent processors to grow their processing further.”

Popham sees opportunities for BC fruit, vegetable, cheese and even hazelnut producers expanding to meet the needs of roughly 100 hospitals in communities across the province.

“For processors, if you were going to get a contract with the BC hospital system, you would have to source 100% BC product,” she says, adding that one of the trickle-down effects of the policy she hopes to see is the expansion of processing capacity into different regions and rural communities.

“The opportunities are enormous. It can be an economic driver right across the province.”

The Liberals have been critical of the NDP, claiming they neglect export markets and trade agreements. At the same time, they have been defending their own record on domestic marketing.

“It’s a balance, not only exports,” says Letnick. “If you look at the 49 action steps in the five-year plan, the majority are focused on domestic growth and domestic food security. These actions taken in concert between domestic consumption, processing and export will make a stronger agri-food sector.”

Letnick points to the BC Buy Local program and the recently announced Eat Drink Local initiative with the BC Restaurant Association, as well as the commitment to invest an additional half-million dollars in the Grow Local program which provides funding to community agriculture projects as examples of diversifying the domestic market.

“We also need to diversify markets away from the United States,” says Letnick, expressing his concern about the Trump administration “tweaking” of NAFTA, and underlining the importance of trade agreements with other countries.

“I don’t know how anyone can say they support agriculture in BC and vote against the TPP.”

The BC Greens take the focus even further from the international stage to focus on supporting small, local agriculture to build a more resilient food system.

“When you look at global food systems, you begin to realize how tenuous the food system is, especially when looking at global climate change and it's impact on the areas that grow our food,” says Kim Charlesworth (Nelson- Creston), the Greens’ lead on agriculture and the only one of the three candidates who doesn't sit in the legislature. “It makes sense to build resiliency in BC around that. Let’s actually focus on supporting agriculture to become the backbone of rural economic development.”

Their platform pledges $30 million to expand food production to increase food security in BC, including incentives to produce food on ALR land, establishing agricultural apprenticeship programs and increasing awareness of BC produce and products for BC consumers.

The Liberals are committing increased productivity on agricultural land by bringing 91,000 hectares of land into production. Some of that land will likely be accounted for by part of the $5 million pledged to the BC Tree Fruit industry for a replant program in the Okanagan Valley.

The NDP’s land use strategy falls under the banner of Grow BC. The party pledges to revitalize the Agricultural Land Commission and return it to a one-zone system with a single provincial panel, dismantling the six-region system the Liberals implemented.

The Greens promise new legislation to limit speculation on agricultural land as well as cracking down on non-agricultural uses.

There are points that give parts of the industry pause in each platform:

The Liberal’s commitment to ban neonicotinoids to protect pollinators has raised concerns in some parts of the industry, though Letnick says they will only act if Health Canada changes its requirements.

The NDP’s commitment to raise the carbon tax from $30 to $50 per tonne has raised some eyebrows, but Popham says the NDP is aware of the needs of the farming community and will maintain current exemptions for agricultural users. That takes some of the pinch out of the increase, though it can still be expected to increase input costs.

The Greens’ “Right to Roam” Act, allowing the public to cross private land to access public lands, rivers, streams and lakes, is causing consternation among some landowners. Livestock owners have expressed concern about farm animal safety and biosecurity risks.

There are also shiny promises:

The NDP have made a new BC Food Innovation Centre part of its plan to grow agriculture, particularly the processing sector.

“BC is one of the only provinces that doesn't have a food innovation centre,” says Popham, who estimates that it would take a $20 million investment to get the centre off the ground.

“This really focuses on jobs. Food processing and the technology that gets developed around food processing in other provinces is a real economic generator, but for some reason we send everyone out of BC to go and figure out how they should make their product.”

The Liberals have committed $5 million to building a new ‘Agriplex’ in Comox. The event centre would be the largest multi-purpose venue north of Nanaimo.

The Greens have committed an ambitious $40 million to fund research and establish regional agricultural bureaus to support local farmers to adapt to climate change.

Whoever forms the next government will sign off on the next federal-provincial-territorial agriculture framework agreement. With much of the work already done on consultations and setting priorities, it will be up to the next government to close the deal.

While the NDP have not been at the negotiating table, Lana Popham says it is committed to making sure no money is left on the table. In addition, the NDP will strengthen the linkages and potential funding from other ministries like health and emergency preparedness.

According to Letnick, the strength of the BC economy under the Liberals has put BC in a strong position at the negotiating table and they will be willing to step up provincial funding to meet any federal increase in investment.

“BC is there with full commitment to match whatever federal government dollars come to the new framework,” he says. “I have the green light to increase our contribution to the new framework if the federal government increases theirs. The agriculture sector can count on a BC Liberal government to meet that commitment.”


Vol.103 Issue 5
MAY 2017

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