Do you know where your food comes from? It’s a simple question with a surprisingly complex answer. Our food security and the economies that rely on it are dependent on a complicated agricultural supply chain – one that starts on the farm and ends at the dinner table.
However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. No matter where or when you are talking about it, there is one truth about farmers everywhere – you cannot farm without farmland. Whether you are talking about your morning toast, the cream in your coffee, the chicken on your dinner plate or the apple slices in your children’s lunch – all of these ingredients depend on Ontario farmers and Ontario farmland.
Protecting and preserving the land that grows these products is a key priority of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). Agricultural land is a finite and shrinking resource the agri-food sector depends on to effectively produce food, fibre and fuel for Ontario, Canada and the world. Farmers continue to be the definition of innovation, producing more yield with less inputs. With advances in technology and new, innovative techniques, farmers have become increasingly efficient at maximizing the productivity of farmland.
However, urban sprawl continues to threaten the sustainability and viability of our sector. Today, Ontario farmers grow and produce more than 200 different commodities and the industry employs nearly 1 million workers in food production and processing. Additionally, the agri-food sector contributes $47 billion annually to the provincial economy.
Over the past 25 years, Ontario has lost farmland at an alarming rate. To put the problem into perspective, according to OMAFRA’s data collected from the 2016 Census of Agriculture, from 1996-2016, Ontario lost 1.5 million acres of farmland to development, at a daily rate loss of 175 acres per day — roughly the size of 135 football fields. That works out to be an average of five farms per week lost to development in an effort to keep pace with Ontario’s growing population.
The rate at which our province is losing agricultural land is not sustainable. Especially given the fact that less than 5% of Ontario’s land base can support agricultural production of any kind. With the demand to increase the production of food, fibre and fuel for an ever-growing population, farmers struggle as our finite resources continue to diminish.
With the development of farmland, jobs are being lost, resources are becoming limited, and our agri-food system is experiencing more pressure to be sparing with their land. This can all have extremely detrimental effects on the security of food production in Ontario.
Over the past two years, we have seen an increase in the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs). MZOs allow the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing the ability to bypass previous planning rules in order to change the zoning of a piece of property. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been over six MZOs issued that have directly impact farmland.
The Ontario government is using MZOs to permit low-density housing subdivisions, nursing homes, warehouses, factories, and other non-agriculture uses on productive farmland, contributing to urban sprawl with projects better suited to an urban landscape.
OFA urges the government to prioritize the protection and preservation of viable farmland used to grow grains, fruits and vegetables and raise our livestock for meat, poultry and dairy. Canada is one of the very few developed countries that can currently meet the food requirements of our population while continuing to export to other areas of the world.
We saw the importance of this during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis when borders closed, and store shelves ran dangerously low on supplies.
This raised awareness about the importance of food security and food sovereignty. Consumers have gained a newfound appreciation for locally sourced foods. The increased use of MZOs has the potential to jeopardize the future of our domestic food supply.
The loss of farmland affects both producers and consumers, threatening the supply of our domestic food production. Similar to how we view climate change, policymakers need to look to the future. When it comes to farming, OFA wants to ensure the next generation has the resources and land to food, fibre and fuel for the future.
Land use planning matters; where our food comes from matters too. When we lose agricultural land to urban sprawl, it is lost forever.
Peggy Brekveld, is president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture