Agricultural Land Protection

Jurisdictional issues

The challenge

Efficiency

Substitution

Redesign

 

Jurisdictional issues

Under the constitution, property and land use planning (and thereby agricultural land protection) are under provincial jurisdiction, but in many provinces operationalization is shared with municipalities.  The federal role in agricultural land protection is limited to crown land and to research and monitoring, previously through the Lands Directorate of Environment Canada, though most of that work was abandoned in the 1990s.

The protection of agricultural land is intimately connected to how urban, suburban and peri-urban areas are planned, designed and managed. Such matters are ultimately connected to land capitalism, profit-taking, and urban capitalist values that are embedded in both the private and public sectors. Addressing the weaknesses in Canadian urban planning is a huge topic in itself, so this section only selectively addresses the most pressing problems related to agricultural land.  Issues of rural land use planning are addressed under Goal 2, Demand-Supply Coordination.

The challenge

Before we understood the critical dimensions of soil quality and how readily many forms of farming can compromise it, Canada had already adopted a private property model of land, with the associated dispossession of First Nations.  But soil is essentially a communal or public resource because it is effectively non-renewable and because of how our survival depends upon it.  Yet, we have a situation in Canada where private actors are expected to manage a public natural resource, and for a variety of reasons many are unable to fulfill that obligation, some of which relate to their expectations as private landowners that they are in control of their own property (for more on this, see Curran, 2019).  Hence, state intervention is necessary to limit private ownership aspects of land and favour the public interest, in some ways similarly with how the state manages other non-renewable natural resources.

Only 5% of Canada's land base is suitable for agriculture without severe constraints. Yet, by 2001, about 50% of urban and suburban land was located on good farmland (Hoffman et al., 2005), and the total increased by 19% over the next decade (Statistics Canada, 2013).  Agricultural land has also been lost to transportation (highways, transport hubs, airports) and aggregate extraction for transportation and urban development. More subtle losses are associated with land fragmentation, short-term land rental, and poorly planned urban - rural edges, where proximity to urbanites results in sub-optimal land utilization for agricultural production. Between 1971 and 2011, Canada lost 3.9 million ha of agricultural land, about 6% of the total, and roughly equal to Vancouver Island (Statistics Canada. 2014 in Curran, 2019).

Although the highest rates of agricultural land loss are associated with urban and suburban areas, in many parts of Canada, the countryside is being "urbanized" by ex-urbanites settling in the country.  As well, rural land fragmentation results from farmland severances, often originally to create dwellings for family members, but as farm demographics shift, these severed lots are then sold to non-farm families.  Ex-urbanites often contest agricultural practices around them, leading to conflicts that are sometimes warranted, sometimes impediments.  However, some suburban planners are of the view that  lot severances have been restricted in recent years and believe that this reflects an improvement in agricultural land protection (see, for example, Mott, 2019).

The guiding ethos for decision makers has essentially been that the land market efficiently allocates resources to the most appropriate uses and at prices that reflect value, that farms can move elsewhere when faced with urban development pressures, or any production shortfalls can be met with more food imports.  As set out on this site in many locations, these views are erroneous and run counter to sustainability and national food security imperatives.

In Canada, the main instruments of agricultural land protection have been differential property assessments (a tax incentive) and agricultural zoning and urban growth boundaries.  Eight of ten Canadian provinces use preferential assessments (a lower rate of assessment if land is used for agriculture), and NB and NS  use deferred (property taxes are deferred if agricultural land use is maintained). These instruments have not been particularly effective for a variety of reasons, including  that land sale prices for urban development greatly exceed the tax savings, and  the programs are used by land speculators while waiting to develop the land, essentially a subsidy to land developers (Bunce, 1985; American Farmland Trust, 2006).  There is some benefit to keeping the land short term in farming except that the way this land is typically farmed is not environmentally sustainable.

Only BC, Ontario and Quebec have relatively strong legislative frameworks for agricultural land protection through agricultural zoning (Connell et al., 2016), though even these are compromised by exemptions, incomplete application, and failures at the municipal level to explicitly implement provincial frameworks.  Other international jurisdictions, however, have employed a wider range of instruments and with greater success.  Some of these have been tried on a small scale in Canada, sometimes retained, but frequently abandoned.

Essentially, then, Canada does not have a comprehensive and coherent approach to agricultural land protection.