London

As the rest of Ontario loses farmland, it's growing in London

Ontario lost nearly seven per cent of its farms over the last 10 years, but London has seen an increase of more than 23 per cent, based on the 2021 census of agriculture. City staff credit urban growth boundary for the rise. 

The city has preserved its farmland, but a review of where developers can build is coming

London, Ont. is gaining farmland as the rest of the province is losing it, according to the 2021 census of agriculture. (Erik White/CBC)

Farm-rich Ontario has lost nearly seven per cent of its land to development over the last decade, but London has increased its agricultural footprint by more than 23 per cent, new census numbers show. 

The province is losing a significant amount of farmland every day. This, coupled with rising fuel and fertilizer costs — along with the threat of fertilizer shortage — has some fearing the province's food supply could be in jeopardy. 

City staff point to London's urban growth boundary, a key part of The London Plan and a sore spot for developers who say the city is being too stingy with how much land it allows for building, as the reason London is a leader in protecting agricultural land. 

"The urban growth boundary was established after annexation, and it came into force, in effect, as part of the city's first official plan after annexation in 1996," said Gregg Barrett, director of planning and development. 

London's urban growth boundary puts limits on where development can happen, at least for now. (Supplied by City of London)

It's the "inward and upward" part of London's plan for growth:

"Everything inside [the urban growth boundary] was identified for future regrowth, everything outside of it was identified for agriculture," said Barrett.

Gregg Barrett, London’s director of planning and development, says the city's urban growth boundary has protected agricultural land. (NEO Image Creations)

The last time the urban growth boundary was changed in London was in 2015, a year before the previous census of agriculture was released by Statistics Canada. That's why no farmland has been lost in recent years, Barrett said. 

In fact, the amount of farmland has increased in London by 1,617.5 hectares since 2016, according to the 2021 census. That could be because land slated for agriculture has actually been put for that use, Barrett said. 

On the flip side, the rest of the province lost 235,685.7 hectares of farmland over the same period, which amounts to 4.7 per cent. 

129 hectares of Ontario farmland lost a day

A loss of 235,685.7 hectares of Ontario farmland from 2016 to 2021 amounts to a daily loss of about 129 hectares. London only accounts for 0.3 per cent of all farmland provincewide. 

Crispin Colvin, the director of Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says that if we don't preserve our farmland, it could put our food security at risk. (Submitted by Ontario Federation of Agriculture)

The 129 hectares a day "is the aggregate amount of land lost for the province," said Crispin Colvin, director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "It's not necessarily in one area, but it's farmland lost to all other uses. It could be a building, it could be a road, it could be a parking lot, it could be a housing development — it's an aggregate loss." 

Once the land is gone, it's not coming back, he said. 

"When you start to look at food security and where are we going to get our food from, it becomes increasingly important to keep your farmland as much as you possibly can, because otherwise we don't want to be dependent on another country to provide our food," said Colvin.

As for London, a comprehensive review will begin at the end of 2022, meaning the urban growth boundary could possibly change.

Some developers and builders say London is losing out on prime tax dollars because other municipalities are building homes on the city's outskirts and collecting tax dollars on the properties — so while those residents work in the city, they don't pay property taxes in London. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Chaarani is a reporter for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo and London. You can reach him at james.chaarani@cbc.ca.

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