When its Department of Public Health revealed in 2007 that Toronto only had three days worth of food on hand if borders with the United States were to close, I wasn’t surprised, but I sure was concerned. And although not all of us live in a metropolis of over 6.5 million eaters, this stat reflects the reality for every major Canadian city, because all of us are dependent on prime farmland for our food security. But, this scary stat did more than raise the alarm.
When its Department of Public Health revealed in 2007 that Toronto only had three days worth of food on hand if borders with the United States were to close, I wasn’t surprised, but I sure was concerned. And although not all of us live in a metropolis of over 6.5 million eaters, this stat reflects the reality for every major Canadian city, because all of us are dependent on prime farmland for our food security. But, this scary stat did more than raise the alarm. It also prompted many to take action to better protect Canada’s precious farmland.
You see it every day with more and more Canadians tapping into the local food movement, learning about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and asking how they can better support local farmers and their region’s agricultural economy. And it’s high time. With climate impacts already affecting our communities, seeing food security as a key component of resiliency has moved beyond a concept into a reality.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Ontario, and the Greenbelt and Growth Plans in particular, which are good examples of government led food resiliency planning. These two Plans for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) region get to the heart of protecting agricultural land, economies, and food security. At the same time the plans encourage growth in urban centres that is more compact and land efficient. Both plans work together to protect over 1.8 million acres of Canada’s highest quality farmland and iconic natural landscapes such as the Oak Ridge’s Moraine and Niagara Escarpment. It’s a progressive model that is starting to have an impact on other regions across the country as well.
Cities like Montreal, Halifax and Calgary who all have similar urban/rural challenges have all looked to Ontario’s Greenbelt and Growth Plans as successful solutions. Grassroots initiatives in those cities have begun to explore the possibility of creating Greenbelts, and using progressive policy tools to protect land and communities. There are others across the country too, such as BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve that has farmland protection at its centre.
So just how effective have the Greenbelt and Growth Plans been at protecting farmland? We know in Ontario between 2006-2016, that there were no official plan amendments within the protected Greenbelt that would convert agricultural land to non-farm uses. This means that as a policy tool, the Greenbelt Plan has worked to protect land. We also know that both plans have been effective at reducing urban sprawl and inefficient land use by directing growth in urban centres and by integrating transit to reduce the number of car-dependent developments gobbling up prime farmland. The plans also incorporate climate change and watershed planning, and now include low impact development and green infrastructure into their mix of policy solutions. However, the same cannot be said for land situated outside the Greenbelt, which continues to be lost as it is converted to houses, roads and factories. The 2011 Census of Agriculture indicated that we lose over 140 hectares of farmland every day in Ontario. According to the Ontario Farmland Trust, “Ontario has reached a ‘tipping point’ – if we continue to lose our farmland and our population continues to grow, Ontario will lose the ability to be food self-sufficient within the next 20 years and will become more dependent on food imports.”
This is another important warning that shouldn’t be ignored. Despite Greenbelt protection success, it’s clear that much of the remaining prime farmland outside its boundary is under threat and needs to be protected as part of the regional food hub.
The good news is that the provincial government has just finished mapping the agricultural system within the growth plan area for the GGH. This is a first step towards identifying lands and resources needed to sustain the agricultural economy over time. This leaves the door open for new solutions that could ensure this land is not lost unnecessarily to urban development.
We need new policies that help reorient the food system toward a more resilient model, to decrease urbanization rates on farmland and support farmers. In an age of climate change, we must counter the troubling trends that have seen our food system become more consolidated, more export focused with less variety of crops being grown. Instead, we need to bring more balance back to the system by creating a new “foodbelt” land-use category specifically for protecting prime farmlands and local food systems.
Lessons learned from Ontario’s Greenbelt experience show that there is benefit to coordinating land-use planning from a regional perspective with strategic investments in infrastructure (i.e., transit) in the right places. In tandem, this avoids sprawl and encourages more compact development, which in turn preserves farmland. Furthermore, urban design that addresses more efficient land use and concentrates growth within urban boundaries will protect agricultural lands – and improve the regional economic vitality.
At the end of the day, we aren’t growing any more farmland. The future sustainability of our regions across Canada depends on us shifting growth away from urban sprawl and reversing the loss of farmland and natural areas. Nothing else will protect our food security and the farms and farm communities that underpin it. Your voice matters. Contact your federal and provincial elected representatives and tell them to put strong policies in place to protect our food security, farming economies and some of Canada’s best remaining farmland.
This article is part of a collaborative series between Environmental Defence and Alternatives Journal.