Will the need for weed disrupt the Agricultural Land Reserve’s roots in food production?
by Sarah Hughes
For something as cool as a cucumber, the production of recreational marijuana on B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) has turned into a blazing source of controversy. As legalization in Canada looms, farmers, cannabis growers, and food-security advocates all wait nervously to see what’s in store for the ALR. If the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) allows the production of pot on ALR land, British Columbia’s foodscape could drastically change.
Roughly five percent of land in B.C. is dedicated to food production, with about two percent on Vancouver Island. Not all the land within the ALR is classified the same; many of these plots have buildings on them, including mega-homes and sprawling greenhouses. ALR land is graded on a scale of 1-7, with Class 1 as prime farmland and Class 7 deemed unsuitable for grazing and arable agriculture but fine for barns and greenhouses. In late 2017, greenhouses in Aldergrove, B.C., were converted from growing tomatoes to marijuana. The new purveyor of this green cash crop is the Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth Corp.
Canopy Growth started as Tweed Marijuana Inc. in the rural Ontario town of Smith Falls in 2014. It has grown exponentially to become the largest medical marijuana grower in the world, with eight sites in seven different countries. Now, with legalization of recreational cannabis on Canada’s legislative doorstep, Canopy Growth plans to expand its business by cultivating recreational weed in 1.7-million-square-feet of greenhouses. How many tomatoes and peppers will this weed displace? Imagine 100 NHL-sized rinks that once housed fresh produce.
According to the 2016 B.C. Agriculture Sector Snapshots, primary agriculture generated $3 billion in dairy products, chickens, greenhouse vegetables, beef, blueberries, eggs, and more. B.C. exported $2.5 billion worth of products to foreign markets in 2016; the top receivers were the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Not all of this is produced on ALR land. An early 2018 white paper from the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University determined that only 50 percent of the protected farmland is currently in use.
The Agricultural Land Reserve is already threatened by so-called mega-homes—huge “farmer’s” mansions where owners play tennis instead of plant tomatoes; the dumping of construction debris; as well as speculation, tax loopholes, and urbanization that increase the price of farmland. Land is already limited for growing food, and with cannabis promising quick profits for farmers, food production might fall behind.
Some folks are putting up a fight. A group in Central Saanich organized under the name Citizens Protecting Agriculture Land (CPAL) formed in January 2018 when they heard about the plans to grow recreational marijuana on nearby farmland. The group consists of a wide demographic, from retired farmers and residents to younger working families.
“I understand the lack of available land used to build houses on, but I’m also more concerned about protecting future generations when we need to grow food here,” says Ken Marriette, the spokesperson for CPAL. “We’ve been encouraged by the local politicians here to keep the pressure on by writing letters to the government saying, ‘Really think this thing through, because once that land is gone, our future food security is at risk.’”
Adam Olsen, the Green Party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, represented CPAL by presenting a petition with more than 1,400 signatures to the provincial legislature in March.
Marriette and CPAL worry about what a proposal to grow cannabis on the Stanhope Dairy Farm in Central Saanich would do to the ALR land and the community. The new owner of the farm, Shawn Galbraith, plans to build 21 high-security greenhouses on 36 acres. In order to do that, he would remove three feet of topsoil from the area and cover that with concrete slabs as a base for the greenhouses.
“It’s gone forever once you do that,” Marriette says of the topsoil, and that’s not the only qualm the group has. “In addition to food security, we are concerned about light pollution. These greenhouses are going to be 32-feet high, with concrete floors, and have lights 24-7.”
Galbraith is the owner of Evergreen Medicinal Supply and his Central Saanich operation is small-scale next to the cannabis factories proposed on the Mainland.
“I haven’t mentioned once that we’re against marijuana,” says Marriette. “It just shouldn’t be allowed on prime farmland, or any farmland for that matter, because it’s a slippery slope.” He thinks once a farmer in a lesser arable ALR zone sells off land to a commercial grow op, other farmers will want to do the same, all the way to the most arable farmland in classes 1 and 2.
Andrew Rojek, manager of market intelligence for Western Canada Colliers International real estate firm, co-authored a white paper called Cannabis & ALR; Keep the Land, Cultivate the Future. It states that ALR land is the most promising solution to the estimated multi-billion dollar legal cannabis industry. Industrial space in Metro Vancouver is hard to find, with less than 1.5 percent vacancy. And many food-security advocates and farmers worry that cannabis will increase the value of farmland beyond what’s affordable.
In an email statement, Rojek says the cost of ALR land may increase, but it would depend on various factors. Only a fraction of the ALR market is suitable for growing cannabis—legally and logistically.
“It’s important to note that if land value does increase for some sites, this is to the benefit of the existing landowner while also providing them with increased flexibility for the use of their land,” he writes. “It’s also important to note that the ALR was established to protect the future of agricultural activities and goods. Food is clearly an essential part of these, but so are other agricultural items. It’s up to the ALC to consider and decide on what fits into this.”
In the white paper released by Colliers International, the authors estimate the recreational cannabis industry could be worth more than the Canadian spirits industry and close to the Canadian wine industry, anywhere from $5 billion to $9 billion. That is without projected transport, infrastructure, and tourism costs and revenues.
Several big players in B.C. agriculture have already jumped on board the cannabis caravan. Village Farms in east Ladner has partnered with Emerald Health Therapeutics to grow recreational and medical cannabis. You might recognize Village Farms’ name on the labels of the hothouse tomatoes at grocery stores around the province. The company plans to grow a “conservative” 300,000 kilograms of non-therapeutic cannabis a year—half an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with pot.
In 2016, financial analyst group Deloitte released a paper that states only “22 percent of the Canadian adult population consumes recreational marijuana on at least an occasional basis, with a full 7 percent of the adult population consuming on a daily basis.” That’s a quarter of the population, whereas everyone eats—and more mouths are coming. As reported in our Spring 2018 issue, “the population of southwest B.C. is projected to increase by 60 percent from 2011 levels by the year 2050.”
The report estimates that perhaps 17 percent more new consumers would be willing to try weed with legalization, bumping the potential marketplace to 39 percent. Even so, with six out of 10 B.C. residents still saying no to pot, the province’s frantic green rush to supply doobies to the masses seems a bit half-baked. In an Ernst & Young report, Bruce Linton, founder and CEO of Canopy Growth Corp, admits that the supply shortage is overstated: “The idea that there’s an industry production shortage looming makes for a fun story, but it’s not well thought out.”
But Rojek says if the ALC doesn’t allow producers to grow recreational cannabis on farmland, the budding industry will need to move elsewhere. “It will mean that cannabis producers need to compete for space in the existing industrial market, which is one of the tightest in North America,” he writes. “There is a possibility that this industry will move to other provinces as a result, or that existing businesses may exit our market.”
Marriette thinks cannabis producers should occupy “brown spaces”—unused industrial sites—or neglected urban areas. In Powell River, medical marijuana group Santé Veritas Therapeutics is converting part of the Catalyst Paper Corp. mill into a cultivation facility. Santé CEO John Walker estimates revenues of $19 million a year with 2,800 kilograms of dried weed. This could boost the small town’s economy while saving arable farmland for growing food.
When asked if such options could work in Metro Vancouver, Rojek says it depends on zoning of sites, which vary by municipality. “Not all sites will suit cannabis production,” he says. “For Vancouver, there also isn’t really a great deal of old, unused industrial space.”
Provincial mayors have divided opinions about the potential for hometown pot production. Smaller, blue-collar towns often welcome the economic boon of legalization. Other municipal leaders remain wary. Mayor Lois Jackson in Delta thinks the cannabis boom market might be short-sighted. What will happen, she has pointed out to media, to all the food production for which the Lower Mainland is famous? Will B.C. become dependent on the U.S. and other countries for our food—all while we chase a quick economic buzz?
Regardless of what happens next, two competing impulses won’t disappear: our province’s need for food and demand for weed. Hopefully, policy-makers can strike a balance and provide what our fertile land is known best for—B.C. greens in every form.