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Violating a sacred trust

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During this crucible of COVID, we Canadians have learned to place greater value in our food and better appreciate the requirements for its growth.

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We’ve learned something about the vulnerability of supply chains during periods of extraordinary social and economic duress. We’ve deepened our awareness of the value of locally produced and distributed food. More of us are growing food ourselves.

And we’ve recognized the importance of protecting farmland as the source of our ongoing health and prosperity.

Whether it’s your morning cereal, the cream in your coffee, the carrot sticks in your children’s school lunch or beef on your dinner plate, the presence of these and other foods in your household depends on Ontario farmers – and Ontario farmland.

“No soil, no civilization,” as the saying goes.

Farmland is also the bedrock of Ontario’s agri-food sector. According to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, more than 860,000 Ontarians are employed along the agricultural supply chain. More than $47 billion of Ontario’s annual GDP has its source in the province’s croplands. That makes farming Ontario’s largest economic sector.

You might think, then, that the politicians we elect to make intelligent policy decisions about the security of our food supply would do their utmost to protect a resource of such inestimable value.

Think again.

Under cover of the collective anxiety, confusion and distraction of COVID-19, the Ford government has been systematically dismantling much of the province’s safeguarding environmental laws and protections.

This assault on farmland and green spaces began at the outset of the Ford government’s tenure. Ford quickly moved to terminate the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. The commissioner, an impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature, was charged with upholding the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights.

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With the stroke of a pen, Ford eliminated the capacity for oversight invested in the commissioner including critical reporting on the government’s progress to fight climate change and improve energy conservation and efficiency.

Then last December, legislation was deceptively slipped into a budget bill that hamstrings Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities from fully doing what they were created for – protecting the province’s natural areas and watersheds, including farmland. Their independence can now be overridden, and they can be forced to green-light objectionable development projects by order of the government.

Those directives come in the form of MZOs – Ministerial Zoning Orders. MZOs are instruments originally introduced to allow the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to make planning decisions over land that had no official plan or to advance a provincial interest, such as the preservation of farmland or the protection of natural heritage.

Because they are issued without opportunity for public input or appeal, it was understood MZOs would be used only rarely and judiciously.

But the Ford government has brazenly thrown that caution to the wind. During their 15 years in power the provincial Liberals issued only a handful of MZOs. The Conservatives have issued some 40 in three years.

In March the National Farmers Union-Ontario, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Ontario Farmland Trust, Ontario Nature and Environmental Defense sent a joint letter of protest to Ontario’s current Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, The Hon. Steve Clark.

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MZOs that take prime farmland out of production, the agencies said, “will lead to land speculation, increased prices of farmland and loss of agriculture-related businesses, making farming less attractive and eroding agriculture in the area.”

Fealty seems to be the Ford government’s main motivation – serving the profiteering interests and aspirations of developers, those who tend to regard Ontario’s natural endowment primarily as a resource to be plundered, bulldozed and paved.

A recent analysis by the National Observer found that 14 of the aforementioned directives were used to override environmental concerns, and of those, nine benefitted developers who had donated significant sums of money to the Ontario Conservatives. A coincidence? Not likely.

Farmland sustains us. It’s the very basis of life. Its value transcends that of a mere resource or commodity to be sacrificed in the name of what self-interested developers call “progress.”

Farmland is nothing less than a sacred trust. As its custodians we have a solemn responsibility to ensure that it’s safeguarded for our own wellbeing and that of future generations.

But Doug Ford and the rogues’ gallery of developers he serves don’t want you to think of farmland that way. They’re counting on you not paying attention to their chicanery.

Don’t let them get away with it. Write toPremier Ford, Minister Steve Clark and your MPP and tell them you have indeed noticed, and that you do indeed care.

Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer residing in rural Grey County.

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