Cannabis Production vs. Food Security  

Market Intelligence

A lot has been written in the past year about the growth of cannabis production in Canada. Since, (and before) the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Canada in 2018, there has been an unprecedented increase in the conversion of land and space from food production to cannabis production to meet the public demand for safe, legal marijuana.

I have spent my professional career analysing and selling land in British Columbia and have seen a number of trends and cycles impact the macro economics of land-use.  But, the frenzied demand for agricultural land by cannabis companies seems to be a game changer, and a complicated one.   One immediate question to consider is, did the Trudeau government in its haste to enact the legislation, investigate the potential impact of cannabis production on food security?

The net effect of big business demand for ‘cannabis land’ has the real potential to drive up land prices in the agricultural sector, creating less accessibility for food farmers who may not be able to compete.  For example, in December 2018, Agraflora Organics International and Houweling Nurseries announced the conversion of a 2.2 million square foot greenhouse in Ladner, British Columbia from food to cannabis production.

From a pure business perspective the economics make sense as cannabis production is exponentially more profitable than food production.  However, this trend is concerning  – of the close to 8 million square feet of greenhouse space in Delta, almost 5 million square feet has already been converted, or is slated to be converted to cannabis production in the foreseeable future.

British Columbia has a long history of protecting farmland for future generations.  In the early 1970s, the NDP government of the time created the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).  The intent and mandate of the Agricultural Land Reserve, and its governing body, the Agricultural Land Commission, was, and continues to be, to preserve and protect agricultural land for food production for future generations of British Columbians.  The ALR exists to ensure food security.  But in May of this year, the ALC announced that cannabis production can take place on ALR land anywhere in the province.   For many who believe that increased cannabis production is negatively impacting food security this ALR policy is alarming.   Is the mandate of the ALC being fulfilled by allowing the conversion of prime agricultural land to cannabis production?

The question of whether large greenhouse operations are “agricultural” or “industrial” is debatable.  When large-scale greenhouses were introduced into Delta several years ago, there was an outcry about the conversion of the best agricultural land for greenhouse use.  While the facilities were still used to grow peppers, tomatoes and other produce, the farming techniques did not really rely in the productivity of the soil, but rather on concrete floored, hydroponic, climate-controlled atmospheres that are created in a greenhouse environment.  People eventually got used to the greenhouses and the reality that greenhouses were ultimately more productive than open field farming.  It seemed easier to accept that the best agricultural land was being covered by glass when it was still being used for food production.

Cannabis versus food production is not an issue that is isolated to Delta or BCs Lower Mainland.  Farmers and those interested in preserving agricultural land for food production in other parts of Canada have also expressed their concern over this issue.  Alternatively, advocates for the marijuana industry have argued that cannabis is “grown” and is therefore an agricultural product.

For some, the use of farmland for cannabis production might appear to be a reasonable expectation for the agricultural sector.  But at the end of the day… Where are we growing our food?

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