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Eyes in the sky have a future for B.C. farmland, minister says

Satellite surveillance of agricultural use stopped after protests
Google Earth image of B.C.’s Fraser Valley, an area of intensive agriculture and development pressure for housing and industrial needs. (Google)

More than a year after protests erupted over a plan to use radar satellites to monitor farmland use in southern B.C., that project has not returned, but satellite imagery is increasingly in use in farming.

Questioned in the latest debate about her ministry’s budget for 2021-22, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham didn’t rule out an effort to monitor farmland from the sky for non-farm uses, after a contract with a B.C. satellite pioneer was awarded and then quickly withdrawn after it was revealed on the province’s B.C. Bid website in late 2019.

The contract announcement specified that a pilot project had been awarded to B.C.-based MDA without a public bid, so monitoring of an unspecified area of southern B.C. could be conducted without tipping off people who might be using Agricultural Land Reserve property for non-conforming uses.

“I’m just wondering if satellites are still something that we are concerned about in British Columbia with the Agricultural Land Commission making use, through their bylaws enforcement, of satellite imagery of our farms and ranches in British Columbia to detect whatever they’re trying to detect with housing, truck parking, different things like that,” B.C. Liberal agriculture critic Ian Paton asked Popham in June. “Are satellites still on the table?”

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Popham replied that she was not aware of any contract going ahead with MDA, formerly McDonald Dettwiler and Associates, a Richmond-based pioneer of radar imaging that has since gone on to space exploration work.

“The particular project that the member is talking about never came to fruition, but I can say that there’s a lot of other projects that are probably up and going and on their way,” Popham said. “I’m sure that the member knows that satellite imagery is used all the time with land use planning. Google Earth, for example, tracks changes on the land base. The Ministry of Forests uses it. Many ministries that rely on data that’s collected around the Earth’s surface use this type of imagery.”

Popham said agricultural technology companies are also finding applications for drones to monitor vineyards for early detection of disease. “As we move into a world of more and more agritech, we’re going to see technology like this used.”


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