Last week, my office released documents showing the British firm RB Group bought another 800 acres (320 ha) of ALR farmland only three weeks after it had announced it would stop its controversial program to buy B.C. farmland and plant trees to offset its emissions in the UK.
Since 2006, RB Group – a company that owns brands like French’s mustard, Lysol, and Clearasil – has been buying up B.C. farmland and planting trees on it to offset carbon pollution from its operations. After mounting pressure to stop the practice, RB told local governments and the Ministry of Agriculture that it was reviewing its program and would make no new offers to buy land until the review was complete. The Minister of Agriculture thanked RB for that display of corporate citizenship. It turned out, however, that both the ministry and RB were playing loose with their words – ‘no new offers’ hid the fact there were three on the table.
The Opposition Standing Committee for Agriculture and Food heard about this practice from farmers and cattlemen, all of whom were very concerned that good farmland was being converted to carbon sinks. To qualify for carbon offset, the trees have to be left for at least 100 years and that meant that precious grazing and hay-producing lands would be out of production for over a century.
These sales also pit a big, off-shore company against B.C. farmers. Good agricultural land in the northern parts of B.C. is scarce and both cattle ranchers and dairy farmers need a stable source of forage. Furthermore, farmers are facing high hay prices this year and the wisdom of taking that grazing land out of production is being called into question.
The government response to all of this has clearly shown it is not on top of this issue. In April, in response to a question from MLA Lana Popham, the Standing Committee Chair, the minister said only 1,500 hectares of ALR land were being used for offsets. That was soon updated to 8,500 hectares. Shortly thereafter, RB revealed its holdings in B.C. were over 10,500 hectares. The minister also said the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) had to approve the 100-year covenants on the land before the trees could qualify for carbon offset credits, but the ALC had never received an application for a covenant. RB was running an internal carbon offset program, and they didn’t require any covenants.
The minister’s most recent response in Question Period was that RB has been buying up or leasing “approximately 10,000 hectares” of farmland in B.C. for its offsets program. However, later that same day his number changed to 12,000 hectares, presumably after being briefed by his staff that the numbers he was citing weren’t exactly accurate.
Reporter Tom Fletcher followed up with the ministry and RB, publishing a story yesterday about RB’s purchase of 1,500 hectares of additional agricultural land this summer. Today, my office received confirmation from RB that they increased their offsets land in B.C. by over 1,700 hectares since May, or 17 per cent of their total holdings.
The Ministry of Agriculture has been completely out of touch with the facts in this case and has no policy to prevent ALR land from being taken out of production and converted to a carbon sink.
Moreover, the discovery that the company bought additional land raises doubts as to whether the government is doing enough – or anything – to stop this practice. Why wasn’t the Ministry of Agriculture tracking ALR sales for offsets? How much land is actually being used for offsets? And when can we expect a coherent plan to stop the practice?
The fact that the minister didn’t know these sales had taken place this summer doesn’t bode well for his ministry’s ability to track these types of purchases in the future.
While I am pleased the minister has said he will report back to the legislature on this matter, I am disappointed it has come to this. B.C. farmers deserve better.