Want to Stop Cities Eating Up Farmland? We Need Urban Allies



It’s estimated that an average of 350 acres of arable land per day are gobbled up in Ontario alone. While urban sprawl may have less of an acres-per-day impact in less populous provinces, the permanent loss of farmland is and should be a major concern not just for farmers, but for urbanites, too.

When’s the last time you saw a development bulldozed and planted back to native grasses and shrubs? Or rows of vegetables, sweet corn or wheat? It simply doesn’t happen — once houses or buildings go up on farmland, that land is taken out of food production, full stop. Add in development along “picturesque” creeks and wooded areas, and you’ve lost wildlife habitat and managed to interrupt natural erosion control and nutrient cycling.

While urbanites cry foul of farmers’ “environmentally-damaging” practices, they turn around and burn fuel for an hour in traffic each way to work, sipping from toss-away coffee cups, only to return to their too-big house to over-fertilize their lawn and use neonics on their pets.

But I digress.

I’m pleased to see the Ontario Federation of Agriculture leading a coalition of 16 farm organizations calling for a halt to the urban sprawl plaguing this province. If this is going to work, however, we’re missing critical members of this coalition — urbanites (our consumers), and, dare I say it, especially those with an environmentalist bent.

Why, you may ask? Because a) farmers and rural residents are the minority (and have you seen how little rural Ontario matters in this day and age?), and b) it’s consumers and urbanites demanding this development, seemingly oblivious to their own environmental footprint. If we’re going to protect farmland and improve or maintain Canadians’ food self sufficiency, we need urbanites to change their desire for suburbia, the two-car culture, and their postage-stamp-sized useless Kentucky bluegrass lawns.

Image of headline and feature image from GuelphToday.com
Image of headline and feature image from GuelphToday.com

It’s no small feat. And a headline and feature image such as the one that appeared on GuelphToday.com is not helping our cause.

For starters, the headline is condescending to our urban friends. Secondly, the stock image of an older white male in ill-fitting coveralls and a squashed hat holding a pitchfork is so cliché I actually audibly groaned when I saw it. I know — it wasn’t anyone in the coalition who chose the headline or image, but THIS is how media covers the topic. THIS is the tone they’ve set and what they’re choosing to focus on. We have to change this. We need to find our shared values and work together. (The singing of kumbaya can begin any time now).

Farmers and members of the agriculture and food processing industry need to reach out and find urban allies. We need the push to “build up, not out” to be driven by consumer demand. We need our urban customers to understand the very real environmental cost of developing sensitive areas, of taking productive land out of the food system, of pushing wildlife out. Simultaneously, farmers need to prove how they’re protecting the same — why they are the ones that should continue to care for this land.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers — having lived in cities most of my adult life, I’ve witnessed first-hand the trade-offs and decisions made when deciding between older, more urban neighbourhoods and shiny new, modern subdivisions. There’s also the other side of this: the landowners and farmers selling land to developers. For many, the equity held in their land base is their entire retirement plan.

But I do see the very real and time-sensitive issue of stopping the permanent loss of farmland. There’s no time to waste, and the more voices we have on the side of protecting farmland, the better. I, for one, hope to see significant urban voices added to the call.

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