Ontario's farmers are urging the Ford government to reverse the removal of Greenbelt land for housing development. They argue taking valuable agricultural land out of the Greenbelt is a short-sighted decision that overlooks the long-term implications for food production. Farmers say farmland within the Greenbelt plays a pivotal role in ensuring a stable and sustainable food supply for the province.
Demands from Ontario’s agricultural sector follow two scathing reports released last month from the province's auditor general and the integrity commissioner. The auditor’s report found the Ford government's 2022 decision to open a portion of the protected Greenbelt for development was made without consideration of environmental and agricultural risks. It also ran contrary to the Greenbelt plan's vision and goals, which aim to provide permanent protection for key agricultural land and natural features, and noted altering its existing boundaries may result in adverse environmental and agricultural consequences.
Gerry Reid, a longtime farmer in Mono, Ont., whose family has owned its farm Reid’s Potatoes for over 178 years, criticized the Greenbelt decision as a "bureaucratic boondoggle" that ignored critical factors like environmental sustainability, soil quality, food security and agriculture sustainability.
“This government has just proven that they don't understand or care about farmers. In other words, if you don't have a nickel in the barrel, you don't really care what happens to the barrel,” said Reid. “A farming unit needs a base to make it viable and sustainable. If we carve pieces off, it soon will cease to exist.”
Canada already imports more than 75 per cent of its fruits and vegetables, Reid said. Removing any of the highly productive land in southern Ontario will only increase the country's dependency on imports. “Note the spike and unavailability of lettuce during the pandemic, let alone the carbon and fuel to get it here from the U.S.,” he added.
According to the auditor general’s report, the Greenbelt plays an important role in sustaining ecological and human health and has some of the most productive farmland in Canada.
"Agriculture Ministry staff found that 76 per cent of the approximately 7,400 acres removed were in active agricultural use in 2022," the report stated. About 83 per cent of the total area removed is classified as Class 1 to Class 3 prime agricultural land, which the province’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs signifies is the highest quality and capability for agriculture.
The 2022 boundary changes removed almost 1,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands from the Greenbelt. The province’s own Agriculture Ministry staff determined removing three of the 15 sites (91 per cent of the total area removed) is likely to result in significant adverse impacts on agriculture due to their large size, existing agricultural uses and connection to nearby farmland.
“Farmland is for those who grow food, not speculative investors. Return the 7,400 acres unjustly and irresponsibly stolen from the Greenbelt,” said Max Hansgen, president of the National Farmers Union-Ontario. “[Premier Doug] Ford himself will do nothing to address the actual impacts this carving up of the Greenbelt will have on food production or the continued protection of our finite farmland, which we were already losing at a rate of 319 acres per day,” Hansgen said.
Gerry Reid, a longtime farmer in Mono, Ont., criticized the Greenbelt decision as a "bureaucratic boondoggle" that ignored critical factors like environmental sustainability, soil quality, food security and agriculture sustainability. #Greenbelt
The fact the province is refusing to reverse its decision is further eroding trust among farmers and the public, he added.
Both reports stated that the Ford government's 2022 decision resulted from a deeply flawed and biased process and that Ontario's previous housing minister, Steve Clark, violated ethics rules. Clark and his chief of staff have since resigned, and the Ontario Provincial Police has handed its review of the Greenbelt land swap to the RCMP for investigation. Ford has expressed his confidence that the investigation will reveal no criminal wrongdoing.
According to the latest data from the 2021 Census of Agriculture, the rate of farmland depletion in Ontario has surged to 319 acres per day. In the 2016 census, the rate was 175 acres per day.
Between 2016 and 2021, the overall acreage of Ontario farmland declined from 12.3 million acres to 11.7 million acres.
Ford insists the removals are necessary to build crucial housing for Ontario, despite the auditor’s conclusion that there were other ways the province’s housing needs could be met.
Ontario’s Greenbelt was created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from development. The swath of about two million acres of protected land includes farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes. In December 2022, the Ford government removed land from the Greenbelt to open it up for housing development as part of the province’s commitment to build 1.5 million new homes over the next decade. A total of 7,400 acres were removed, which the provincial government rationalizes with its commitment to add another 9,400 acres to the Greenbelt elsewhere.
This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.