Agricultural Land Protection


The challenge




Financing the transition



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 protection of agricultural land is intimately connected, then to how urban, suburban and peri-urban areas are planned, designed and managed, with agricultural land historically often a secondary consideration. Such matters are ultimately connected to land capitalism, profit-taking, and urban capitalist values that are embedded in both the private and public sectors. 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.

In this jurisdictional divide lies the roots of the current dilemma.  As discussed under Efficiency, the highly variable provincial strategies to agricultural land protection result in very uneven protections across the country.  The federal government, generally with responsibility for overarching national considerations regarding agriculture and the food supply, is effectively shut out of interventions around land protection.  The weakest authority, the municipalities, in many ways have the greatest responsibility and the weakest reason to protect, given their dependence on property taxes associated with urban development to fund other services. But bizarrely, municipalities often permit sprawl to their financial detriment because the revenue that accrues is insufficient to cover the costs of servicing the new developments (cf. Blais, 2010; Gray and Moore, 2021). Addressing the weaknesses in Canadian urban planning and municipal financing is a huge topic in itself, so this section only selectively addresses the most pressing problems related to agricultural land. The discussion of solutions is guided by concepts of Political Economy and Agroecology. Issues of rural land use planning are addressed under Goal 2, Demand-Supply Coordination, and Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Substitution.

The challenge

Before we understood the critical dimensions of soil quality and how readily many forms of farming can compromise it, Canada had essentially already adopted a British private property model of land, with the associated dispossession of Indigenous peoples.  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 fundamentally 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). Although markets are in theory supposed to efficiently allocate resources for personal and social welfare, the reality is that most of the incentives in the land market encourage private landowners to optimize their benefits as opposed to optimizing public ones. This is particularly visible in the widespread assumption among farmers and decision makers that if farmland loss results in reductions in the supply of certain foods, those foods can just be imported from elsewhere to compensate. Similarly, if farmers decide to produce for export, no problem, there will always be lots of farmers and farmland that focus on supplying for domestic requirements. The vulnerabilities expressed in the last few years (see Get Started, Problems, General, Lack of resilience) have exposed how tenuous an assumption this is. Hence, state intervention is necessary to limit private ownership aspects of land and favour the public interest, in some ways comparable to 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; see also Statistics Canada mapping of urban expansion from 2016 and Pope, 2016).  Agricultural land has also been lost to commercial enterprises such as big box stores, warehousing and distribution centres, transportation (highways, transport hubs, airports) and oil and gas, mining, and aggregate extraction for transportation and urban development, plus alternative energy projects. 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). The Ontario Federation of Agriculture estimated that 175 acres of farm land was lost every day in Ontario (Javed, 2021), but the 2021 Census of Agriculture reports an even higher rate of loss in the 2016-21 period, at 319 acres / day, or 4.7%. Particularly troubling given their importance for biodiversity and climate change mitigation, is the ongoing loss of grasslands to both cultivation and urban expansion, estimated at 150,000 acres / year (McQuaig, 2023).

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. Depending on the government in power, these weaknesses become more or less apparent. For example, the Conservative government in Ontario, in late 2022, significantly reduced protections in the Greenbelt and the Duffin Agricultural Reserve, actions that may provoke investigations of political favours for housing developers that support the Conservative government. They also propose to weaken housing density requirements on greenfield sites by altering the Provincial Policy Statement on land use. 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.

It is important to note that, as many farmers and farm organizations have said, there's no point protecting the land if you don't help farmers stay on it. Farmers often sell to developers because it is their retirement income, suffering through decades of low net revenue while their capital assets have grown. This reality was recognized by early designers of land protection systems (cf.  Furuseth and Pierce, 1982), but implementation of suitable farm income measures has generally been weak in Canada and has deteriorated over time. Improving farm financial viability is addressed on numerous other parts of this site.  It is also important to recognize that land protection does not guarantee its effective utilization for farming.  For example, in BC, only 50% of agricultural land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is used effectively for agriculture.  The key problem is market prices for land.  Although the assessed value is low because the land is in the ALR, the market value in a way assumes that other, more profitable, land uses will be possible, as if the ALR doesn't really exist.  This occurs in the urban fringe regions of the Lower Mainland, Southern Vancouver Island, and the Central Okanagan.  The BC tax regime contributes to this because only minimal farming activity is required to trigger property and education tax reductions.  Many municipalities permit large residential units on farmland, which when combined with slack rules on farming, essentially takes the property out of agriculture (Tatebe et al., 2018).  Some of these issues are addressed in the Solutions sections, for others, see Goal 2, Demand Supply Coordination.

Financing the transition

The main challenge of the transition is putting in place a more sustainable way to finance municipalities, which is addressed under Substitution.  More staff time and administrative expenses will need to be devoted to this area, but such costs would be manageable under a different financing regime.