Water and food first

Portrait of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

• Despite its huge area, Canada has relatively little dependable farmland. After all, a lot of our country is rock or buried under ice and snow. Fertile soil and a friendly climate are hard to find. To feed our growing urban populations and sustain local food security, it’s critical to have productive land close to where people live.

Some regions of the country, like the Golden Horseshoe surrounding Toronto, have an abundance of class 1 soils – the best there is for food production. But there, and in most urbanized regions of Canada, increasing proportions of these superior soils now lie beneath sprawling housing developments, highways, strip-malls and other infrastructure. As urban communities have grown over the years, agricultural lands and natural areas have been drained, dug up and paved over.

Only five percent of Canada’s entire land base is suitable for growing food. According to a study by Statistics Canada, our spreading cities sprawl over what was once mostly farmland. Urban uses have consumed over 7,400 square kilometres of dependable agricultural land in recent decades – an area almost three times the size of Prince Edward Island.

Almost half of Canada’s urban base now occupies land that only a few generations ago was farmed. Most of it can never be used for agriculture again. Though there are strong, sprawl-busting policies in provinces such as Ontario, with its Greenbelt Act and Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan, and BC, with its renowned Agricultural Land Reserve, sadly, our urbanizing ways aren’t slowing.

A recent study by the David Suzuki Foundation examined threats to farmland in a 94,000-hectare patchwork of farms, forests and wetlands circling Toronto and surrounding suburbs called the Whitebelt Study Area. The report warns that this productive mosaic of green space and rich farmland is at risk from the blistering pace of urban expansion in the Golden Horseshoe. Municipalities there propose developing more than 10,000 hectares of the Whitebelt over the next three decades.

Paving over prime farmland and natural assets like wetlands is foolhardy. Studies show that near-urban croplands and farms contribute billions of dollars in revenue to local economies each year. Today, most of Canada’s towns and cities are at a crossroads. Down one path is continued low-density, creeping urban expansion – endless pavement, long commutes and traffic jams. Simply put, continued sprawl threatens the health and well-being of our communities and the ecosystems that sustain us.

In the other direction is an extraordinary new path: Ending sprawl using the principles of smart growth and creating compact, higher-density communities… surrounded by local greenbelts of protected farmland and green space.

Our political leaders and citizens must seize this opportunity to embark on a visionary path to grow our communities smarter and protect Canada’s near-urban nature and farmland.

If we value local food and want to maintain the critical benefits that nature provides, we must put food and water first. That’s why we’re calling on municipalities and provincial governments to redouble their efforts to protect our remaining farmland and green space from costly, polluting urban sprawl.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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