Finding the Balance: Farming, Development and Environmental Protection

September 11, 2020 | Suzanne Armstrong

Finding the Balance: Farming, Development and Environmental Protection

Each year, we host the CFFO Policy Tour, a series of meetings across the province to canvass members for on-the-ground perspectives on matters affecting agriculture. This year, the tour focused on two policy tools that have been under review by the Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs. The first tool, Agricultural Impact Assessments (AIAs), is intended to mitigate the impacts of development on farming, while the second, the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP), helps to mitigate the impacts of farming on the environment.

This week, the CFFO released a report based on our findings. The report, called “Finding the Balance: Farming, Development & Environmental Protection,” offers farmer-led recommendations to government to strengthen the efficacy of both these tools for the long term.

Agricultural Impact Assessments are intended to evaluate the risks of proposed development to Ontario’s Agricultural System. They are only required for certain types of development within the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Among other recommendations, our members strongly recommended that AIAs be required in all prime agricultural areas in order to support farming and preserve our province’s best farmland. CFFO members have always had their eye on long-term sustainability. We believe the right policy tools today can preserve farmland and the environment well into the future.

Members also considered the Environmental Farm Plan, a voluntary program originally created by farm groups, including the CFFO. The EFP helps farmers learn about environmental risks on their farms and identify strategies for improvement. Although participation in the program is now required in order to access government cost-share funding, there is no system for tracking whether improvements identified through the EFP program are actually implemented on-farm.

CFFO members recommended that government reconnect the EFP with grassroots farm organizations and decrease the paperwork. For example, rather than requiring an updated workbook every five years, farmers could keep their EFPs current by participating in ongoing education events delivered via farm and commodity organizations.

Overall, farmers saw value in the information that the EFP offers them, but questioned its effectiveness at building public trust, since there is no mechanism for tracking improvements that are made.

At the heart of the matter is determining the relationship between personal responsibility and public accountability. Ontarians are seeking assurances that farming in our province is sustainable, but do farmers currently have the right tools to demonstrate their stewardship efforts?

During the tour, members also took a look at the Canadian Agri-food Sustainability Initiative (CASI), a project to create a sustainability verification program that will also open market access for Canadian farmers. CFFO members saw CASI as offering a platform to tell the story of their good work for the environment.

However, many asked who gets to decide what “sustainability” means, particularly in a province where agriculture is so varied. The bottom line for our members is that stewardship is a matter of principle. As one wise member put it during the Policy Tour, “Ultimately, stewardship is about practice, not paperwork.”

Suzanne Armstrong is Director of Research & Policy for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKXS Chatham, and CKNX Wingham.