Predictably, once he was re-elected, Ontario Premier Doug Ford took almost no time to break his Greenbelt preservation promise. Last month he announced plans to open up protected land for development and blamed it on newly transplanted Ontarians and their housing needs, like they were some phenomena he’d never encountered before.
You could see it coming. He walked all over farmers during the most recent provincial election campaign, when he promised new highway development overtop farmland outside Toronto. Again, he said it was necessary to accommodate growth.
And I’m sure he’d also say the province is bending over backwards to support agriculture. Indeed, this week, on the tail of Ford’s broken Greenbelt promise, Agriculture, Food And Rural Affairs Minister Lisa Thompson announced a new and comprehensive pro-farming strategy called Grow Ontario. She describes it as a vision for the future of the province’s food supply chain, claiming “we do not take its strength and stability for granted.”
Ford would have had to support it. And at another given time, Grow Ontario would be a winner. It supports key needs like research, innovation and exports. Some commodity groups quickly lined up to praise it and promote it themselves; after all, it’s pretty progressive and visionary. You can tell someone like Thompson, who understands the agri-food system, had a big hand in it.
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But the elephant in the room – that is, Ford’s reversal on Greenbelt protection and farmland preservation – is just too big to ignore, or to spin. So pro-Greenbelt and pro-farmland groups are pushing back.
For example, last week a year-old initiative called Home Grown, led by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, torqued up its efforts to get Ontarians to join a save-the-farmland crusade. Even the most conservative farmers flinch when they hear the federation’s claim, based on 2021 Census of Agriculture data, that almost 320 acres of farmland are being lost daily in Ontario to development.
Politically, this is a tough position for Ontario’s main general farm organization to be in, given that farmers overwhelmingly vote Conservative. But that underlines the gravity of the matter. Farmers know that the province’s plans for a productive agri-food sector are no more than lip service if farmland loss is not halted. They also know their farms could be next. So, despite the potential political fallout, they’re standing up to Ford anyway.
Some of them have joined an even bigger and more militant coalition that is screaming at the top of its lungs about broken Greenbelt promises.
This group, including environmentalists and housing advocates, says Ford’s housing development plan doesn’t address the need for affordable housing. Most newcomers to Ontario can hardly shell out single-family GTA home prices, they say. So why pick on the Greenbelt?
Even Doug Ford knows Ontario’s allure includes its green space and its farmland. And agriculture is one of the province’s biggest income sources. How about investing in urban renewal instead of destroying a big part of what makes Ontario such a gem?