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Are We Paving Over Our Natural Wealth?

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Despite its huge area, Canada has relatively little dependable farmland. After all, a lot of our country is rock, or buried under ice and snow. Fertile soil and a friendly climate are hard to find. So it might seem like good news that on a clear day you can see about half the best agricultural land in Canada from the top of Toronto's CN Tower. To feed our growing urban populations and sustain local food security, it's critical to have productive land close to where people live.

Some regions of the country, like the Golden Horseshoe surrounding Toronto, have an abundance of class-1 soils -- the best there is for food production. But there, and in most urbanized regions of Canada, increasing proportions of these superior soils now lie beneath sprawling housing developments, highways, strip-malls and other infrastructure. As urban communities have grown over the years, agricultural lands and natural areas have been drained, dug up and paved over.

Only 5 per cent of Canada's entire land base is suitable for growing food. According to a study by Statistics Canada, our spreading cities sprawl over what was once mostly farmland. Urban uses have consumed over 7,400 square kilometres of dependable agricultural land in recent decades -- an area almost three times the size of Prince Edward Island.

Almost half of Canada's urban base now occupies land that only a few generations ago was farmed. Most of it can never be used for agriculture again, despite city peoples' efforts to grow food in community plots, on green roofs and by guerrilla gardening.

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Though there are strong, sprawl-busting policies in provinces such as Ontario, with its Greenbelt Act and Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan, and British Columbia, with its renowned Agricultural Land Reserve, sadly, our urbanizing ways aren't slowing.

A recent study by the David Suzuki Foundation examined threats to farmland in a 94,000-hectare patchwork of farms, forests and wetlands circling Toronto and surrounding suburbs called the Whitebelt Study Area. The report warns that this productive mosaic of green space and rich farmland is at risk from the blistering pace of urban expansion in the Golden Horseshoe.

Municipalities there propose developing more than 10,000 hectares of the Whitebelt over the next three decades, in addition to 52,000 hectares of land the province already approved for development before new policies to curb urban sprawl came into effect. Together, these lands are more than twice the area of the City of Mississauga.

Paving over prime farmland and natural assets like wetlands is foolhardy. Studies show that near-urban croplands and farms contribute billions of dollars in revenue to local economies each year, producing a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, beef, pork, dairy and award-winning wines.

As the Foundation report shows, near-urban farmland and green space represents a Fort Knox of natural benefits that we typically take for granted: trees clean the air, wetlands filter water and rich, productive soils store greenhouse gases.

Today, most of Canada's towns and cities are at a crossroads. Down one path is continued low-density, creeping urban expansion. We know how this well-worn route looks: endless pavement, long commutes and traffic jams, not to mention the high social and ecological costs associated with such a wasteful form of urban design. Simply put, continued sprawl threatens the health and well-being of our communities and the ecosystems that sustain us.

In the other direction is an extraordinary new path: ending sprawl using the principles of smart growth and creating compact, higher-density communities serviced by public transit, bike paths and walking trails, surrounded by local greenbelts of protected farmland and green space.

Our political leaders and citizens must seize this opportunity to embark on a visionary path to grow our communities smarter and protect Canada's near-urban nature and farmland.

If we value local food and want to maintain the critical benefits that nature provides, we must put food and water first. That's why we're calling on municipalities and provincial governments to redouble their efforts to protect our remaining farmland and green space from costly, polluting urban sprawl.

You can contribute to the conversation yourself on Twitter at #FoodAndWaterFirst.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Ontario Director Faisal Moola. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.