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Ontario loses 175 acres of farmland to urban development a day, says farmers group

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture says between 1996 and 2016, Ontario lost prime farmland to urban development at a rate of 175 acres (over 70 hectares) per day, something the organization is calling unsustainable.

Between 1996-2016, Ontario saw equivalent of 5 family farms paved under each week

A new analysis by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture says Ontario lost prime farmland to urban development to the tune of 175 acres (about 70 hectares) a day between 1996 and 2016. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Over the past two decades, Ontario lost farmland at a rate of 175 acres (about 70 hectares) a day, the equivalent of five family farms each week, according to a recent analysis of census data from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). 

That loss has largely been on the urban rim of Ontario's cities, where outer suburbs meet with some of the country's best-quality soil, which is being replaced by houses on large lots, new roads, highways and strip malls at a daily magnitude roughly equivalent to 135 football fields between 1996 and 2016, the OFA said. 

The analysis is part of a new advocacy campaign launched this month by the farm group, which seeks to give the preservation of Ontario farmland used for food production new urgency.

Among the most recent threats to farm country, according to the OFA, are Minister's Zoning Orders, or MZOs, a powerful mechanism used by the province to override local councils to fast-track development that, until the election of the Progressive Conservative government under Doug Ford, was rarely used in the province. 

Use of MZOs raises 'significant issues' for farmers

"There's significant issues with MZOs and the lack of long-term planning," said OFA president Peggy Brekveld, a northern Ontario dairy farmer. 

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark has generated controversy by repeatedly using MZOs to fast-track development in urban areas, a powerful tool that was rarely used by the province until the PCs were elected. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

She pointed to a number of recent examples where Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark used his extraordinary power to override local planning processes, including fast tracking a housing development in Caledon, a Chinese-owned glass factory in Stratford, as well as a number of other developments in the Greater Toronto Area

While Brekveld criticized the government, she fell short of answering whether farmers, who are among the Ontario PC government's biggest supporters, may also be its biggest victims when it comes to MZOs. 

"It's a great question, but I'm not going to go there. Instead, I'm going to say everybody benefits if we look at long-term land use planning." 

However, the province told CBC News that it only uses MZOs when a local community asks for it. 

"MZOs issued by our government on non-provincially owned lands have been at the request of local municipalities," Krystle Caputo, director of communications for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, wrote in an email. 

"The previous Liberal government carved up the Greenbelt 17 times, so it is no surprise they were losing 175 acres of farmland per day," she said. 

London, Ont., home to some of best land in Canada

The problem of urban expansion is of particular concern in the fast-growing London region, where large swathes of some of the best farmland in Canada  have been paved over in the last half-century for shopping malls and suburban housing developments. 

A deserted farmhouse sits on the urban rim of London, Ont., where developers are about to pave it under as the city expands ever outwards. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"Look at how much London has grown," said Crispin Colvin, a Thorndale area farmer and an executive member of the OFA board of directors. "Masonville being the cattle farm that it once was in the '70s and '80s and to the PetSmart and Loblaws. It's a big problem."

Colvin said beyond London, many of the small towns and villages that fall into the city's orbit are also growing quickly, as more people push outwards trying to find cheaper land outside the city — turning places such as Ilderton or Lucan, Ont., into bedroom communities. 

"All of that is class one, two and three land, which is the best land in the country, let alone Ontario, and we only have about one per cent of all land in Ontario that fits into those classes of one, two and three." 

Under the Canada Land Inventory or CLI, land is graded for its potential agricultural use from one to seven, one being the highest potential for use in mechanized agriculture with high to moderate nutrients and seven being the least, including marshland, rock and steep slopes. 

"The more we lose class one, two and three farmland, the less opportunity we have to grow locally," Colvin said, noting that Waterloo Region is among the only urban areas in Ontario that shows a preference for building up rather than out. 

Urban growth threatens rural sustainability

The OFA argues the current practice of destroying farmland in favour of urban development at a rate of 175 acres daily is unsustainable because if it continues, it could one day affect the country's food sovereignty, whereby a people have control of their own food and nutrition from growth to consumption. 

The OFA says the sustainability of farmland in Ontario is threatened by the magnitude of urban development. The province has seen the equivalent of 135 football fields worth of farmland like this lost a day to housing and shopping malls since 1996. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"We lose sight of the fact that food is the most important aspect of development that we should be looking at. We should be protecting our food source.

"If we continue down this path, ultimately Ontario and Canada could be a net importer of food rather than a net exporter of food and that could change our whole economic structure as well, not just our concern with food security."

Colvin said one only has to look as far as the COVID-19 pandemic to understand what happens to nations who do not control the supply of vital commodities such as food, which he likens to vaccines in the current health crisis. 

"Countries that had vaccine ability were keeping it for their populations and their people. Imagine what would happen if we end up doing the same thing with food?" 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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