NFU-O Asks: Food Sovereignty or Aggregate? (Op-Ed)

by Ann Slater

The Highland Companies' withdrawal of its application to develop a quarry in Melanchton Township presents some interesting food for thought, or maybe that should be gravel for thought.  The most recent deadline to submit comments on the draft Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) was November 23. The PPS provides policy direction to the province and municipalities on matters related to land use planning.  It undergoes a mandated review every five years.

Organizations and individuals concerned about the protection of both Ontario's farm land and Ontario's food sovereignty spent the first couple of weeks of November studying the latest draft.  It was an interesting coincidence when The Highland Companies issued a press release on November 21 announcing the withdrawal of its application.

An area of particular concern for farm organizations and environmental groups continues to be the priority given to the extraction of aggregate resources over the protection of farm land.  The most recent draft appears to make it easier to extract aggregate in specialty crop areas and on prime agricultural lands. 

In its press release, The Highland Companies cited the lack of sufficient support from the community and from government as the reasons for the withdrawal.  Although lack of government support was noted, it is hard to identify any tangible moves by the provincial government to make protection of farm land a priority in land use decisions.  During a public hearing in May, many MPPs on the standing committee reviewing the Aggregate Resources Act seemed more excited about the increased demand for aggregate due to 200 or so cranes in Toronto than about protecting farm land.

Aggregate extraction is viewed as an interim use of agricultural land within the PPS.  This interim use is based on an assumption that land can be restored to the same average soil capability and area after the aggregate under the soil is removed.  According to the PPS, aggregate must be sourced as close as possible to markets.  The greatest demand for aggregate is in the more populated areas of the provincewhich are adjacent to, or on top of, Ontario's best farm land.  This close-to-market policy sets the stage for ongoing conflict between protecting land to grow food and providing new, cheap aggregate to developers and industry now.  Conservation of aggregate is mentioned but not required, nor is demonstrating need.

Highland's withdrawal of its application is a reminder of the power we, as citizens, can cultivate to protect our communities.  For any concerned citizens, however, the celebration of Highland's decision is muted by awareness of the continued lack of provincially legislated protection of farm land.  Without such protection, community after community will be required to protect local farm land with campaigns as large and diverse as that led by farmers and citizens in Melanchton.  It is unlikely that kind of momentum can be sustained year after year in community after community.

The demand for aggregate will continue.  As farmers, we will continue to demand gravel for our roads, laneways and new farm buildings.  The policy direction to source aggregate as close to the market is possible will continue to put protecting land for long-term food sovereignty at risk.  As we celebrate the grassroots victory in Melanchton, we also need to look for ways to decrease our reliance on new aggregate, to decrease our need for aggregate and to source aggregate from other areas of the province.  It will likely mean we all have to pay more for aggregate.  It is a price we should be prepared to pay to protect our food sovereignty for generations to come.

Ann Slater is a National Farmers Union board member and a farmer near St. Marys, Ontario.

She can be reached at 519-349-2448 or aslater@quadro.net.