Mega Quarry win shows it’s time for major agricultural policy reform in Ontario

November 27th, 2012 by Laura Bowman

Last week Highland Companies announced plans to withdraw its application to build a quarry in Melancthon Ontario.  The “Mega Quarry” has been a rallying cry for local food and agriculture reform, as well as aggregates reform in Ontario.

Now is not a time for farmers, environmentalists and foodies to rest on their laurels.  Ontario’s agricultural policy needs big-time reform.  For far too long Ontario has badly neglected the agricultural sector on all fronts, financial, marketing, trade policy, land use protection, water policies, and from a food security perspective.  The Mega Quarry dispute highlighted many of these problems.

This fall the Local Food Act 2012 was introduced in Ontario. This died on the order paper when the legislature was prorogued.  This is ok, because the Local Food Act, 2012 provided no meaningful protection or promotion of Ontario agriculture, instead it designated a local food week and allowed the creation of discretionary programs for promoting local food.   To be blunt, the Act was more of a public relations exercise than one that promised meaningful plans for Ontario agriculture.

Ontario can do better, and doing better means comprehensive reform to Ontario agricultural policies.  Right now, Ontario doesn’t plan for long term food security in any major policy area.  In my opinion five broad areas of reform should be looked at urgently:

  1. Ontario farmers need more recognition and even better financial compensation for the significant contribution they make to healthy watersheds and ecological systems.
  2. The provincial policy statement requires comprehensive reforms to ensure that Ontario’s agricultural land does not continue to be lost to sprawl and resource extraction (including aggregates) and that land use rules promote long term food security.
  3. Third, source protection and watershed management needs to better protect the needs of agricultural water users.
  4. Fourth, foreign land ownership in Ontario of the best agricultural lands needs to be prohibited.
  5. Finally, trade policies need to be reformed to prevent unfair competition with local producers.

Some of these concerns were also echoed in the Ontario Farmland Trust’s recent analysis.  This analysis also suggests really interesting innovation like a tax on greenfield development.  If we don’t move on these reforms and fast Ontario will be impacted by serious long‑term food security problems.  The Trust notes that one generation from now Ontario will not be self‑sufficient in food production.

Class 1 agricultural lands are the only class of land with no significant constraints on production.  Over 18 percent of Class 1 farmland has been covered with urban sprawl in Ontario.  This land has been lost to agriculture forever.  Right now provincial land use policies don’t really protect these lands from being further destroyed.  Specialty crops, such as the fruit belt and the potato lands in Melancthon Ontario are also not adequately protected.

The provincial government’s draft reforms to the provincial policy statement that governs land use in the province would further erode agricultural protection.  In some cases lands that are important to specialty crop production are lost forever, including the Niagara fruit belt and most recently the threatened loss of a large portion of Ontario’s potato lands in the Mega Quarry dispute.  Many, including our clients the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce have also spoken out as part of planning reform about provincial policies allowing aggregate extraction to permanently destroy Ontario’s best farmland.  Reforms to the Aggregate Resources Act that have been put on hold by the end of this legislative session are also needed for aggregate operations that are already permitted by local governments.

None of Ontario’s water protection laws address comprehensive protection of water used by agricultural or even rural well users.  Most focus protections on aquatic habitat and municipal water use.  Water use by the agricultural sector is frequently impacted by infrastructure, development, sprawl and other forms of environmental degradation.

Another important feature of the process of destruction of agricultural land is buy-ups of the best lands in huge quantities.  The Boston hedge fund that bought the Mega Quarry lands is only one of many large foreign buyers who have been stockpiling agricultural land.  The National Farmers Union has identified this as a huge concern and has proposed land ownership restrictions.

There are also no proactive policies to properly compensate farmers who manage lands well and don’t sell or whose land use (and therefore value) is restricted to benefit the community as a whole, for example in greenbelt protection areas.  This causes resistance to land use protections from farmers who would otherwise support these initiatives.

Right now Ontario makes trade, planning, land use, and economic decisions like farmers don’t exist.  This needs to change – and soon.

Please note this blog is the opinion of the author only.

Filed in: Municipal/Planning Law

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