Unless the Liberals tart up their greenbelt plan with some smart new policy tricks to reform agriculture, we could end up replacing sprawl with a countryside of theme parks, hobby farms, gated estates, boutique hotels, gravel pits and garbage dumps.
That's the danger in Bill 135, the Greenbelt Act, which is otherwise milestone legislation. If the Libs don't begin to remake our has-been agriculture, our struggling food producers will find better things to do with their land, even if they can't sell to developers. And we may discover that in the process, we have put our food security in danger.
The starting point is this - the future ain't what it used to be. We now face the possibility of cataclysmic disruptions in the world food system. Global agriculture, converted into a fossil fuel industry, is dependant on cheap conventional oil that's now fast disappearing, plentiful water that's receding by the year and fast-eroding fertile soil.
In southern Ontario, fortune has blessed us - if only we can learn to appreciate the gift. The artificially cheap food of the past 50 years has led us to devalue and squander our food-producing lands as underutilized space better suited for freeways. If distant locations become the last remaining source of our nourishment, the Golden Horseshoe's 8 million residents will really be in trouble when future shock hits.
So how are we going to keep our greenbelt the source of rich foods? Some advocate reimbursing farmers for money they can no longer make by selling their land for subdivisions. But this is wrong on many counts. It makes greenbelt protection unaffordable, and it's unfair. Present-day farm owners haven't paid taxes all these years on the basis that their properties are speculative. They have paid on the basis that what they own is farmland. If they want to treat their land as a speculative asset, they should pay back the difference.
There is a better way to sink public money into food production so that farms have decent real estate value - cash for infrastructure and retraining to reward farmers for developing new markets geared to the diverse city on the doorstep.
Much of Ontario's prime farmland has been devoted to the production of low-value, low-value-added, homogeneous bulk commodities like corn, potatoes, peas and beef.
If farmers want to survive on high-value land, they need to grow and process (canning, bottling) crops that are more valuable than staples grown much more massively and cheaply elsewhere. There are already enough potatoes in Idaho and PEI to glut the planet, for example. Local growers need help finding products that don't face vicious global competition and a chronic race to where the lowest price is the law.
Instead of Old MacDonald having a farm, we now have McFarms, industrialized, specialized rural factories chasing faraway markets and churning out a humongous quantity of a very small variety of farmed crops and livestock. This is agriculture based on Canada's Food Rules and eating habits for 1952, way behind the times in every respect: health, food fashion, ethnic food trends, pesticide use and energy demands. What we need is a renovated agricultural system - and the greenbelt will only be a dream until governments grasp this. Here are my proposals aimed at retooling farming for the sophisticated city trade.
ORGANIC GAP It's commonly estimated that 85 to 90 per cent of premium-priced organic foods are imported. Ontario farmers are just not up to speed in terms of servicing this growing need. Obviously we can't grow pineapples and oranges, but apart from these, we need the appropriate ministry to develop policy encouraging farmers to court local consumers. The appropriate provincial minister could also ask that Ottawa consider legal action to prohibit the import of unduly subsidized (in terms of sub-standard labour conditions and massive water subsidies) California produce into Canada.
ETHNIC ADVANTAGE Greenbelt farmers should be encouraged to customize their products so they target big-city diversity. We're talking here about massive numbers of ethnic Ontarians - over a hundred different ethnocultural groups seeking everything from bok choy to an Iranian barbecue condiment made from sumach.
The dogma in many ag circles is that exporting is the only way to go in the modern world. These officials should consider that if Ontario farmers lead the way in serving unique food needs, there are export sales in the wings to sister communities across North America.
TOURIST TRAPS The greenbelt must become "part of the imagination of the city dweller," Elbert van Donkersgoed, policy director of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, is fond of saying. Tourists want a nice beach close to a restaurant strip where they can get the food they eat at home every day. The new breed of destination travellers want to actually experience the locality.
But agro-tourism - eating, touring and working on farms - is coming. It's big in BC, the closest thing we have to northern Italy or southern France. It's chugging along in the Niagara wine district, where a brilliantly designed economy makes it more profitable to make booze than to grow fruit.
Pleasant views don't just happen. They don't have to be manicured and blow-dried, but they do have to be orchestrated. The province should earmark a percentage of the provincial sales tax from tourism and from the gas tax (there will be a reduction of trucks filled with imported eats grinding up our roads) and give it to farmers for revamping their business.
ENTICE NEW FARMERS To most analysts' surprise, the hippest and most urbanized youth in world history have a hankering to farm when they grow up. They know the bright lights of the big city, and they want to feel some dirt in their hands, try something more personal, authentic, real. Except for one thing: there's no way in the world they can ever afford to buy a farm. After the second world war, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CHMC) was launched to provide financing assistance for first-time home-buyers. Maybe it's time for a CMHC equivalent for rookie farmers.
PAYING FOR STEWARDSHIP There's another way to keep the greenbelt green: paying farmers for environmental services like saving wildlife habitat, storing carbon, keeping streams clean, maintaining scenic landscapes and so on. This kind of investment does not sit well in our work-obsessed culture. We worry that the kind of people who think money grows on trees are looking for a free lunch, but we're suckers for promoters who say money grows on baseball stadiums, convention centres, aquariums or airline bailouts.
If the truth be known, the idea of paying farmers for environmental services meets the test of hard-headed economics. How much does it cost to clean drinking water contaminated by livestock manure compared to paying farmers for the avoided cost?
Individuals, businesses and community groups can reward local farmers who adopt high environmental standards by purchasing foods that carry an eco label, a practice most advanced in Oregon and Minnesota.
GOVERNMENT BUYING POWER Another potential revenue stream for greenbelt farmers could be sales to government purchasers who buy for provincial hospitals, municipal or school cafeterias and so on. Canada and Ontario are among the few jurisdictions that treat trade-deal limitations on government purchasing as legitimate obligations.
SWITCH TO GRASS Farmers can be encouraged to grow energy crops: biodiesel for car fuel, switchgrass for stove heating pellets, manure-derived methane gas or windmills for electricity, and so on. In fairly short order, public utilities could jump-start a $2-billion-a-year farm industry selling clean fossil-fuel-free energy.
Switchgrass is often favoured for healing damaged or marginal lands, which we have in abundance: about 87,000 acres of unimproved pasture in southern Ontario would be likely candidates for switchgrass. Switchgrass uses little water, needs no irrigation in the greenbelt and allows most rainfall to drip down to recharge the water table below. Because no fertilizers are used , the water that drips down is pure as the driven snow. To thank farmers for growing such a crop, local municipalities could direct their utilities to provide incentives for customers who switch to pellet stoves and purchase switchgrass pellets.
The Greek philosopher Xenophon believed that "agriculture is the mother of all arts. When it is well conducted, all other arts prosper. When it is neglected, all other arts decline." Protecting the greenbelt means more than blocking subdivisions. Let's hope the Liberals can see the Chinese broccoli for the fields.