Despite reversal of Greenbelt swaps, Ford government doubling down on projects that put Ontario farmland at risk
Farmers know all too well how their livelihood is impacted by climate and weather conditions. A summer characterized by more record-breaking temperatures put significant stress on local food production.
According to data from Environment and Climate Change Canada, September temperatures reached 32.9 degrees without factoring the humidex, and the summer obliterated previous temperature marks for the country over the three-month period, a trend seen around the planet as 2023 saw the hottest summer ever recorded globally.
Future temperature could pose grave consequences for food production.
“While changing climate conditions may present potential opportunities for agriculture in Ontario (e.g. longer growing and grazing seasons), such benefits will likely be offset by negative impacts, resulting in declining productivity, crop failure, and livestock fatalities,” the Ontario climate change impact assessment report released by the Doug Ford PC government at the end of August, states.
Different crops have different needs which are being toyed with by a rapidly changing climate.
(The Pointer files)
Ontario is in a particularly vulnerable position, holding some of the nation's most fertile farmland while also bearing a significant brunt of the impacts of climate change. Southern Ontario is warming at twice the rate of the global average, experiencing extreme temperatures, particularly in the summer months. The same geographical area holds over half of Canada’s Class One farmland.
The Assessment analyzed the impacts of climate change on the following categories: food and agriculture, infrastructure, natural environment, people and communities, and business and economy. Under the food and agriculture area of focus, the report found that, of the three Class One categories, field crops and fruits and vegetables are facing high risk currently while livestock presently have a moderate risk. By 2050, the risk is anticipated to be high for all three categories and by 2080, the risk will be extreme for field crops and fruits and vegetables.
Studies show that there is approximately a 10 percent production loss for cauliflower, cabbage and rutabaga for every 10 days the temperature is above 30 degrees — the report also found that by 2080, the southern part of the province could see 60 days of temperatures topping 30 degrees. Increasing temperatures can also increase the potential for rot, in particular for certain varieties of grapes that require a freeze. A warmer climate can also boost the potential of diseases and spread of pests such as the Potato Leafhopper that targets forages like alfalfa. Moisture deficits pose similar problems, for example, drought during pollination and fertilization of corn can decrease yields by 20 to 50 percent.
“The ability to grow food is a gift that we've been given because of our climatic conditions and the quality of land in Ontario,” John Vanthof, NDP Critic for agriculture and rural affairs, told The Pointer. “And it's a gift that's going to become more and more important as the climate changes around the world. And we shouldn't squander it.”
But the report from the Ontario government was kept hidden for eight months before it was released. While Liberal Critic for agriculture and rural affairs, Stephanie Bowman, said she commends the PCs for commissioning the report, keeping it in the dark is not a good sign.
While the public can only speculate why the report was kept quiet, the damning risks outlining how farming will be impacted by climate change are not the only threat to local food security. Since their election, the PC government’s development agenda has been chipping away at farmland and greenspace, limiting the amount of farmland available which, as a result of climate change, is already decreasing in productivity.
The importance of farmland is often overlooked but it provides us with one very crucial need, food.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“Even before the Greenbelt changes, we're losing 320 acres a day of farmland to development,” Vanthof said. “And that is not sustainable.”
When the initial decision was made in November 2022 to remove 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt totalling over 7,000 acres, environmental groups, housing advocates, municipal leaders, youth and farmers banded together to oppose the decision in widespread protest which, after release of damning Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner investigation reports detailing the secretive process that led to the removals, the Ontario government backtracked on its decision. But even before Ford decided to take a knife to the Greenbelt, sectioning out lands for the development of houses, he had long before pursued a developer-driven agenda which puts the interests of the province’s wealthiest builders ahead of farmers, the environment and the public interest.
The 2021 census found that Ontario was losing 319 acres of farmland per day. This loss, which accelerated under the PCs, rose dramatically from 175 acres lost per day in 2016.
In 2020, the PCs passed Bill 229 with the highly contentious Schedule 6 which began to chip away at environmental protections. This legislation amended the Conservation Authorities Act by allowing “a decision of a conservation authority to cancel a permit or to make another decision to be appealed by the permit holder to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (now the OLT).”
The same year, the province amended the Places to Grow Act, requiring municipalities to create a forecasted development plan for 30 years — an unprecedented timeframe in Ontario’s urban planning history. The amendment further opens the door for unsustainable forms of development, like urban sprawl, that need have been disproven to accommodate realistic population gains.
As a result, the Region of Peel voted to expand its urban boundary by 11,000 acres in April 2022, pushing into vital farmland and species habitat. The move was protested heavily by local residents who feared the push of housing and commercial space closer to the Greenbelt would simultaneously make it more difficult for the Region to meet its climate targets. While the move cannot be blamed fully on the Ontario government — regional councillors could have chosen to follow the lead of Waterloo Region and Hamilton which voted to freeze their urban boundaries, the decisions of regional councillors became irrelevant, as the Ford government mandated the expansion of the urban boundaries in Hamilton, Waterloo, Halton and other regions against the will of the local councils.
The 11,000-acre expansion in Peel, pushed through despite a record number of public delegations against the land grab, now raises even more red flags, after what has been exposed in the Greenbelt scandal. Critics have already been calling for widespread investigations to find out if, as was the case with the Greenbelt swaps, the municipal boundary expansions were driven secretly by developers and land speculators who now stand to make billions from the construction of more residential sprawl across the 905 and other parts of Southern Ontario.
“All those lands that were left out of the Greenbelt were supposed to last well into the next century, if not longer,” Victor Doyle, best known as the architect of the Greenbelt, told The Pointer. “They may never have been needed for urbanization.”
A memo recently leaked to the NDP dated April 2023, that Opposition Leader Marit Stiles subsequently shared with the public, shows the provincial government knew their forced changes to boundary expansions were highly controversial, listing potential issues with the expansions in Waterloo, Wellington County, Guelph, Barrie, Belleville and Peterborough.
“It explains that the changes to many of these urban boundaries were not assessed by municipal staff,” Stiles said in a press conference Wednesday, saying the document is proof the PCs were making a “conscious attempt to force sprawl on communities”.
The NDP has already asked the auditor general for an investigation into these expansions and whether preferential treatment was given to some of the same developers identified in the Greenbelt scandal, and possibly others.
Despite Ford’s admission of mistakes in the Greenbelt scandal and a reaffirmation of his 2018 election promise to not touch the protected corridor, the PC leader is slowly chipping away at the protected space with less obvious changes.
Since first taking power in 2018, the Ford government has triggered a major push for warehouse developments in the southern reaches of the Greenbelt, hoping to connect them to the proposed Highway 413 route, which would tear through valuable greenspace. These developments are being rammed through using Minister's Zoning Orders (MZO), a tool created under the Planning Act which was used approximately once per year by previous governments to streamline development in extenuating circumstances. Between March 2019 and 2021, the PC government issued 44 MZOs, a number that has dramatically increased in the years since, especially following the implementation of Bill 197 which expanded the Minister’s powers to issue these orders.
In its second term, the PC government came down heavy handed with Bill 23, mandating the construction of 1.5 million homes across the province by 2031 with strict housing targets for some of the province’s largest municipalities. The Bill, which was highly impugned by Ontarians, dramatically altered rural and urban land use planning. The government legislated major changes to the mandate of conservation authorities that eliminated their power to regulate or refuse permits based on “pollution or conservation of land” and removed regulations that prevent land managed by conservation authorities from being sold off for development. Under the Bill, permits are no longer required for lands regulated by conservation authorities, including wetlands. Bill 23 also removed planning authority from the Region of York, Peel, Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo and the County of Simcoe. Under the legislation, these upper-tier municipalities are no longer a part of the approval process for lower tier official plans and plans for subdivisions. This will pass approval authority for lower tier plans to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing whose decisions are not subject to appeal.
In order to mandate the changes required to meet the housing targets set under Bill 23, the Ford government introduced Bill 97 which, in its original draft, was described by the Ontario Farmland Trust as a “full frontal attack” on agriculture. While the government backtracked on the statement that would allow for farm lot severances, a win for the farming community, the bill simplified the process of pushing development into rural areas without mandating density targets, inevitably producing sprawl.
One of the government’s talking points for the Greenbelt Plan was that they were adding additional land elsewhere. But countless experts have countered this false notion, stating that not all land is of equal ecological value.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Bowman, the Liberal Critic, countered the PC’s sprawl driven agenda and stressed the importance of density, not only in large cities, but also in smaller cities and towns in order to protect the vital and fertile greenspace that surrounds many of these urban centres — the exact opposite of the kind of development being driven by the aforementioned bills.
She expressed that the concerns around farmland preservation are as present in the northern and eastern regions of the province as they are in the southwest parts home to the Greenbelt. But the Greenbelt is often touted as the most viable farmland. While the protected space only holds 6.1 percent of the province’s farmland, it holds 60 percent of Ontario’s food processing capacity.
“The thing a lot of people don't realize is you can't just trade one acre for another acre. There are certain climatic conditions in the Greenbelt zone that you just can't replace somewhere else,” John Vanthof, NDP critic for agriculture and rural affairs, told The Pointer. “Every acre of farmland is precious. I'm from Northern Ontario, and I've made my whole life farming, but my land can't grow many of the same things that are growing in the Greenbelt. So you can't just say, ‘well, we'll just take those acres and make more acres somewhere else’. Farmland doesn't work like that.”
For this reason, Bowman said the PCs need a coordinated approach between ministries to work at the crossroads of climate change and development. Rather, while Ford backtracked on his Greenbelt Plan through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, he is targeting the same land through the Ministry of Transportation, doubling down on projects like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass.
The 413, or GTA West Highway as it’s often called, will run from Milton up Brampton’s west end before curving east through south Caledon to Vaughan. The project, which was first proposed in 2002 and shot down by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2018, was picked back up by Ford implementing a major source of strife among residents, environmental groups and opposition politicians alike over the last five years.
If built, Highway 413 will cut through large swaths of Greenbelt, farmland and forested areas.
The 60 kilometre stretch of pavement would cut across 400 acres Greenbelt, tearing through more than 220 wetlands, a dozen waterways and 2,000 acres of farmland. A previous investigation from The Pointer confirmed the presence of 29 species at risk along the proposed route of the 400-series highway, 21 of them in areas where proposed interchanges could be built. But what is perhaps more damning is not the land eaten up by the highway itself, but the type of development it could promote across the southern reaches of the Greenbelt.
“[T]he only reason the government is promoting this is they want to develop that land up there in an unsustainable way,” Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering and the Director at the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute, previously told The Pointer. “It's going to create a land use and urban form that's going to be auto-oriented.”
Inevitably, if the highway is built, it will open up much of the adjacent Greenbelt land for development. The Greenbelt Plan cannot stop the development of Highway 413 because it “serves the significant growth and economic development expected in Southern Ontario” as dictated by the Plan, but Victor Doyle, architect of the Greenbelt, said this loophole was never intended to accommodate a 400-series highway.
What experts have said will save commuters a maximum of 60 seconds per trip — despite the PC’s claim that the savings could amount to 30 minutes — will do so at the costs of countless species at risk, habitat destruction and the eradication of local food security.
Approximately 50 kilometres to the northwest, the PCs are proposing to do the same thing. While the Bradford Bypass will be smaller in scale — spanning just 16.3 kilometres — it could arguably have an even greater impact on food production in the area.
The lesser known but equally sinister sister Bradford Bypass has not received the same designation for a federal impact assessment as Highway 413.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer files)
The 8-lane freeway will bisect the Holland Marsh Wetland Complex, the largest wetland within the Lake Simcoe watershed providing vital ecosystem functions like flood mitigation, water filtration, and habitat protection for countless species, many of which are at risk. The Holland Marsh is also designated as a specialty crop area within the Greenbelt and, at over 7,000 acres, the land is home to some of the most fertile organic black soils in Canada, making it suitable for the growth of a wide range of plant species. From the approximately 100 farms located within the marsh, they generate a total of $1 billion of economic impact annually, providing food across Ontario, but also to the rest of Canada and the United States.
Ford’s antics seem to have total disregard for the environment, agriculture and water systems, causing many to question whether the PC’s seriously think these efforts are sustainable.
“There's certainly just a lot of ignorance and complete lack of understanding of the role the agri food sector and our environment plays,” Doyle said. “From food security, to climate change to clean air, they just don't understand it.”
While the Ford government pushes its developer-driven agenda, these highways, if built, will have their own unique impacts. Not only will the roads cut through sensitive land, but the runoff from paved surfaces can be particularly consequential. A previous investigation by The Pointer, of the 11 monitoring stations maintained by the Credit Valley Conservation authority (CVC) in June and July of 2022 — months when chloride concentrations are typically lower due to the reduction in salt use in summer months — found the majority of the stations had levels above what would cause acute harm, with spikes that sometimes peaked at nearly three times as high. The development of new roads will only exacerbate the problem, leaving runoff contaminating waterways and the soil that grows our food.
Despite the win for environmental advocates, the reversal of the Greenbelt decision is just the tip of the iceberg for a government whose priorities appear to be misplaced. Protests are continuing to take place across the province urging Ford to backtrack on his development heavy legislation with a particular target on Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass. With the win they’ve been given, environmental groups have refound their strength within democracy, and they won’t stop until they win back Ontario.
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