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Farmland needs to be preserved, not developed

In its annual poll to measure public trust, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity asks respondents if it thinks the food system is trending in the right direction.

I always thought the question was too vague.

If only, though, the question could be put to Ontarians this week, as Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government threaten agriculture in the Greenbelt and elsewhere by loosening demands on development.

Trending in the right direction? Unfortunately, no.

On the heels of the provincial budget that underlined the value of our agri-food system with significant investments, the provincial government is trying to push through legislation that will limit the power of conservation authorities to control development in their regions, including the Greenbelt.

This move caused the Greenbelt council chair and six board members to resign. One called it “a blatant assault on conservation.” At least one mayor in or near the Greenbelt it protesting on the front page of Toronto dailies.

The premier has had the Greenbelt in his sights since even before taking office. During his campaign, he is said to have discussed backroom deals with developers eager to swoop in on the protected land. He backed off when the public kicked back. Now he’s making a similar mess.

You can’t give generously to agriculture one week then do an end-run the next and expect to still have credibility with rural Ontario. Ford’s government will argue development is necessary for prosperity, and that’s true. But it’s time to build up, not out.

Certain kinds of new development adjacent to protected areas is almost as bad as development in them. Consider the Greenbelt. Dense development on its doorstep wreaks havoc on watersheds and makes it almost impossible for agriculture to exist within – at least, modern agriculture, the kind that produces food for the thousands, not the dozens.

It’s the kind of farming that requires tractors and wagons to travel on roads, the kind that produces some measure of noise and odour.

These are not market gardens. These are commercial farmers and they need some elbow room. They can’t carry on normal farming activities with a subdivision or mall next door. And much of Ontario’s protected area is right where developers would like to start paving.

This is a troubling trend, and a troubling circle. Agricultural economics is a complex matter, but the bottom line is that if we don’t pay farmers enough to making a living by producing quality on small acreages, then they have to make it up in quantity on bigger farms.

Evidence emerged this week showing on the prairies at least, that’s exactly what’s happening. In Alberta, a province with massive agriculture production, just six per cent of farms there operate and control about 40 per cent of its farmland. It’s not much different for the other prairie provinces.

Farms are getting bigger because they need volume to be profitable. We don’t, or won’t, pay the real price of food. So just like a retailer that tries to sell more at discounted prices to get by, farmers have to do the same.

The difference is, the products that come off Canadian farms are top of the line. We’re not getting loss leaders, we’re getting the best food in the world for a fraction of what it’s worth.

Last week I said the agri-food system’s reliability through the early part of the pandemic left a good taste in consumers’ mouths and opened the door for government investment in the sector. But if the premier and his government allow developers to keep paving over farmland, that investment can’t realize its full potential.

We have some of the world’s best farmland in the Great Lakes basin… and a booming population to go along with it. Building up isn’t the only answer, but building out and swallowing up farmland is no answer at all, especially when we need a reliable food system more than ever.

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