All eyes are on rising food prices and the Ontario government’s proposed Greenbelt development, and rightfully so. Food price increases and development of farmland are both very visible crises. However, the loss of farmers in Canada is an invisible crisis that will only exacerbate these problems.
Canada is headed toward a future with less than 100,000 farmers feeding a population of over 55 million people. This very well could happen before the turn of the century. The movement away from farming can be seen as economic progress and technological advancement and some may celebrate the so-called “entrepreneurial spirit” of investors gobbling up tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of acres. But it is worth considering why these trends aren’t helping us now and will only get worse in the future.
Now, farmers represent only 0.5 per cent of the total Canadian population, with the average age of these farmers having increased to 56 years old, according to the latest census data. Canada has fewer farmers and they’re aging out of the profession. In the last two decades alone, Canada has net lost nearly 150,000 farmers. Even more alarmingly, only 7.5 per cent of current farmers are under the age of 35, indicating fewer farmers getting into this work and a high chance of this decline continuing.
While consolidation of farms is often touted as more efficient and therefore beneficial for consumers, this rarely applies when it comes to food prices. As recent news coverage has made clear, the intense supply chain consolidation that has already occurred has done little to help keep food prices affordable for consumers. Rather, a handful of large grocers and consumer packaged goods, seed and chemical corporations have all but captured every excess dollar as profit.
Despite decades of overproduction, corporately consolidated food systems have been exposed repeatedly as unstable against risk and unable to distribute food where it is needed. Unexpected global supply chain disruptions like COVID-19 or significant climate damage affecting breadbasket areas of the world have starkly exposed the vulnerability of our current food supply. Add widely criticized policy decisions that presume ecosystems and prime farmland can simply be picked up and moved, like the Ontario government’s Bill 23 related to Greenbelt development, and the instability increases further.
It sounds — and is — bleak. So, what can we do? Below are seven steps we can take to increase the number of young farmers and our chance at a more stable food system.
First, educators, parents and politicians can consider agriculture as a viable career that young people can and should be encouraged to pursue.
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Second, policymakers at all levels of government should recognize that a more just food production ecosystem allows for a far greater diversity of farm operations, not just large mono-cropping, and factory-farmed animal production.
Third, municipalities can change land-use policies to allow existing farm operators to split their land into smaller parcels, allowing the next generation to build a house on the farm instead of being priced out of the market by larger operations.
Fourth, the rise in urban agriculture in many cities creates opportunities to train and empower urban dwellers with the skills needed to start a larger farm in a rural setting.
Fifth, create land trusts like we have done with conservation authorities to make productive farmland protected and accessible to young first-generation farmers without drowning them in debt and interest charges for a lifetime.
Sixth, federally invest in land back initiatives to allow for local food production and further self-determination of Indigenous communities.
Seventh, stop paving over and building on some of the most productive soil and diverse ecosystems in the world. Infill cities rather than continuing to expand suburban boundaries.
When it comes to something as critical as how we feed ourselves as a society, shouldn't we prefer more knowledgeable farmers who can help us sustain life during difficult times in the future, not fewer?
More farmers could also provide a wider diversity of production methods, giving people the dignity of an honest choice about what type of food they eat. Or would we rather trust a handful of inflexible, corporately owned giants overproducing calories in service to global commodity markets?
The answer is clear.
Richie Bloomfield is an assistant professor in management and organizational studies at Huron University College at Western University and the co-founder of Urban Roots London, a non-profit organization that revitalizes underused land in the Ontario city for agriculture.