The rising rate of farmland loss in Canada is a cause for alarm for many who work in agriculture and food security. Canada has experienced a 3.2% decrease in total farm area since 2016, according to the recently released Census of Agriculture. With only 189,874 farms left in Canada today, the toll on rural communities and food security, if left unchecked over time, could be staggering.
In Ontario, the loss appears in very stark numbers. According to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the province is now losing 319 acres of farmland every day, up from 175 acres in 2016. That represents the loss of nine family farms every week.
Pressures on the province
The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO), an advocacy group representing over 4,000 farm families, has been concerned about the loss of farmland since the 1970s.
“We’ve seen the rate of loss increase in Ontario, despite significant effort by many, many organizations, both environmentally- and farm-focused” says Suzanne Armstrong, Director of Policy and Research for the CFFO. “All of them recognize the value of farmland, not just for producing food, but also environmental goods and services like managing pollution and providing habitat.”
While Ontario has suffered a 5.65% loss in acres of farmland over the last five years, British Columbia has seen a loss of 11.8% according to Danielle Synotte, Executive Director of the BC Agriculture Council (BCAC).
“Our farmland continues to face significant pressures from urban development and demand from other industries,” reports Synotte. “With less than 5% of our province’s total land base dedicated to agriculture, BCAC believes it is timely that all levels of government, in collaboration with industry partners, reflect on how this sector has changed and discuss what the land use needs are of our farmers that prioritize ways to prevent further loss of farmland.”
According to the BCAC, farmland losses are a result of development pressures, rising costs and regulatory burdens. Synotte calls on government to help prevent farms from being sold for other uses that do not prioritize food production.
Housing vs. Farming
Only Ontario, BC and Quebec have strong frameworks for agricultural land protection. Yet, despite preservation efforts, it’s obvious that these frameworks are under pressure.
“In land use planning in Ontario,” explains Armstrong, “we have rules to figure out how much space is going to be needed for housing, how much for industrial, and so on, but we don’t calculate how much farmland or natural space we’re going to need. That’s just seen as the space that’s used to meet all the other needs.”
Armstrong notes that current demand for affordable housing is part of the issue.
“It’s hard to make arguments for farmland protection when people need places to live,” says Armstrong. “But there are solutions to make sure we’re meeting housing demands without necessarily gobbling up farm fields.”
The CFFO supports measures like brownfield development and increased density requirements within already settled areas. Rather than designating huge acreages for suburban single-family dwellings, planners should be enabled to incorporate different types of units within neighbourhoods. This can increase diversity, improve transportation and other public services, and open up public green space for more people to enjoy – without compromising food security.
Although Canadians have been used to accessing international markets to import food, cracks in the system are showing up through empty grocery shelves and threats of hunger in developing countries. Concerns for national food security have increased among Canadians, thanks to recent experiences like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
A societal shift is necessary
Farmland protection is an important part of ensuring food security, but the battle can’t be fought by farmers and farm organizations alone. Armstrong suggests two methods of response.
First, she recommends talking to elected representatives to let them know farmland protection should be a priority in your community.
“Good land use planning is fundamentally the best way to protect farmland,” says Armstrong. “So how you vote, talking to politicians, right down to your local representatives, is important. Your region and municipality have a huge role to play in terms of how that land in your area is protected.”
Second, a societal shift is necessary: “We as citizens have to take a role in our own expectations for our own housing,” she says. “Density is good for everyone.”
Less than five percent of Canada is arable land, and over half of that has already been developed into urban and suburban space. Protecting our remaining farmland will require cultural support.
Christians can see farmland protection as a means of not only caring for creation, but also caring for our neighbours. Armstrong points out, “We have a responsibility to steward that food-producing capacity wherever it’s found around the world, especially our local food-producing capacity to make sure we have the ability to feed ourselves as well as others.”