03 Feb Alberta’s Agricultural Lands: A Policy Toolbox for Moving from Conversion to Conservation
Alberta’s Agricultural Lands: A Policy Toolbox for Moving from Conversion to Conservation
Now Available:Alberta’s Agricultural Lands A Policy Toolbox
for Moving from Conversion to Conservation
by Brenda Heelan Powell
Published January 2021
In anticipation of our forthcoming publication Alberta’s Agricultural Lands: A Policy Toolbox for Moving from Conversion to Conservation, the ELC will be presenting a webinar highlighting the findings in that publication. Alberta’s current approach is not working to conserve high value agricultural lands. Changes are needed to counteract the drivers of agricultural land conversion and to foster effective incentives and support for maintaining the viability of agriculture on the land base.
Conserving Agricultural Lands, Sustaining Ecological Services
Our forthcoming publication focuses on the policy tools that can be used to conserve high quality agricultural lands which are those lands that – due to soil, water and climatic conditions – are most suited for crop production or grazing activities. There are social, economic and environmental consequences to fragmentation and loss of agricultural lands. One of the underlying motivations for securing the existing agricultural base is to avoid the conversion of agricultural lands to developed uses and pushing agricultural activities onto other landscapes thereby imparting natural habitats and biodiversity.
Once land is secured, then promoting or mandating sustainable and regenerative agriculture is imperative to sustain ecological services. Although our forthcoming publication is focused on the tools to conserve agricultural lands, it is important to acknowledge that not all agricultural uses are created equally or are necessarily beneficial from a perspective of sustaining ecological services.
The Primary Policy Toolbox: Land Use Planning
How do we stop the loss and fragmentation of agricultural lands? The primary set of tools for conserving agricultural lands is centred on land use planning. Alberta currently has land use planning tools, at both municipal and regional levels, that with appropriate policy direction could be used to avoid fragmentation and conversion of agricultural lands. However, our review of systems for conserving agricultural lands, the most effective approach for securement purposes is to establish an regulated agricultural reserve (also called a greenbelt). This is borne out in other jurisdictions that have taken this approach.
In Alberta a regulated agricultural reserve (and accompanying rural-urban buffer zone) would require new legislation. Within the agricultural reserve, land use would be restricted to agricultural activities (including ranching). The rural-urban buffer zone would allow a broader range of activities associated with agricultural activities such as food processing, agricultural service businesses, and agricultural parks. Acceptable activities, along with clear legislated targets and goals, would be defined in the legislation. As well, the legislation would establish an Agricultural Lands Commission which proactively engages in planning for agricultural lands and fostering agricultural lands on a provincial level. This would include approval of municipal and regional planning to ensure compliance with the agricultural reserve and rural-urban buffer requirements. This approach puts policy paramountcy on planned securement of high valued agricultural lands.
Although not as effective at securing agricultural lands, alternative approaches to establishing a legislated agricultural reserve do exist and could be achieved through current legislation (albeit applied with more than the current level of intention and direction).
One alternative is to mandate municipal assessment and conservation of agricultural lands using Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) regional planning. This involves development of binding agricultural sub-regional plans under ALSA. This approach would require a clear, legislated requirement for municipalities to protect agricultural lands in their land-use planning and decision-making. Regulations defining and specifying the parameters to identify agricultural lands for protection would be required, as well as requiring such lands be zoned for exclusive agricultural use.
Although in theory all lands in Alberta should be subject to ALSA regional plans, this is not the reality. In light of incomplete regional planning (which would enable agricultural sub-regional plans), another alternative to an agricultural reserve approach is mandating municipal assessment and conservation of agricultural lands using inter-municipal planning under the Municipal Government Act (MGA). There are three inter-municipal planning tools under the MGA: growth plans prepared by growth management boards, inter-municipal development plans and inter-municipal collaboration frameworks. Of these three, growth plans are likely the best suited to achieve agricultural lands conservation because they encompass several municipalities and are enforceable. In addition, growth plans require Ministerial approval which makes them less amenable to amendment than other forms of municipal planning. However, this does not mean growth plans will always be enforced or will never change. If long-term securement of the agricultural lands identified in growth plans is the primary objective, then additional steps – such as applying conservation easements – are likely needed to prevent future loss.
Regardless of which approach is adopted (agricultural reserves, agricultural sub-regional plans under ALSA, or inter-municipal planning under the MGA, land use planning should be used in conjunction with agricultural impact assessment. Agricultural impact assessment is a planning and decision-making tool which identifies and addresses potential impacts of proposed development on agricultural lands.
The Supplemental Policy Toolbox: Incentives and Supports
Supplemental tools are important enhancements and adjuncts to an overarching planning approach but cannot, in isolation, address the problems of agricultural land loss and fragmentation. Supplemental tools may be employed in relatively small pockets scattered throughout the province and their use may not take into account surrounding land uses and development. Despite these limitations, supplemental tools play an important role in conserving agricultural lands.
There are a huge variety of tools that can be placed into the supplemental toolbox. These can include financial inducements such as tax benefits, payments for ecological goods and services, and cross compliance programs which tie benefits under incentive programs to sustainable operational practices. Other tools can be used to incentivize and support agricultural operations which indirectly assists with conservation. These can include agricultural development offices, agri-tourism, agro-food parks regional procurement policies, farmland trusts, and agricultural funds.
While Alberta currently has some supplemental tools available, these could be improved. For instance, ALSA provides several stewardship tools but, due to a lack of regulations, their utility is limited. Specifically regulatory and policy guidance is needed for the use of agricultural lands offsets and for the use of stewardship units. As well, regulations to create certainty around the use of tradable development credit schemes are needed. In addition to improving our existing supplemental tools, lessons should be taken from other jurisdictions to expand Alberta’s toolbox.
Interested in learning more?
Keep an eye out for our forthcoming publication Alberta’s Agricultural Lands: A Policy Toolbox for Moving from Conversion to Conservation which will be published later this month. As well, register in advance for our webinar on Tuesday February 16, 2021.
Webinar: Alberta’s Agricultural Lands: A Policy Toolbox for Moving from Conversion to Conservation
When: Feb 16, 2021 11:00 AM Mountain Time (US and Canada)
This project is made possible through a grant from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation and an anonymous foundation.
The Alberta Real Estate Foundation supports real estate related initiatives that enhance the industry and benefit the people of Alberta. The Foundation’s revenues come from the interest earned on public money deposited in real estate brokers’ pooled trust accounts. Learn more at www.aref.ab.ca
ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CENTRE:
The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to educate and champion for strong laws and rights so all Albertans can enjoy clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. Our vision is a society where laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations.
As a charity, the Environmental Law Centre depends on your financial support. Help us to continue to educate and champion for strong environmental laws, through tools such as our blog and all of our other resources, so that all Albertans can enjoy a healthy environment. Your support makes a difference.
Donate online today