Efficiency (agricultural land)

Introduction

Strengthen language in existing policy and legislation

Amend municipal land use and growth plans to reflect strengthened language

More restrictive severances

Increase provincial oversight of municipal activities to ensure compliance and impose penalties for non-compliance

Agricultural land protection skills development for planners

Protect agricultural land from extractive industries and large scale alternative energy

Modify right to farm legislation and municipal by-laws, and improving Edge Planning tools to minimize farm / non-farm conflicts

Protect urban spaces for commercial production

Improve monitoring of processes negatively affecting agricultural land

 

Introduction

The generally poor  history of agricultural land protection in Canada suggests that integrated, multi-tool approaches are required.  In general, an integrated approach needs urban growth boundaries, protective zoning and economic incentives to assure the viability of farming.  To make this a reality, municipalities need integrated, coordinated plans and provinces have to equip them with the tools to implement those plans properly.

Strengthen language in existing policy and legislation

Connell et al. (2019) have rated agricultural land protection frameworks employed by each Canadian province.  Because many different approaches are employed, with varying levels of protection enabled, amendments will vary by province. At this stage, it is important that many provinces strengthen the language of policy and legislation and minimize the variability that exists across municipal compliance with currently vague and flexible language (see province by province suggestions in table).

Table: legislative amendments (adapted from Connell et al., 2019)

Jurisdiction Approach Key Acts, policies  and plans Key changes
Canada No specific legislation Canadian Agricultural Partnerships, National Food Policy A strong policy statement on the need to protect
BC Restrictive zoning, strong Agricultural Land Commission Act, Land Title Act, Local Government Act Language to restrict exemptions and land swaps in and out of ALR
AB More land use policy than legislative;  Weak Municipal Government Act Ensure a more consistent approach by municipalities, too much flexibility and inconsistency
SK No direct legislation, via municipal planning

Moderate

Planning and Development Act, Statement of Provincial Interest Regulations The regulations should specifically name protecting agricultural land, rather than just optimizing use
MB Land use planning, Moderate No direct legislation, Planning Act and associated regulations Despite strong language in regulation, agriculture needs to be named as  protected, too much flexibility for local government
ON Medium, an overlapping set of legislation and 6 land use plans, with a range of elements, including some restrictive zoning Planning Act, Places to Grow, IPAS, PPS, Greenbelt, Oak Ridges Moraine, Niagara Escarpment, More Homes, More Choices Act Complex overlapping plans, legislation and jurisdictions result in gaps and inconsistencies that must be fixed. Ministerial Zoning Orders can usurp regulations; weak EA exposes farmland to loss.
QC Restrictive zoning, strong Loi sur la protection du territoire et des activités agricoles; les Orientations gouvernementale
NB Ag land policy statement,

Moderate

Ag Land Policy Agricultural Strategy, Agricultural Land Protection and Development Act Changes are relatively recent, so effectiveness to be determined
PE No direct legislation; planning of subdivisions

Weak

 Planning Act and regulation on subdivisions Need a statement of provincial interest under the Planning Act that applies to entire province.
NS Via municipal planning,

Moderate

Statement of Provincial Interest, Municipal Government Act Statement must be mandatory, not guiding principles; applied to all municipalities
NL No direct legislation, Moderate Ag Development Areas (ADA) under the Lands Act Need to apply ADAs to all the significant agricultural production areas
YU None, limited land for agriculture
NWT None, limited land for agriculture
NU None, limited land for agriculture

 

Amend municipal land use and growth plans to reflect strengthened language

Provincial changes to legislation and policy don't mean much unless municipalities reflect those improvements in land use planning and growth plans. The legislative and regulatory language and instruments of oversight must generally be strengthened to ensure upgrades happen, particularly in provinces where the language of compliance by municipalities is not the strongest (ON, NB, SK, NL, NS, AB, PEI) . Quebec provides the most robust model that should be followed by other provinces (Connell et al., 2019).

Some municipalities have been out front of their provinces and they provide instruction on what other municipalities will have to do. The Region of Waterloo, Ontario provides an example of a comprehensive effort to integrate regional growth planning with food system issues (Desjardins et al., 2011).  The planning department worked closely with the public health unit (which had significant food system expertise) to understand food system requirements for growth management in the region.  Because the region contains many productive agricultural and 3 significant urban areas, it also combined aspects of urban and rural planning.

The 2009 Regional Official Plan contained a new section, “Access to Locally Grown and Other Healthy Foods” that added new food-related policies on general and transit-oriented development. It facilitated establishment of many local food markets to help with local farm viability.  It proposed hard "countryside lines" to contain urban development, many of which were quickly made permanent, others to be set over the medium term.  It granted community gardens access and secure tenure to region-owned lands. The ROP was approved by the province (on the food system side, it exceeded provincial requirements), but some elements were appealed by firms and groups opposed to the measures.  This contestation explains in part why many planners have been reluctant to undertake bold initiatives, a fear that bodies like the Ontario Municipal Board (now the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal) would unwind their efforts.

More restrictive severances

Severances are one of the most vexing challenges of local municipalities. They happen for a number of reasons:

  • to create a farm or non-farm related business on farm property
  • to divide property for children
  • to build a new residence for family members who may or may not be working on the farm
  • for another property that has an abandoned residence that the farmer does not need and wants to sell or rent out.
  • as preparation to retire and  sever a number of lots for residential development as part of retirement plan

It has been said that agricultural land loss is often a nickle and dime process, with the aggregate negative impacts of lot severances of farm properties a major contributor. Scattered residential severances in agricultural areas may also cost municipalities more to service than they receive in tax revenue (Davis, 2020), creating a double loss.  Particularly problematic are non-farm residential lot severances.

Severance rules in each province should be at least as strong as Ontario (see OMAFRA Guidelines on Permitted Uses).  This guidance provides significant direction on severances related to economic pursuits. No province should permit non-farm severances in Class 1-3 soil zones and specialty production areas. Retirement home and family member severances are more challenging.  There is evidence that retirement severances are often sold outside the farm family within 2-3 years of the severance (Davis, 2020). In such cases, restrictive covenants should be introduced in the severance approval that forbid a lot to be sold subsequently and separately from the property from which it was severed.  Conservation covenants are used in BC so this represents an alternate application.

Increase provincial oversight of municipal activities to ensure compliance and impose penalties for non-compliance

What's clear from the review by Connell et al., (2019) is that provincial oversight of municipal planning is highly variable.  Quebec has strong language that municipal and regional plans are to be consistent with provincial policy and a centralized approach to decision making with some flexibility.  The weakest language regarding municipal - provincial integration is much laxer, that municipal plans "shall be reasonably consistent with" (NS), or " it is expected" (AB).  Newfoundland and Labrador go with the negative option for provincial intervention,  "if they are contrary to".    The language must be changed to "must be consistent with" and provinces should have processes and guidances in place for provincial monitoring of compliance.

Agricultural land protection skills development for planners

Training for urban planners typically has very limited food system dimensions. There is no profession of food system planner, although there are a limited, but increasing number of urban planners who focus on how the food system functions in urban areas. An Ontario Professional Planning Institute survey around 2011 found that only 15% of members were significantly involved in planning around food system issues, but 61% wanted to be more engaged (Desjardins et al., 2011). There used to be robust training for rural planners that had a significant agricultural focus, but not necessarily a wider food system one. However, universities have scaled back rural planning as a degree program.  Most planners then have an urban and suburban focus, and preference consciously or unconsciously  those requirements over the food system.

Protecting agricultural land must be examined in the wider context of food system vulnerabilities. It remains a common perception among decision makers that losses in domestic food system capacity can be compensated for with imports.  This explains in part why the rate of increase in imports generally exceeds that of exports, suggesting over time that Canada will become a food debtor nation.  Many events over the last 30 years have exposed Canada's vulnerability to supply chain disruption associated with imports, including weather events (ice storms, drought in California), trucker strikes, trade retaliation, and the COVID-19 pandemic.  Understanding these realities is essential to appreciating the importance of agricultural land and regional food system infrastructure.

Several authors have proposed curriculum changes for planning programs to address this deficiency and associated shifts in professional planning bodies requirements (Mendes et al., 2011; Soma and Wakefield, 2011; Unwin, 2014).  Given that university planning programs have to be accredited by professional bodies, and their failure to this point to make food systems a priority, schools are unlikely to move significantly on these issues until the bodies encourage it. The Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) was considering developing a food systems planning platform in the mid 2010s and is undertaking a survey of planners to gather a fuller understanding of the state of the field and future needs. Although CIP's relationships with many professional associations is fractious, national leadership is required and CIP intervene with the provincial associations to ensure food systems become a central part of professional planning education.

Protect agricultural land from extractive industries and large scale alternative energy

Urban encroachment is not the only threat to agriculture land.  Mining, oil and gas and aggregate (gravel) extraction are also threats in certain regions of the country. Alternative energy projects are increasingly sited on farmland. At the root of this problem is again the view that food is less important than energy, minerals and components for building materials, so agriculture typically loses in an assessment of benefits and costs, again because decision makers presume that shortfalls can be met with imports and that food is not a strategic commodity. Environmental Assessment legislation, both provincial/territorial and federal, does not give much weight to agricultural land loss.  in general, the federal EA process (and often joint fed/prov EAs) does not give (Zbeetnoff et al., 2014).  Also, projects of federal and provincial proponents do not have regulatory requirements to conduct an AIA.  Only by strengthening the agricultural land protection provisions in these assessments can losses from extraction be reduced.

Oil and gas

Oil and gas extraction is a huge issue on Alberta farmland because many wells (and leases) are on farms. Farmers are compensated for loss of productive land, for the inefficiencies of working around drilling sites, and for risks of contamination.   There are two main problems: pollution from operating wells, both surface and subsurface, and liabilities associated with abandoned wells that are not properly capped.  Alberta has a phenomenal number of orphaned wells and the provincial regulator is unable to effectively deal with the problem, although it is attempting to speed up the work on capping sites.  The situation has worsened during the downturn in oil prices. A well is designated as orphaned (abandoned) when the regulator deems the site to have no legal or financially viable party, and only after insolvency proceedings have occurred.  As of Feb. 1 2021, there were 1973 wells and 3556 pipeline segments in this category but these numbers, while significant, underrepresent the real scope of the problem since many proceedings are still underway (Glen, 2021).

The regulator has already paid out millions to farmers in compensation. Thousands of farmers are also owed royalties by oil and gas companies, an outstanding debt that has sparked a class action lawsuit (Ferguson, 2020). Municipalities are also owed significant money in back taxes (Glen, 2021). Alberta also has some 400,000 km of oil and gas pipelines, much of it buried on farmland. There is land loss, compromised soil quality and uneven terrain for farm equipment, and pollution from pipeline breaks and many kilometers of pipeline are abandoned but will remain underground in perpetuity (Riley, 2019).   All this means that substantial acres are no longer useable for agriculture.

Mining

Potash mining in Saskatchewan is also a significant issue.  Saskatchewan has the world's largest reserves of potash, most of it located 1 km below the surface of agricultural lands in the the middle to southern parts of the province.  There are currently 10 large mines functioning in areas near Saskatoon and to the east of Regina.  Some provincial EA decisions reveal that decision makers believe that farmland is a favourable location because then there are no impacts on wildlife habitat (see Sask Ministry of Environment, CanPacific Potash Inc. Albany Test Cavern, 2020).  The land loss is significant enough that some potash companies are voluntarily participating in the purchase of other land with conservation easements  that protect long term use for agriculture (cf. Glen, 2020). As the transition to sustainability unfolds, there will be less demand for mined potash fertilizers which should consequently result in reduced demand for new potash mines.

Aggregates

Aggregates are often quarried on agricultural land, since the geological formations that are good for quarrying are also often very good parent material for agricultural soil development.  However, existing legislation and regulations appear to significantly favour aggregate extraction over farmland protection.

In Ontario, neither the Aggregate Resources Act or its regulations make mention of agricultural land. The Act, regulations, site plans and standards typically require that land be rehabilitated, which in this case would mean to agricultural use.  However, it is very difficult to restore soil fertility, unless a very intense and longer term rehabilitation is undertaken, unlikely to be carried out by either quarry operators or farmers. Effectively, then, aggregate quarries are lost to many forms of farming because the soil fertility declines are significant over the life of a quarry.  There is also evidence that only half the quarried hectares are being rehabilitated, so the law is not being followed and Ontario has significant numbers of abandoned site (see Gravel Watch, undated). In BC, aggregate quarries are permitted on crown land in the Agricultural Land Reserve. A Mines Act permit must be approved. Quarry siting standards in New Brunswick name numerous restrictions related to environmentally sensitive lands, but there is no mention of agriculture.

Alternative energy projects

Windmills, solar panels, and geothermal projects are appearing extensively on farm land. In some cases they are part of farm energy efficiency initiatives (see Goal 5, Energy Efficiency), but for many, farm land is being used for large scale projects beyond the needs of a farm, in part because it is seen as less disruptive than using non-farm habitat.

The windmill industry states that windmills have only a 5% land footprint, including access roads and substations, but they can be more disruptive to farm operations than farmers anticipate.  They do generate revenue for farmers which is often important given general farm financial difficulties (see Goal 6).  Five percent land loss is not necessarily significant for an individual farm, but given the absence of landscape level planning (see Goal 2), at what point the land loss in a region becomes significant is unclear, especially when combined with the numerous other forces that are nickle and diming the agricultural land base.  The related challenge is soil quality.  It is likely that most windmills are located on Class 1-3 land (rather than the less farming flexible Class 4-7). Although renewable energy projects require some elements of provincial approvals, consideration of agricultural impacts are relatively minimal.  For example, in Ontario, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change issues approvals and only vaguely states in it's guidance, "The productivity of agricultural lands should be maintained or improved, ensuring there are no negative impacts on agricultural infrastructure such as drainage and irrigation systems."  There is no discussion of scale. This is significant since widespread projects on agricultural land would consume significant available spaces for farming.  One analyst estimates that we would need 5 PEIs covered in windfarms to replace fossil fuels currently used for electricity production (Antweiler, 2020).

Solar panels can produce more energy / area than windmills and also can be located in a range of places.  They do, however, take up more absolute space in farm fields is significant scale is the objective of the solar farm.  Given the capacity to put them on roof tops, this is likely a better strategy if we want to protect farmland (see for example the study on the city of Lethbridge by Mansouri Kouhestani et al., 2019).

Geothermal is a nascent sector for Alberta, with significant potential to generate electricity and district heating.  Alberta has many brine deposits deep in the earth (typically at least 2 km deep) with suitable temperature profiles, more so than any other Canadian province.  Although geothermal can be helpful to farmers (electricity, heating for crop drying, greenhouses and other structures), it's main value is probably for smaller communities with housing and light industrial facilities, suggesting that locating geothermal wells near towns is more appropriate, but much depends on where the brine deposits are located and readily accessed. Unfortunately, the proposed Alberta Geothermal Resource Development Act (modeled on the Oil and Gas Conservation Act) has numerous problems that could put farmers in  situations similar to what's happening with abandoned oil and gas wells (Ferguson, 2020).

All extraction, pipeline and alternative energy initiatives must be required to undertake an Agricultural Impact Assessment as part of the Environmental Assessment Process (see Zbeetnoff et al., 2014).  Currently, such assessments are rarely undertaken, and only a few municipalities have  them performed on a discretionary basis for processes such as Regional Plan amendments, local OCP amendments, zoning amendments, subdivision or condominium site plan approval and permit applications for environmentally sensitive areas (e.g., some Ontario municipalities, Kelowna BC, District of Maple Ridge, BC). Possible conditions that would trigger an AIA, through local bylaws or provincial regulations, have been set out by Zbeetnoff et al., 2014). Following an assessment, one option to address land loss is offsets as has occurred voluntarily with potash mining. Given recent examples, it may now be feasible to determine appropriate levels of conserved farm land offset with losses of agricultural land.

Modify right to farm legislation and municipal by-laws, and improving Edge Planning tools to minimize farm / non-farm conflicts

Right to Farm legislation exists in some form in all  provinces and is designed to protect farmers from nuisance suits brought primarily by non-farm residents, typically for odour, noise, dust, other contaminants such as pesticides, or smoke. Its use is associated with urban sprawl and the legislation has served to protect farmers established in an area subject to urbanization or ex-urbanization pressures.  Manitoba was the first province to adopt such legislation in the 1970s and the intervention gradually spread in some form to all the other provinces.  The legislation essentially protects farmers from liability if they are following a legislated standard of practice, or "normal farming". Normal usually means that existing legislation is being respected. They also limit the ability of local governments to restrict normal farming.

Normal is usually assessed by an administrative board, and references a "standard that an average farmer in the same circumstances would usually follow." (Alford and Berger Richardson, 2019:143).

While such legislation has protected farming  from land use conflicts, it has has also been a tool to defend conventional farming, in other words, "normal" is equated with the dominant approach to farming (and sometimes storage, distribution and processing activities) and includes many practices and operations that are not consistent with sustainability.  Most legislation does not distinguish scale, and effectively discourages ecological innovation.  The procedures of the administrative boards that adjudicate these cases also likely reinforces the status quo approach to farming (Alford and Berger Richardson, 2019).

At this stage of transition, right to farm legislation in all provinces should be updated to reflect the transition to sustainable approaches (see Goal 5, Sustainable food, Efficiency).  The concept of normalcy must be altered to reflect the adoption of sustainable approaches.

For example, under current Ontario legislation (Farming and Food Production Protection Act, FFPPA), normal farm practice:

  1. "is conducted in a manner consistent with proper and acceptable customs and standards, as established and followed by similar agricultural operations under similar circumstances, or
  2. makes use of innovative technology in a manner consistent with proper advanced farm management practices".

This would be modified to: "normal farm practice is conducted in a manner consistent with recognized sustainable production protocols".  Sustainable farming does not permit, or limits use of many of the practices that contribute to farm / non-farm conflicts, and have been the subject of tribunal cases, including pesticide and raw manure application, and intensive livestock operations.

Protect urban spaces for commercial production

Many Canadian cities had significant areas devoted to food production prior to WWII, but since then urban intensification, population increases, and rising land values have shifted the urban landscape.  The  development pressures in most urban areas mean that land-based urban food production is challenging to sustain (see Goal 1, Self - provisioning for more on urban agriculture).  But a 2015 survey found that over half the mid-sized cities canvassed still had some level of small scale farming with approximately 2.5 farms / 100,000 people (Soderholm, 2015).  Many kinds of land tenure arrangements exist - from commercial use of private front and backyards in a share-farming model, to public parkland  - and with different  threats to on-going production.  The most tenuous circumstance arises from  "guerrilla" gardeners taking over abandoned plots of private land from which they could be evicted and that could be developed at any moment.  Some cities do still have lands designated for food production, sometimes commercial agricultural, other times community garden sites.  However, many cities have removed their historical agricultural zoning designations. Most urban food growing land is not protected by provincial agricultural land use rules.  Even when they are, as in the case of Surrey BC, where significant parts of the municipality (25%) are in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), Mullinex et al. (2013) found that 27 percent of Surrey's ALR was underutilized for food production, and that  1,351 hectares  (15 percent) could still be farmed. They found that 50% were 2.4 ha or less,  and 78% 5 ha or smaller. The majority were pri-vately owned, but a few were public institutions.  Encouragingly, these parcels appeared to be largely protected by provincial rules, but Surrey’s zoning bylaw permitted the use of ALR parcels for non-agricultural purposes, including commercial and hobby kennels and pet-breeding operations, hunting and wilderness survival training, and golf courses. Municipalities would need additional measure to limit such exceptions, including taxes and development levies that might discourage such uses. This suggests, though, that a viable urban agriculture approach requires both land protection and program supports (see Goal 1, Self and community provisioning).  Montreal’s Permanent Agricultural Zones (PAZ) and community garden program appear  to be more consistent with this approach. Four percent of the city’s lands are zoned under this category, including an experimental farm, an agricultural park, an eco-museum, and an arboretum (MacRae et al., 2012).

Much of the horticultural farming community has argued against urban food production, feeling that it competes with them, a sometimes legitimate argument given that there is no landscape level planning and import substitution strategy (see Goal 2). The argument in favour of urban land for food production runs parallel to arguments to maintain open green space, with an added element of community and household food security for some residents. Sustainable urban production can also add to municipal environmental objectives.

Private leases require longer term land rental so that it is worth investing in soil improvement and production infrastructure.  Public spaces can be more accommodating but there are often competing public pressures. Many municipalities are reluctant, for example, to site food production in parks.  Some municipalities display an attitude of "grow food there if no other use looks viable", for example siting gardens in hydro corridors.

In general, municipal and provincial rules are more restrictive about urban food production when it is commercial, rather than self-provisioning.  This is especially true with bees and livestock.  Greenhouses and aquaculture operations may have to be located in light industrial zones (Soderholm, 2015). The challenges are more acute in denser neighbourhoods.

Instruments that have been proposed or are being used in North America and Europe to protect urban food lands include (adapted from Gorgolewski et al., 2009; Soderholm, 2015):

  • restrictive zoning that favours urban agriculture over other uses (going beyond just UA as a permitted use in broad zoning categories), including the possibility of community-based farm districts and agricultural enterprise zones (agro-parks)
  • Development cost charges to purchase agricultural land within urban boundaries
  • allocation of underutilized public and parapublic land for food production, with long term lease arrangements, including for social housing and tower renewal projects
  • site plan approvals that require greenspace can be expanded to consider small urban farms, with the associated tools normally associated with greenspace agreements,

Improve monitoring of processes negatively affecting agricultural land

Municipalities must be legally required through provincial planning legislation to report on agricultural land conversions and fragmentation.  This is part of a wider effort to collect better data on land use under Demand - Supply Coordination (Goal 2).