29 Apr Loss Prevention vs. Replacement: Alberta Needs a Policy Framework for Sustainable Agriculture
Loss Prevention vs. Replacement: Alberta Needs a Policy Framework for Sustainable Agriculture
The ELC’s Role in Moving from Conversion to Conservation
With the support of our donors and noted experts in the field, the ELC is currently working on a project exploring the challenges and opportunities for moving from conversion to conservation: stopping the loss and conversion of agricultural lands in Alberta. This means looking at the existing legislative tools to ensure coordinated, synergistic use of these tools leading to improved energy and food resilience and smart, sustainable urban development. The ELC will be recommending law and policy reforms directed at the conservation of agricultural lands in Alberta. In addition, the ELC will be making efforts and recommendations designed to integrate legislative tools into regional planning processes. The ELC’s goal with this project is to achieve clear policy direction at the provincial level which supports the conservation of agricultural land and is guided by environmental principles.
See the Alberta Land Institute’s Economic Evaluation of Farmland Conversion and Fragmentation in Alberta, Summary of Findings for more detail.
As discussed in previous blog posts (here and here), Alberta has lost and continues to lose valuable agricultural lands. There has been significant conversion of prime agricultural land into developed uses. As well, Alberta’s farmland has become significantly more fragmented around Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer.
With a new incoming government, it is useful to look to the United Conservative Party’s Election Platform (the UCP Platform) for insight as to how this issue may be addressed. A key element of the UCP Platform is its fiscal plan- Getting Alberta Back to Work – which proposes a Farm Freedom and Safety Act (the FFSA) designed to address the application of employment standards to agricultural operations and proposes other measures to enhance the agriculture industry as part of Alberta’s economic fabric.
One measure proposed in the UCP Platform, as part of its overall approach to agricultural industry, is to:
Consult on land sales in order to replace good agricultural land lost to urban expansion by cooperating with municipalities seeking auctions on parcels of Crown land for agricultural use, where appropriate. Such disposition of Crown land would be subject to consultation with First Nations communities and others. In one case, MacKenzie County seeks to complete an auction of about 100,000 acres. To put this request in perspective, there are approximately 100 million acres of Alberta Crown land.
This proposal is framed as an economic matter rather than a strategic approach to dealing with the loss and fragmentation of Alberta’s agricultural lands.
Commentary: Moving from Conversion to Conservation
While at first glance opening additional Crown lands to agricultural activities may appear to address the loss of agricultural lands in Alberta, this is not the case. Nor does it address the increasing fragmentation of farmland in Alberta. At best this would be “band-aid” solution, opening more lands to agriculture in the near term without addressing underlying causes that drive loss and fragmentation of agricultural lands.
While additional lands may become available, this does not mean that the prime agricultural lands are being replaced with land of equal capacity. One of the concerns associated with agricultural land loss and fragmentation is the loss of prime lands to development. Lands with high capacity soil types (for agricultural purposes) are being converted to development which can mean the overall loss of agricultural activities or relegation to lesser capacity soil types. From an agricultural production perspective, one piece of land is not the same as any other piece of land. Can an auction of Crown lands ensure that land of equal quality to that being lost is being made available? It is not clear that this is the case, especially if the auction requests are being driven by municipalities and their development concerns.
Furthermore, this approach will lead to the loss of existing natural areas as they are converted to agricultural purposes. It is not exactly clear what the nature of the auctions are – sales or leases? As Crown land is sold or leased, there may be less control over the activities on the land than currently exists. This can exacerbate the impacts on natural areas within the province.
The province needs a more constructive policy approach to address the underlying causes of agricultural land loss and fragmentation. Loss prevention, rather than replacement. Planning processes can be improved by placing more emphasis on the intermunicipal and regional levels, and with clear recognition of the value of agricultural lands. We already have the legal framework for intermunicipal cooperation and planning under the Municipal Government Act and for regional planning under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. These powerful planning tools need to be actualized.
We also have existing legislative tools under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act with the potential to provide creative assistance with conservation efforts – such as conservation easements and tradable development credits – which would be better implemented with increased governmental support and guidance. Other avenues – such as tax structures – can be reviewed to address some of the drivers of agricultural land loss and fragmentation.
While there may be “100 million acres of Alberta Crown land” as noted in the UCP Platform. This remains a finite amount. This is compounded by the fact that not all lands are equally suited to agricultural activities (some may completely lack suitability). A further compounding factor is that much of the Crown land is currently in use for other purposes (forestry, grazing, recreation, and reserves to name a few). At some point, there will be no more Crown land that can be converted into agricultural purposes due to lack of suitability and conflicting existing uses. Not to mention that conversion of Crown lands will drive the loss of other landscapes and their ecological services and values, and reduce the province’s resiliency to climate change impacts.
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
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