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A Plan to Grow - What About Farmland?

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Positionality: Hello! Bonjour! My name is Jordan Kilgour and I use she/her pronouns. I currently reside in Ottawa, ON which is on three Indigenous Territories: the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinabek, and the Algonquin-Anishinabeg Nation. This land is a part of the Crawford Purchase treaty. I recognize all the Indigenous peoples and First Nations who have been on these lands since time immemorial. They took care of, and continue to care for, land across Turtle Island that now provides us with food, and farmers with their livelihoods, playing an important role in the land as we enjoy it today.


In the heart of what is currently known as Ontario lies the province’s bustling urban capital - Toronto. This large and fast-growing city, as well as the many other urban cities sprawling around the curve of Lake Ontario, is home to roughly 7 million people (1). This region is often called the GTHA (The Greater Toronto Hamilton Area) or the GGH (The Greater Golden Horseshoe). The GGH powers Ontario’s economy, generating up to 25% of the total value of all products and services created in what is currently known as Canada each year (2). However, the GGH is also home to some of the province’s most significant ecological and water natural resources, including the Niagara Escarpment and Greenbelt (2). The high-quality soils, mild climate, plentiful water sources, and proximity to urban cities support crucial agricultural production on some of Canada’s most important and productive farmlands (2). These diverse ecosystems provide fresh drinking water, fresh food, access to outdoor recreational activities, and resilience to climate change for those living in this region.


Statistics Canada predicts that the GTHA’s population will rise to 10 million people by 2046 (1). Therefore, it is important that the province plans for how it will accommodate an additional 3 million people living on these lands in the future. A Place to Grow is the Ontario government’s growth plan for the GGH. The plan was released in 2006 to provide a framework for balancing the development of new communities, supporting new economic development, and protecting the environment (2). It describes where and how 25 major urban growth centres in the GGH will grow in the long term. The growth plan focuses on creating complete and compact communities with equally distributed access to transit networks, new employment opportunities, and a variety of housing options as these cities grow (2). This approach aims to protect all existing natural areas and agricultural lands, recognizing that they are necessary to adapt to a changing climate and to ensure access to local food for future generations (2).


Since 2006, the GGH has shifted to more compact development patterns, more kinds of housing options, more mixed-use development, and different combinations of transit and land use planning (2). The identified urban growth centres have been the main locations used for accommodating the region's growing population and need for employment growth (2).


Farmland is a particularly important land-use designation in the GGH. Farmland covers around half of the GGH’s land area and is one of the largest economic sectors in the region (3). It is home to one-third of Ontario’s food industry and 42 percent of the province’s best quality (Class One) farmland (3). 200 varieties of food are produced in the GGH, such as fruits, vegetables, meats, and other non-food items, such as flowers (3). Furthermore, agricultural land can store carbon dioxide, provide a habitat for plant or animal species, and provide aesthetic and cultural benefits to city-dwellers and Indigenous communities (3).


The conversion of farmland into urban areas is a huge concern for local farmers. Within the GGH’s Greenbelt, farmland is fully protected under the Greenbelt Act. The act ensures that the supply of land needed to continue agricultural production and economic activity in the long term remains untouched (3). The growth plan protects and governs all farmland that falls outside the Greenbelt, about 75% of the GGH’s best quality farmland (3). These lands are often vulnerable to conversion for other uses such as urban development or mining.


Unfortunately, the objectives outlined in the growth plan were weakened by the provincial government as it was put into place, allowing low-density development to occur in several regions (3). The government loosened the goals of the growth plan for many reasons. Largely, this occurred due to pressures from city governments who wanted new sources of revenue, and developers who longed to expand current settlement boundaries and grow their lands (3). Thus, urban sprawl has occurred onto the agricultural land of the GGH. Between 2011 and 2016, Ontario Census Farm Data from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs showed that around 63,955 acres of farmland were lost every year (4). This is a loss of 175 acres of land every day, including some Class One land. This is the same area as about 132 football fields.

The growth plan has in many ways proven to be inadequate or underdeveloped. Provincial decision-makers and city planners have a limited understanding of the agricultural system (3). Legislation is lacking the capacity to assess the impact of ongoing urban planning decisions, road designs, and environmental laws on local farmers (3). What farmers need to care for and continue producing goods on their lands is not frequently included in the environmental assessment processes. Various new projects may take or split pieces of farmland into many parts, creating physical barriers between different areas of farmland (3). These actions cause farmers to spend more time and money to access essential, personal, or technical resources and limit their ability to expand their operations (3).


In a world of increasing climate impacts, which can already affect farmers' ability to produce, local food sources are increasingly important. Locally grown food can increase our resilience to future climate change and provide a sense of place to those who enjoy the growing local food movement (5). The local food movement began in the early 2000s (5). As public knowledge of the negative impacts of our current food systems and environmental crises grows, the presence of farmer’s markets and community gardens is rapidly expanding (5). In Ontario, the enjoyment of local food helps to connect people to the Greenbelt and the GGH in a deeper way (5). Chefs and restaurants have popularized local food and seasonal eating in their establishments (5). Some farmers in the GGH also provide seasonal produce subscriptions to the public to connect locals to the source of their food (5). If the quantity and quality of existing farmland continue to be affected by urban development, the ability of local farmers to produce and meet the increasing demand for local food will be significantly impacted.


We must find a balance between the land area needed to support Ontario’s growing population and the protection of farmland. Residents of the GGH are already recognizing and bolstering this need by participating in the local food movement which provides significant income to local farmers. However, we must continue advocating for local farmers and the problems that they face. Our provincial governments must be held accountable for their goals for complete and resilient communities that protect valuable agricultural lands for years to come.


To learn more about farmland in the GGH and what you can do to support your local farmers, please check the guides and checklists at https://ofa.on.ca/GrowAg/. Also, please consider signing the following petition from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to protect Ontario’s food and farms at https://homegrown.ofa.on.ca.


References:

  1. The Government of Ontario. Ontario population projections [Internet]. 2021 June 23 [cited 2021 July]. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontario-population-projections

  2. The Government of Ontario. A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe [Internet]. 2020 August 28 [cited 2021 July]. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/document/place-grow-growth-plan-greater-golden-horseshoe?_ga=2.262766540.1131447171.1609891952-284446521.1597713684

  3. Tomalty R. Farmland at Risk: How better land use planning could help ensure a healthy future for agriculture in the Greater Golden Horseshoe [Internet]. Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Environmental Defence; 2015 Nov [cited 2021 July]. Available from: https://ofa.on.ca/resources/farmland-at-risk-report/

  4. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. [Internet]. The Ministry; 2016. Census of Agriculture, Ontario Summary 2016; [cited 2021 July]. Available from: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/stats/census/index.html

  5. Elton S. Local Food Movement. The Canadian Encyclopedia [Internet]. 2015 Feb 23 [cited 2021 July]. Available from: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/local-food-movement




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