Between the Farm and Table: The GTA’s Greenbelt helps feed southern Ontario, but a food system is more than just farms

By Gregory Furgala

Advocates for farmland preservation in Ontario enjoyed a victory recently. After a public outcry, the provincial government pulled back a controversial provision of Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, that would’ve have opened up Ontario’s Greenbelt to development and threatened a broad crescent of provincially protected green space containing some of the best farmland in the country.

Established in 2005 by the provincial Greenbelt Act, the Greenbelt stretches from Niagara in the south, around the Greater Toronto Area until terminating near Cobourg in the east, south of Peterborough. It encompasses and protects 800,000 acres of sensitive wetlands, woodlands and cultural heritage resources. The 2006 Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, a policy tabled under the 2005 Places to Grow Act, complements it. Together, the Greenbelt and Growth Plan have helped define the broad strokes of growth in the GTA for the past decade.

A recent draft amendment to the Growth Plan reaffirms the Greenbelt’s importance: “Its fertile soil, moderate climate, abundant water resources, and proximity to markets support agricultural production that cannot be duplicated elsewhere in the country.” The draft then concludes that the region’s rich agricultural land needs to be protected, acknowledging it as a vital part of Ontario’s agri-food industry. “The finite supply of quality agricultural lands that feed the region and beyond must be protected to ensure a vibrant rural and productive agricultural economy and a secure food supply for future generations.” The Greenbelt and Growth Plan balance the needs of cities and towns against those of rural communities, environmental priorities and agriculture. The two sides of that coin, urban and rural, work as a system.

That duality plays out in foodservice, too. When chefs and restaurateurs are enthusiastic about an ingredient — say, a Niagara peach — they typically wax poetic about terroir, that overall sense of place that sums up an area’s soil, sun and microclimate. But they don’t start romanticizing that peach’s trip to the restaurant, which in the GTA almost invariably took it through the Ontario Food Terminal (OFT). While lacking in pastoral imagery, the OFT is key piece of the GTA’s food system, and since being built in southern Etobicoke, just next to Toronto, in 1954, it has grown hand-in-glove with agriculture here, serving as a central point of distribution. The Golden Horseshoe’s terroir grew that peach, but it didn’t put it on your plate. Despite it’s importance, though, the OFT still might not escape the blade of the cut-happy provincial government.

On the Outs

Ironically, the draft amendment to the Growth Plan that acknowledges the Greenbelt’s importance puts the OFT’s vital distributive role at risk. The draft calls for the creation of provincially significant employment zones (PSEZ), protected sections of economically important land intended to encourage long-term economic development and job planning. Despite its importance, the OFT isn’t included in one. When asked if the OFT was considered at the outset, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the province consulted on a list of 29 proposed zones, but did not specify whether that included the OFT. The spokesperson affirmed that, at this stage, there hasn’t been a final decision.

Even at this early stage, though, the OFT’s exclusion has prompted speculation that its lands next to the lakeshore could face pressure from other developments, flames the province has fanned with its May announcement that the OFT is undergoing an “in-depth, independent assessment of the opportunities and challenges for economic growth.” Amid cuts to healthcare, education and social programs, as well as government reports recommending the sale of assets, it is feared the OFT’s valuable land could be put up for sale.

In a letter to Toronto City Council, Al Brezina, the executive director of the South Etobicoke Industrial Employers’ Association, requested that the city address the issue with the province. “A potential conversion of the Food Terminal lands would impact these food businesses located locally in South Etobicoke, as well as others in the region,” Brezina wrote. “The act of designating some of the city’s presently designated employment lands as Provincially Significant Employment Zones, puts pressure on the non-designated lands for conversion.”

Like the Greenbelt protections, the PSEZ are meant to shield land deemed vital to a functioning, adaptable economy from tracts of single-family dwellings and inefficient growth, the latter of which, at least, the Golden Horseshoe is expecting plenty of. By 2041, its population is expected to grow to 13.5 million, an increase of roughly four million people, and they’ll need places to live. The concern is, the PSEZ will protect some land from sprawl housing but put pressure on other tracts as a result. There could be a quick, one-off financial boon in stripping the OFT of its land. Whether it would outweigh the cost is an open question.

In an interview, Brezina noted that the PSEZ could be problematic for industrial and semi-industrial employment areas across the GTA. In Toronto specifically, he notes that, like residential land, there’s demand for employment lands as well. “Companies in those areas that are left out could see their area change in use over time, from employment to industry, to non-industrial,” says Brezina. Where municipal and provincial employment zones match, there won’t be much change, but there’’ concern for what will happen outside of them.

“It’s like a white elephant to us”

The Ontario Food Terminal is the hub around which the spokes of the Greater Toronto Area’s food system turns. More than 900 million kilograms of fruit, vegetables and horticultural products are shipped annually by the OFT’s 21 warehouse tenants and 400 farmers’ market tenants. Its 5,000 customers aren’t limited to the GTA, or even Ontario — they’re scattered throughout Quebec, Atlantic Canada and the Northeastern United States as well. Major grocery retailers, mom-and-pop conveniences stores, foodservice operators, farmers’ markets, food banks — even florists — depend on the OFT running smoothly. It contributes $1.5 billion in direct economic impact to Ontario’s economy, with an estimated $2 billion more in indirect economic impact. Bruce Nicholas, the general manager, treasurer and secretary of the OFT, says that the place is incredibly good at what it does. “The place is the stock exchange for fruits and vegetables,” says Nicholas. “You can’t get it more efficient than we have it on the place.”

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor and food system researcher at Dalhousie, echoes Nicholas, and considers the OFT a crucial piece of infrastructure. “For the GTA, it’s a critical point of distribution and assortment. It’s able to support the foodservice sector, food retailing, independent retailing, and those players are critical to the GTA’s economy, so absolutely.”

You really need it,” continues Charlebois. “It’s part of the distribution model of the GTA, otherwise you’ll have issues supporting the foodservice sector. If they repurpose the land, I can’t imagine the GTA being served properly without another terminal somewhere, or a hub of some sort.”

Charlebois notes, though, that the existing network of roads, nearby food processors and other food businesses were established in concert with the OFT growth. Nestled in southern Etobicoke, just west of old Toronto, the OFT is abutted by highways and railyards, and only about a 20-minute drive from Pearson International Airport. The location is one of the secrets to the OFTs success, says Nicholas. “For the [restaurant] trade, that’s the centre point. From there, the tentacles spread out over South Etobicoke. That’s why we can run that market on that site in 2019 so efficiently.”

By way of warning, Nicholas points to the Maryland Food Centre Authority, which is intended to serve Baltimore and Washington D.C. At one time it was located in the heart of Baltimore, but is now between Baltimore and D.C. in Jessup, Maryland. It’s closer to both, but ideal for neither. Nicholas says the move hurt the smaller foodservice operators that deal in smaller quantities of product and couldn’t make the drive several times per week. “The smaller buyers can’t get out there,” says Nicholas. “It has been proven that the key ones are downtown, and that’s where we are.”

“It’s like a white elephant to us,” Nicholas says of the Jessup facility.

Nicholas points to other successful North American food distribution centres, like New York’s Hunts Point, or centres in Los Angeles and Chicago, that are in the heart of the city and accessible. The OFT was established to help Ontario farmers get their crops to market and compete with American farmers, and it has been wildly successful because of where it is, becoming a critical part of eastern Canada’s food system. Now, the GTA is home to 60 per cent of Ontario’s agri-food processing, with countless other businesses depending on that infrastructure as well. It’s like man-made infrastructural terroir — a set of complex, interdependent conditions that enable the OFT to thrive, and us along with it.

Uneven Distribution

Kathy Macpherson, vice president of research and policy at Friends of the Greenbelt, a charitable organization, says the Growth Plan and Greenbelt protections go hand-in-hand. “We need to look at how we grow. How do you manage that growth in a responsible way? The Growth Plan tries to support municipalities in a way that uses less land, and that won’t use infrastructure in an inefficient way.” Per acre, in terms of dollars, Macpherson says the Greenbelt is 66 per cent more productive on average than farmland elsewhere in Canada and contains 52.6 per cent of Ontario’s fruit acreage and 10.7 per cent of its vegetable acreage. It’s right next to Canada’s largest urban population as well. While shifting a piece of existing infrastructure is easier than shifting a microclimate, doing so would likely make the system less efficient and more costly for consumers.

Ill effects would most likely be unevenly distributed as well says Charlebois, falling primarily on small businesses. While those rising costs would affect everyone, they could be borne easier by large distributors. “I’d be very, very concerned for independent retailers in the foodservice operators for sure. It would probably give a leg up to larger distributors like Loblaws and Sobeys. The larger independents and national players would benefit from seeing the terminal close,” says Charlebois. “The oligopoly would be reinforced.”

For independent restaurateurs, corporate chefs, food and beverage directors — anyone involved in the foodservice industry in southern Ontario — the growing population should facilitate a period of growth. But the Golden Horseshoe is already house-hungry; with an extra few million people to shelter, it’ll be even more so. The Greenbelt is — rightfully — still protected from that sprawl, and newcomers are still expected to make Ontario their home. Provincial land left unprotected by provincial legislation will be at risk, important or not.

Speaking Up

At present, the most immediate threat to Ontario’s food system has been fended off. Protections against Greenbelt development were preserved, and if the public reaction against the provincial government’s intention to relax them is any indication, they’re very popular. In a series of statements that Greenbelt city mayors made to the Toronto Star, it was made clear that their constituents valued the environment, the Clean Water Act (which developers could’ve effectively skirted) and encouraging smart, efficient growth. Mayors in Burlington and Caledon singled out agriculture, while others spoke generally of sustainability. There’s a public appetite to protect the Greenbelt, but Nicholas says he’s heard the question being asked: “Can we move the terminal?” Zoning is beyond his pay grade he says, and he concedes that, sure, maybe there is some other, better spot. But it’s financially self-sufficient and in the past decade has invested $47 million in upgrades. It is getting bigger, with dependent businesses buying their own warehouses nearby. That’s possible in no small part due to where it is. It has adapted to a changing market, becoming a point of sale as much as a hub of distribution, and it’s all tied up in a 40-acre patch of south Etobicoke.

Between small retailers, major grocery stores and farmers markets, it’s difficult to say exactly how much of the produce that shuffles through the OFT ends up being used in a commercial foodservice setting. As valuable as Greenbelt farmland is, it is only part of southern Ontario’s local food system, and protecting farms while failing to do the same for distribution would be tantamount to the same thing: a diminished food system and diminished foodservice industry, with the negative impact disproportionately felt by the smaller, independent players that are so often at the bedrock of food culture.

Farmers in Niagara are still growing incredible peaches; we need to ensure they get to market.

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