December 17, 2019

Moving from Conversion to Conservation: ELC publishes Agricultural Lands Law and Policy in Alberta

An old tractor sitting in a canola field.

By the Environmental Law Centre

Alberta’s agricultural lands support numerous social, economic and environmental benefits. Despite this, we have lost and continue to lose prime agricultural lands via conversion into developed uses. As well, Alberta’s agricultural lands have become significantly more fragmented around Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, and along the Edmonton-Calgary corridor.

There is a significant amount of law and policy regulating agricultural activities. These include laws and principles relating to land, water, and to agricultural practices and operations, as well as legislation such as the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) and the Municipal Government Act (MGA). There are also a variety of financial tools, including taxation, that impact upon agricultural lands.

Despite this significant body of law, a coherent and comprehensive agricultural lands policy is missing in Alberta. By filling this gap – at both the regional level under ALSA and the municipal level under the MGA – land planning and development could be directed with a clear view toward to avoiding further agricultural land conversion and fragmentation. Provincial policy is needed to set priorities, address conflicts (between agricultural and urban activities, as well as conflicting agricultural activities such as conversion of rangelands to cultivated lands), and set objectives.

In addition to providing direction through policy, there must be support provided with appropriate legislative tools and funding. Some tools are already enabled in legislation – such as the ALSA stewardship tools and intermunicipal planning – however, there is a need for additional regulation to effectively implement and enforce these tools. Furthermore, financial support is needed to fund stewardship programs (for example: conservation easements, payment for ecological goods and services). It may also be appropriate to encourage non-regulatory mechanisms (such as voluntary programs or market-driven incentives) to address the issue of agricultural land conversion and fragmentation.

The Environmental Law Centre is currently working on a project exploring the challenges and opportunities for stopping the loss of Alberta’s agricultural lands. The first of two reports provides:

  • A primer on the laws and policies which apply to Alberta’s agricultural lands from the perspectives of planning, development and conservation; and
  • An effective canvassing of the existing legal tools relevant to conversion and conservation of agricultural lands in Alberta.

Download the first report: Agricultural Lands Law and Policy in Alberta here!

The second report in this project will make recommendations for legal and policy reform. This will require analysis of the application and effectiveness of regulatory and non-regulatory tools currently available in Alberta (including market-based tools, taxation, and zoning). Further, the ELC will look to experiences in other jurisdictions – which may have additional or alternative approaches – that can inform Alberta’s law and policies.

Ultimately, 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; sustainable agriculture within the framing of sustainable development.

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