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New effort to stop chronic farmland loss

With BBQ season here, vegetable sprouts starting to pop out of the ground and local food poised to take its annual position of prominence, Ontario’s farm sector is sending out a poignant reminder: while we are busy shopping for homegrown food, five farms’ worth of agricultural land are being lost to urban sprawl here every day.

Worse, nothing is slowing down the problem.

And if the trend doesn’t stop, the outlook for local food is dim.  

That message is being issued this week as part of a campaign appropriately called Home Grown, launched Monday by the biggest general farm organization here, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

The federation wants consumers to sign a petition to stop willy-nilly farmland rezoning for development. Only about five per cent of the land in Ontario can actually produce food. Data from the latest Census of Agriculture (2016) showed about 175 acres of farmland – equal to around 135 football fields – is being lost every day. That’s where the five-farms-per-week loss comes from.

And with a pro-development government like the one we elected a few years ago – one that has clearly showed its stripes with the proposed Highway 413 debacle (referred to in some media as a “$6-billion sprawl generator”) – that percentage has little chance of stabilizing, let alone improving right now.

This isn’t just a problem with the current government, though. The federation has drawn attention to the situation before. For example, in 2015, vice-president Don McCabe took every chance available to speak passionately about farmland preservation. The message was similar – stop paving over farms – and people nodded in agreement.

And yet, here we are again.

But maybe the high visibility of the Highway 413 mess brings new urgency to the matter and helps put farmland preservation in front of voters. The federation’s banking on wide appeal, noting Home Grown’s goal is to “increase consumer knowledge about the negative impacts of urban development on Ontario agri-food system.”

The effort is gaining momentum. By Wednesday, the petition already had nearly 4,300 signatures. And allies such as beef farmers were adding their voices to the effort.

Beef farmers are particularly concerned about urban sprawl. Pastureland is being lost faster than other kinds of farmland, and it’s those pastures on which beef producers and consumers depend for grass-fed beef production.

The beef farmers’ advocacy group, Beef Farmers of Ontario, say it stands with the federation to prevent more farmland from being lost.

“These losses are unsustainable and given the anticipated population growth in Ontario, Canada and the world, further priority and action by government is needed to protect farmland in order to maintain a sufficient supply of locally grown food,” says organization president Rob Lipsett.

Pro-development advocates have said that farmland unsuitable for growing crops should be the first land used for non-agricultural use. But beef farmers don’t buy that contention.

Lipsett says so-called marginal land – land that’s on the edge of crop productivity, suited mainly for grass production – is perfect for beef pasture. It doesn’t need to be cultivated and for the most part beef animals fertilize it themselves with their own manure.   

“Every acre of pastureland that is protected contributes to soil health and provides a home for earthworms, wildlife and birds, not to mention the carbon storage ability of our tame grasslands,” says Lipsett.

Maintaining farmland is not all about food production. But the pandemic has drawn attention to the fact that we need to pay more attention than ever to our food sources, no matter what we eat.

Click here to see the petition and learn more about the campaign online.

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