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Canadians can no longer afford to stay disconnected from farmers and their food sources

Changes in Ontario being proposed to pave over some of the country’s most productive farmland is one recent example of blissful ignorance in practice
In this photo taken using a drone, a tractor is seen working a farm field in Manotick, Ontario on Thursday, July 13, 2022.

With warmer temperatures upon us, farmers across the country are in the thick of production. Some will plant seeds and tend to seedlings in the recent unthawed ground. Others who raise livestock will delight in green sprigs poking through dead pasture as new grazing grounds for their animals. 

Few of us know this, think about this, or naturally see the parallels between the evolution of local food systems and seasonal changes. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity in its work to analyze public perceptions of agriculture asked Canadians about their understanding of farming and found 91 per cent of respondents said they know little, very little or nothing about modern agricultural practices. 

“We tend to only interest ourselves in what our daily lives are and most people aren’t on a farm — they’re about two to three generations removed,” John Jamieson, CEO of the national non-profit, told me of the numbers. 

The implication of prevalent disconnection with agriculture through rapid urbanization, however, is more than the fact that most Canadians are blissfully unaware of the long days and gruelling work required to ensure an unblemished Sunrise tomato or a finely marbled cut of Angus beef reaches the shelves of supermarkets.

What is more dire than this lack of understanding and appreciation for the farm-to-table journey is that the public remains disengaged on policy decisions that will impact the way their food makes its way or doesn’t make its way to their table. 

This is currently playing out as the Ford government in Ontario has proposed a gamut of policy measures that have the potential to shrink the province’s agriculture sector, which is already under threat. Recent census statistics tell us Ontario loses about 319 acres of farmland each day — that’s equivalent to 797 hockey rinks.

Most recently, Ford’s government introduced Bill 97 — the Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act, which includes an overhaul of planning and growth rules in southern and rural Ontario to build more houses. This legislation increases the minister's power to override local planning processes and instantly change the parameters of how a specific piece of land can be used, with no avenue to appeal. Many voices in city planning and agriculture have said it would contribute to the loss of vital farmland and mandate sprawl, resulting in land that was previously earmarked for farmers being turned into subdivisions.

Those changes are open for comments until June 5, with the new provincial policy expected to take effect in the fall.

That development fell on the heels of Bill 23, also known as the More Homes Built Faster Act. This legislation, which has received equally as much criticism from farmers, would end third-party appeals on planning applications, and reduce the charges developers are required to pay for building permits on affordable and rental units. Critics, like the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, claim these measures give developers preferential treatment and get rid of checks and balances that would allow producers or residents to make the case for farmland preservation.

Even after news emerged of developers cozying up with Ford as attendees of his daughter’s wedding and stag and doe months before protected lands were removed from the Greenbelt, polling numbers from Abacus Data suggest it didn’t strike a nerve with Canadians. Forty-five per cent of respondents said they had heard about the incident but were “not following that closely.” Just seven per cent were “following the story very closely” and another 18 per cent “pretty closely.”

David Coletto, CEO and chair of the polling firm, chalks the findings up to the fact that news on planning policy and its impact on farmland is not overly accessible or digestible to the every-person. 

“We have this widespread understanding that housing is a problem, and that’s a competing interest,” he said. “People don’t really know what's involved to produce a lot of the things we use in our life, including food and so it just means it’s harder to connect the dots.”

Critics of the Ford government’s blueprint have proposed taking more pragmatic, creative solutions to build high-density, walkable neighbourhoods that still prioritize local food systems, as seen in Kitchener-Waterloo. The region has won awards across North America, and has been recognized for being collaborative with the community and developers in its planning. But without the awareness and willingness of the public to back farmers and those representing them, the likelihood of Premier Ford progressing on his proposed measures remains high. 

It’s worth noting that more than half of Canada's most productive soils are in Ontario. The province’s agriculture industry also contributes $47 billion annually to the economy and is the fifth-largest exporter of food in the world. And while there’s a case to be made for provincial residents paying attention to the deterioration of its farmland, it’s arguably of national interest too. Recent Statistics Canada data show nearly 247,000 farms were part of the national agriculture landscape in 2001, but now that total falls to just under 190,000. Other numbers from the University of Guelph’s department of rural development and planning say every year 50,000 acres of farmland disappear in Canada because of urban expansion.

If we can imagine the importance of self-sufficiency and how crucial it is to have a robust agriculture sector here at home, look no further than the onset of COVID-19. Canadians experienced the fragility of global supply chains firsthand when the pandemic disrupted the flow of commodities into the country, leaving grocery store shelves scarce. What sustained many communities were their local farmers who grew produce and raised livestock for meat and eggs a short car ride away. The moment presented some glimmer of hope in restoring a connection between everyday people and the world of agriculture. Returning to a post-pandemic normal, however, has once again enabled consumers to become reliant on big box grocery stores that displace them from the realities and people on farms. 

Most of us may not live to see another public health crisis like the recent pandemic, but we will no doubt be exposed to the shocks of severe weather events due to climate change. This will take a toll on food systems worldwide. If Canada can preserve its farmland to continue to produce food across the country, it will be more resilient to future social, economic or environmental shocks. 

It is easy to lose sight of and disengage from these issues, especially when agriculture has become a foreign concept for a lot of Canadians. But the simple fact is that consumers in Ontario and in every other province and territory can no longer afford to live a life where it is normal to be detached. Farmers must also think about the opportunity the moment presents to forge relationships and educate consumers. Premier Ford’s policy measures are just one recent example of how the public will pay the price for its own ignorance. Once farmland is paved over, it is gone forever.

Lindsay Campbell is a strategist at Syntax Strategic and a former agriculture journalist

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