Ontario’s vibrant landscapes and rich, world-class farmlands have long been the pride of our province. A recent government decision, and the subsequent Auditor General’s report, about the removal of 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt, however, has brought the conservation of these treasured lands to the forefront of public discourse.
The controversy reveals a much larger and equally pressing issue about Ontario’s dwindling farmland.
The Controversy Unpacked
The Greenbelt is a protected expanse of farmland, forest, and wetlands encircling the Greater Toronto Area and spanning 2 million acres. Premier Doug Ford’s government decided to remove protections from 7,400 acres to create more land for housing development. During the public consultation period for this measure, the overwhelming majority of the 35,000 responses the government received were opposed.
Multiple reports asserted that there was no need to encroach upon the Greenbelt to fulfill housing development goals. Why, many wondered, did the government press on with such an unpopular and even unnecessary decision?
The Auditor General’s report revealed a troubling answer: the lands were not selected through an objective or transparent process; private developers selected the lands to be removed. The same developers stand to increase the collective value of their properties by $8.3 billion.
The process calls into question who makes the decisions in our government.
The Larger Issue at Hand: Farmland Loss in Ontario
This controversy, as vital as it is, only scratches the surface of a much larger crisis looming over this province. Despite its size, less than five per cent of Ontario’s land base is prime agricultural land.
The Greenbelt protects 750,000 acres of this prime farmland. But between 2016 and 2021, 582,392 acres of farmland disappeared across the province.
This stark number brings a chilling realization. If we continue on this trajectory, every 6.5 years we will lose the equivalent of the Greenbelt’s protected farmland.
At that rate, we will lose 11.8 million acres of our best farmland within the century.
Premier Doug Ford’s proposed Provincial Planning Statement weakens farmland protections. The removal of mechanisms like the municipal comprehensive review, which allows for public engagement in the process, is part of a concerning trend towards non-transparent decisions.
Furthermore, we’ve seen the provincial government force municipal urban boundary expansion onto prime farmland, remove requirements for an agricultural systems planning approach, reduce density targets in some of the fastest growing municipalities, and weaken policy language that would otherwise protect farmland.
The Ontario Farmland Trust provided multiple comments during the consultation period in hopes the government will recognize the dangers of the proposed changes.
The Reality of “Weeds” in Ontario’s Farmland
Comments from Premier Ford, who has been quoted saying he sees mere “weeds” when looking at Ontario’s farmlands, are concerning. What really lies behind these so-called “weeds”?
Typically, when agricultural land appears neglected, one of two primary scenarios are playing out. The first is an agricultural one, where farmers engage in crop rotation as a form of sustainable soil management. The rotation may include keeping the soil fallow for a season to restore soil fertility. The soil is able to rejuvenate its organic matter, which is essential for future cultivation. This common agricultural practice ensures long-term productivity, sustainability of the soil, and offers environmental benefits, such as breeding habitat for grassland birds.
The second scenario is more concerning. These lands might be owned by speculators who have no intent to farm but instead hope to profit from future development. Investor interest in non-agricultural uses of farmland drives up the cost, making it increasingly unattainable for new farmers, and threatening Ontario’s future food security.
The Way Forward
Given the scale of the crisis, it is imperative to view all of Ontario’s farmland with the reverence we reserve for the Greenbelt. We are at a pivotal moment. Our choices now will shape the future of food security, sustainable agriculture, and ecological balance in the face of climate change.
Housing is vital, but just as vital are our natural resources to feed and sustain a rising population. The Auditor General’s report is just the starting point. We must tackle the broader issue of farmland loss head-on. We need more than just reactive measures to lost Greenbelt lands. It is time for a proactive, comprehensive strategy to conserve every inch of our farmland.
Ontario’s farmlands aren’t just plots of dirt and “weeds.” They’re the very fabric of our history, culture, and survival. Ensuring the sustainability and prosperity of Ontario’s farmland is not just an agricultural concern – it’s an existential one.
Farmland loss is not just an issue to be debated among policymakers and activists. It affects us all. If we truly wish to safeguard the future of this province, we need public engagement and awareness on par with the fervour we witnessed during the Greenbelt controversy.
As we reflect on these pressing matters, the Ontario Farmland Trust remains committed to championing the cause of farmland conservation. Our call to action is simple: let us collectively strive to understand, appreciate, and protect this irreplaceable resource. The future of Ontario depends on it.
For more information on the Ontario Farmland Trust and our plans to protect the agri-food system in Ontario, visit our website at www.ontariofarmlandtrust.ca.
Ontario Farmland Trust