Friday, March 4, 2016

Farmland preservation debate – again

The Fraser Institute has sparked a renewed debate about preserving farmland in Ontario.

Authors Glen Fox, an agricultural economist at the University of Guelph, Yi Wang and Kenneth P. Green, senior director for national resource studies at the Fraser Institute, have found that there is actually more land being cropped now than in 1951.

Their comparison between 1951 and 2012 also reveals that all farmland, which includes wetlands, woodlots and pastures, declined from 8.4 to 5.1 million hectares.

They also note that yields have increased – for grain corn from 6,000 to 10,000 kilograms per hectare, for winter wheat 48 per cent and for soybeans 40 per cent.

They say the statistics indicate that the loss of farmland is more a planning failure than a market failure. Market failures are often addressed via legislation and regulations, such as the current debate about a carbon tax.

The authors note that land for environmental preservation used to be purchased by the province, but it stopped buying and instead imposed restrictions on property owners.

That means they bear the burden of providing public benefits that, they argue, ought to be paid by all people.

They also note that preserving farmland does not happen in an economic vacuum. It means that housing, commercial and industrial development and infrastructure projects, such as highways and pipelines, need to go to less desirable locations.

There’s a cost, they argue, such as higher housing costs, fewer jobs and traffic congestion. There are also consequences for wildlife habitat and recreation, they argue.

The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario was the first general farm organization to lobby for farmland preservation, including a ban on lot severances for housing, including retirement homes for farmers.

It’s therefore natural that the CFFO be the first farm organization to respond to this study, which Paul Bootsma has done in the organization’s weekly commentary.

He writes:

“The authors argue that the land should go to the highest bidder who then should be able to use it for whatever the buyer deems best. 

“This asks the question, do we need stronger legislation in Ontario to ensure that food producing land stays solely for that purpose? 

"Southwestern Ontario has some of the world’s best land for food production and we need to retain it for that purpose. 

“Agriculture is a mainstay industry in Ontario and creates many job opportunities in the food industry as well.

“Development seems most intense in southern Ontario and therefore there is a strong need for government legislation to protect farmland in Ontario. 

“The concern for providing food for the global population, which is on a steady rise, is real, and we need to be adamant that our best food producing land remain in that use.”