Ontario’s provincial election campaign is now in full swing, and across the province, candidates are engaging with voters in hopes of capturing their support at the ballot box. In turn, voters want to know where candidates stand on the issues that matter most to them.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has been meeting candidates from all major parties for the last several months now in both urban and rural ridings to help build awareness of food, farming and how supporting economic investments in agri-food and our rural communities will provide benefit to the entire province.
As a farmer who lives in a mostly rural riding, I welcomed the opportunity to sit down and meet with candidates from urban ridings in the Greater Toronto Area. It was a chance to share the election priorities of farmers and rural communities with them, but it was also interesting to learn about what matters to their constituents – and how what we need to thrive and support economic growth will provide benefit for all Ontarians.
Agriculture is one of Ontario’s main economic drivers, contributing more than $47 billion a year to the provincial economy and supporting close to one million jobs across the province. There’s no doubt the industry will also have a vital role in our post-pandemic economic recovery, contributing to employment and growth – and government is a key partner in helping to make that happen through policy, legislation and investment.
Supply chain resilience
Ontario farmers grow and produce more than 200 different food products, supporting a wide array of food manufacturing and processing activity across the province. So, it’s important that Ontario’s farm policies and regulations ensure stability and prosperity in all aspects of the agri-food supply chain, from field-to-fork.
Food processing is essential to food security – ensuring we are able to feed ourselves – so we need to make sure we have enough food processing facilities to meet market demands. When the pandemic first hit, a leading concern of many Ontarians was that our food supply chain would collapse. That didn’t happen as Ontario’s agri-food sector rose to the challenge, persevered and showed how strong and resilient it can be. During the uncertainty of the pandemic, many commodity organizations and local federations stepped up by donating food products and contributing funds to help food banks and other groups support those in need. We applaud the efforts made by our industry to keep our supply chain strong as we navigated through these unprecedented times.
Our job now is to ensure that strength and resilience continues. That means we must address the labour shortages in the agri-food sector. The gap between the demand for workers and available labour in Ontario currently sits at 29,000 workers and growing – and it’s estimated that job vacancies cost farmers $1.5 billion in lost sales every year.
We need focused promotion of agricultural and agri-food programs and careers to Canadian youth to attract job seekers to the sector. We also need to prioritize skills development and training throughout the value chain to make it easier for employers to find, train and keep the workforce they need.
Protecting food production by preserving farmland
As resilient as our supply chain has proven to be throughout the pandemic, its success all begins with farmland. As farmers, we work hard to maintain the supply and meet the demand for locally grown produce, meat, eggs and dairy products – and without farmland, none of that can happen. We have to contain urban sprawl and preserve the valuable farmland that we have; if we don’t, who will we have to depend on in the future to grow our food when we can no longer do so ourselves?
Our province loses an average of five farms per week to development to keep pace with Ontario’s growing population. Even though farmers are continually adopting new technologies and innovations to grow more food with less resources, that kind of farmland loss is not sustainable. We need to ensure we are protecting the land that feeds our families, cities, country and the world – not just for us, but for future generations to come. The decisions we make now will directly impact the future generation’s ability to grow and produce high-quality food, fibre and fuel for our growing population.
Long-term land-use planning needs to be responsible and focused on a balance of enabling urban growth while also protecting agricultural land. We can do this by intensifying residential development in our existing urban footprint to create complete and liveable communities and by distributing economic development province-wide.
Distribution of economic development province-wide will make rural communities more attractive for families and businesses. Yes, it will require investment in high-speed internet, energy and social infrastructure like schools and hospitals, but encouraging growth and development beyond the Greater Golden Horseshoe will benefit all Ontarians.
We would like all candidates to understand the tremendous value and opportunities the agri-food sector and our rural communities have to offer. OFA encourages all voters to get involved in the election by engaging with candidates and asking about their positions on issues that matter most to Ontario’s farming and food sector.