Ranch for sale at Horsefly in the Cariboo. Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson says Horsefly and Likely are the latest areas of interest to buy land to plant trees for European carbon offsets.

Sacrificing farmland for climate change

Quesnel mayor disputes claim that farms and ranches bought up for tree planting are only marginal or abandoned properties

VICTORIA – It was 2008 when word first surfaced that B.C. farmland was being bought up to grow trees as a European carbon offset.

Reckitt Benckiser Inc., a British-based global manufacturer of household products such as Lysol spray and Calgon laundry soap, bought 1,500 hectares east of Vanderhoof and planted aspen. For comparison, that’s about the size of downtown Vancouver from 16th and Oak to Stanley Park.

Since tree growing is permitted in the Agricultural Land Reserve, a use intended for fruit, ornamental or nursery trees, no permission was needed. And to meet the carbon offset rules of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, a 100-year restrictive covenant against harvesting trees was issued by B.C.’s land titles office.

Goodbye farmland.

After that deal, the B.C. government changed legislation in 2011 to require permission from the Agricultural Land Commission to make these covenants valid. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick says he is waiting for that process to be tested.

It likely will be soon. Reckitt has bought another 7,000 hectares of cleared farmland from Prince George down through the Cariboo to Quesnel. NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham has been tracking these acquisitions, and she says there are more deals in the works.

Last fall, the Bulkley Nechako Regional District wrote to Victoria Wood, Reckitt Benckiser’s “global head of sustainability,” telling her that “the planting of trees on centrally located and productive agricultural lands is not appropriate” and would weaken local farm economies.

Wood responded that the RB Trees project targets only “marginally productive” land such as pasture, abandoned farms or those that have been up for sale for long periods.

Former Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson raised the issue in the legislature in 2008, noting that Crown land near Vanderhoof had been sold for farming, bought by a numbered company and then “flipped” for around $1 million to RB Trees.

Now mayor of Quesnel, Simpson takes issue with the company’s claims with his usual shyness.

“It’s bull—-,” he told me. “This isn’t marginal land.”

He said it includes prime alfalfa fields and historical ranch and forage crop lands. In one case, neighbours found out about the new use when they saw a helicopter spraying herbicide to prepare the area for tree seedlings.

In the Cariboo as in other rural B.C. areas, aging farmers want to retire and young people keen to work seven days a week are in short supply. So naturally there is pressure to sell.

Perhaps Letnick is right, and the ALC will stop productive farmland from being turned back into forest. While we’re waiting for that, here are a couple of other questions.

What happens when these forests burn? The first big forest fire of 2015 was still growing and mostly out of control near Prince George on Tuesday. And since aspen doesn’t last 100 years, what is its real carbon offset value?

And how’s that European carbon trading market doing? It’s a mess, with the cost of emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide fallen far below what’s needed to be effective, and Interpol investigating various schemes to game the system.

Remember B.C’s own Pacific Carbon Trust? This Gordon Campbell brainchild to sell carbon offsets was quietly greenhouse gassed after the Auditor General revealed its first two big projects were of questionable value to say the least.

Finally, does anyone really think that returning B.C.’s scarce farmland to forest is a good way to change the weather? Would it offset the loss of local production and trucking in farm produce from elsewhere?

And where are B.C.’s tireless food security advocates on this dubious scheme?

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc