by SUSAN MANN
The province’s current land-use planning guidelines treat farmland in the Golden Horseshoe as areas waiting to be developed for housing but a unique partnership between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and an environmental group wants the provincial government to change that view.
The federation worked with Environmental Defence to jointly develop a number of recommendations so the province will recognize the economic and ecosystem benefits of Ontario’s farmland. The two groups jointly released a report, Tuesday, called Farmland At Risk: Why land use planning needs improvements for a healthy agricultural future in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Among the report’s recommendations is to place the area’s Class 1, 2 and 3 farmland under permanent protection.
The move would help farming thrive in the region, says Susan Lloyd Swail, Greenbelt program manager for Environmental Defence. “It would also allow municipalities to take farming concerns into their planning decision-making,” she says.
Federation president Don McCabe says for farmers, the protection would mean “that farmland will be available for production year after year after year.” It will ensure that the best asset in the region will be available for farm productivity, he says.
The report found that 75 per cent of the best farmland in the Toronto metropolitan area lies outside the protected Greenbelt area and is at risk of being paved over. Once soil is covered with pavement, it’s lost forever, Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray says in a Tuesday news release.
The organizations’ decision to work together on the issue may seem novel but “we actually have a lot in common,” says Lloyd Swail.
McCabe says both groups have the same position that farmland needs to be protected. Without farmland protection, “how are we going to eat? Where are the environmental goods and services going to come from?”
Lloyd Swail says her group decided to partner with the federation on the report because the federation is the “place to go for information on farmland issues in Ontario. The federation knows the issues within the Growth Plan (for the Greater Golden Horseshoe) that affect farmers so it’s important to have that knowledgeable and experienced voice in this report.”
Environmental Defence, based in Toronto, has been involved in land use planning matters for about 10 to 15 years, particularly dealing with urban sprawl and local food production, she explains. “We’re really interested in how we can encourage smarter growth” for municipalities.
The Greater Golden Horseshoe is the area in southwestern and central Ontario partly wrapped around the western edge of Lake Ontario, stretching from Niagara and heading north to Orillia and out to Peterborough. Agriculture in the area contributes $11 billion annually to Ontario’s economy and generates 38,000 jobs. The sector also supplies $1.6 billion a year in environmental benefits, including carbon pollution absorption, water filtration, runoff control and erosion protection.
Lloyd Swail says farmland makes up about half of the land area in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The other half is made up of urban development, roads and environmentally sensitive lands, such as land along watercourses and wetlands. “Agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors of the region.”
Almost 300,000 acres of prime farmland in the Greater Golden Horseshoe has been lost during the past 30 years. Additional farmland losses will have significant economic, environmental and quality-of-life impacts.
Grey says in the release that the Ontario government’s current reviews of the Greenbelt Plan and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe present an opportunity to move away from the 1950’s car-centered model for planning cities to planning guidelines that provide housing options at the same time as supporting the agricultural industry.
Lloyd Swail says “urbanization affects farmland more than any other land.”
Among the groups’ other recommendations are:
- Freeze urban boundaries in the Greater Golden Horseshoe until 2031 and possibly to 2041. The Farmland At Risk report says there’s more than enough land within existing municipal boundaries to accommodate forecasted population growth.
- Tie provincial infrastructure fund allocations to municipalities meeting intensification targets.
- Require municipalities to do agricultural impact assessments when planning strategies that affect agricultural areas.
It will take a lot of public pressure to get the government to implement the groups’ recommendations, Lloyd Swail says. “I think it’s great Environmental Defence and Ontario Federation of Agriculture together are showing the province how we can make these land use plans work better.” BF