Provincial Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has strong words for Surrey council for dissolving the city’s “longstanding and well-respected” Agriculture and Food Policy Advisory Committee.
“I am disappointed that the city leadership did not seek dialogue nor public input prior to the planned committee re-assignment,” Popham wrote in a letter to Surrey council on Feb. 23. “It was brought to my attention than not even the members of the AFPAC were aware of the imminent dissolution of the committee.”
“Please be reminded that municipalities with the intention to restrict or prohibit agriculture within a farming area may need to become ‘regulated’ under Section 553 of the Local Government Act,” she warned.
Popham said committees such as the AFPAC provide “invaluable” input to civic governments to make sure planning and decisions are consistent with a local government’s obligation to support agriculture in accordance with the Agricultural Land Commission Act and the Local Government Act.
Popham noted that as Surrey is the largest city geographically in Metro Vancouver, with more than 9,000 hectares in the Agricultural Land Reserve, it is “poised to play a role in supporting the primary production of safe local produce and bolstering food security for the region.” That said, she told council it’s been her experience that “active involvement of local producers in the fabric of local government is the foundation of a vibrant and economically sustainable agricultural sector.”
On Dec. 7, the Safe Surrey Coalition majority on council voted to dissolve the AFPAC and fold it, along with the Environment Advisory Committee, into a new Agricultural, Environment and Investment Committee with Council Allison Patton as its chairwoman, Councillor Mandeep Nagra as its vice-chairman, and also Councillor Jack Hundial plus three community members.
The agriculture minister called the new joint committee “concerning” and noted that ministry staff advise her that having only three experts between the two disciplines “will not likely provide adequate representation for Surrey’s diverse agricultural community.”
Patton in reply said it’s hard for her to comment “at the moment” because she hasn’t spoken to city staff yet about Popham’s concerns. “I may have skimmed the letter but I’m not sure it was brought to my attention, no, not yet.”
The new committee has met twice, Patton said. “The good news is this committee doesn’t want to do anything to restrict agriculture, so I think that in time perhaps she can observe the committee and perhaps adjust her viewpoint over time if she feels that’s warranted for her,” she said. “A lot of the farmers want improved productivity, and local farm-to-table and produce and other products, so we’re looking at how can we help these farmers to do that.”
Popham was alerted to the situation by Surrey Councillors Hundial and Brenda Locke, of the rival Surrey Connect slate.
“If the province decides to regulate Surrey’s farmland, it’s huge,” Locke said.
“I can tell you Langley, Abbotsford, Delta and Kelowna I think have all been regulated and I know they’re not happy. I know for sure Langley’s trying to get out of it but it’s a forever deal, like it was 20 years ago that they regulated them.”
Hundial told the Now-Leader that people in the agriculture sector need to be aware of these recent developments in Surrey.
“It’s a pretty hard stand for her to take on it,” Hundial said of Popham, “but I think that’s partly because she sees the risk of not having the public engaged in developing policy that involves farmland. I mean the city is a product of the province and I think people sometimes tend to forget that.
“So for the minister to come out and issue really such a stern letter should be a clear indication that I don’t think she’s too happy with the decision made by the mayor, and secondly, there will be oversight provided,” Hundial said. “Once she invokes those powers, under the Act, it makes things a lot more complicated and laborious for applications coming out of the city absolutely to deal with agriculture and also the decision-making process around when you start looking at land and the uses, or ALR land.”
Hundial added that Popham’s concern about having only three experts on a committee dealing with both agriculture and the environment is “absolutely spot-on.”
“Even the three councillors, myself included, that are on that committee, none of us are experts in the ALR,” the retired Surrey Mountie noted. Patton is a naturopath and Nagra is a businessman.
“And you can only have three individuals from the farming community, you know, Surrey is so much larger than that,” Hundial said. “When you look at one third of our land mass is ALR, it makes it very difficult to bring that level of expertise here.”