Agriculture is defined as the cultivation of land and breeding of animals and plants to provide food, fiber, medicinal plants and other products to sustain and enhance life.
BC’s diverse landscape and varied climate allow for the production of over 200 agricultural commodities like fruits and vegetables, grains, ornamental plants, livestock, and at least 100 different seafood species like fish and molluscs.
History of Agriculture in BC
Before coming into contact with Europeans, BC’s Indigenous people cultivated root crops and shellfish aquaculture.
In addition, Indigenous people also managed natural ecosystems using tools like wildfire to increase the abundance of plants and animals suitable for hunting and gathering.
Grains, fruits and vegetables, cattle and horses were introduced by fur traders early in the 19th century. Later, to try and meet the demands brought on by the Gold rush, mining, and the newly completed railway, commercial farming and cattle ranching were introduced. Reclaimed land in the Creston and Fraser Valley regions and new irrigation projects in the Okanagan and Kootenays brought even more agriculture to BC.
As BC’s population grew, prime agricultural land was being lost to urban development. So, in 1973, the Agricultural land reserve was established to permanently protect BC’s valuable agricultural land.
The Agricultural land reserve protects about 5% of the land, but only about 3% is used for farming. Crops are grown on about 0.6%, while the rest is used for pasture or grazing.
Because of BC’s rugged landscape, the most fertile land is also the land with the most pressure on it for human settlement. This is especially true for the Fraser River delta, which is home to the province’s most productive farmland and about 60% of its population.
According to Statistics Canada, in 1931, about 15% of the people in BC were living on a farm. By 2006, that number had been reduced to 1.5%. In less than one lifetime, British Columbia moved from 1 in 7 inhabitants living on a farm to 1 in 68.
Today, lands designated for farming are being used by over 17, 500 farms, employing about 1% of BC’s work force and generating about 3.7 billion dollars of economic activity. BC also imports about half of its food.
BC has unique agricultural regions - each with its own character and growing conditions.
The Peace region’s Prairie like conditions are well suited for growing grains and seeds,
Cattle operations frequent the range lands of the Southern, Central Interior and Kootenay areas,
the warm, dry regions of the Southern Interior are well suited for growing fruits and grapes,
the cooler, wetter climates in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island are suitable for the production of many vegetables, berry crops, and flowers, and
in Coastal communities, marine products such as oysters, clams, prawns, kelp and salmon are harvested or farmed.
Agriculture (Land-use) Impacts/Relationships
Agricultural land-use impacts freshwater sources like rivers and groundwater. For example, water is withdrawn from underground aquifers or from streams for irrigation
Agricultural runoff from fertilizer and manure contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous which can negatively impact surface water, groundwater within local watersheds, and downstream where water collects in lakes or in the ocean.
Agricultural land-use also changes natural landscapes and alters wildlife habitat and natural ecosystems on land and in the ocean
Agricultural land use can influence the balance of atmospheric heat trapping greenhouse gases. Livestock release methane and the clearing of land cultivation of fields releases stored carbon into the atmosphere.
New research is leading to the development of livestock feeding and management systems to reduce livestock methane emissions and special crop practices like no-till cultivation can reduce emissions significantly. Mechanized agricultural techniques and long distance shipping of food require lots of energy but this could be reduced by people buying more of their food from local farms.
With climate change, the Fraser River delta, BC’s most valuable agricultural land, could easily be covered by salt water given sea-level rise projections.
Cannabis, a new agricultural crop, is used for recreational and medical purposes. Due to its high value, it is grown in secured, protected facilities.
Vineyards growing grapes also yield high value in the production of wines. BC is well known for high quality wines and these crops are well suited to warm/dry ecosystems as they are tolerant of periodic drought.
As with all land uses it is important to consider the benefits and liabilities of different types of agriculture we develop and where it is located.
Use BC tomorrow to see how much agricultural activity there has been in your area in the past, and what the effects of a change in agricultural land-use could have on the environment and the economy in the future.
BC’s future is in your hands. See what you can do.