Greenbelts have a rich global history and policy makers in Canada are making strides to continue the legacy of greenbelts here at home. Canada’s greenbelts so far include the Ontario Greenbelt, the National Capital Greenbelt and British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve. There are also plans to develop greenbelts in Montréal and Québec City. These greenbelts ensure that land is protected, greatly improving our environment, our health and our dinner plates. Ontario’s Greenbelt is an excellent example of how protected green space benefits local communities in terms food security, vibrant economies and healthy environments.
The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation calculates that only 5% of Canada’s land is prime Class 1 agricultural land and Ontario is home to more than half of it but its value is often overlooked in favour of urban sprawl and unbalanced development. In fact, a report by the David Suzuki Foundation found that 8% of Class 1 soil lands in the Greenbelt region have already been converted into human built-up areas, roads and areas for industrial extraction activities. In an effort to protect the quality and integrity of this farmland, while accommodating the needs of a growing population, Ontario established the Greenbelt Act in 2005. At 1.8 million acres, it is the world’s largest permanently protected greenbelt.
According to The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, Ontario’s Greenbelt is responsible for producing over one quarter of Ontario’s apples, half of Ontario’s sour cherries and most of Ontario’s peaches and grapes. In addition to fresh produce, the Greenbelt also produces beef, poultry, pork, dairy and maple syrup. The Greenbelt not only ensures that food is accessible; it also ensures that foods are culturally relevant for the diverse communities that call Ontario home. The locally grown foods of Ontario’s greenbelt can be used in a variety of international recipes including in Chinese, South Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean dishes. Having these foods grown in the Greenbelt ensures that local food security is maintained while also reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with importing foods that often lose nutrients in transport.
Local economies also benefit from the Greenbelt. In fact, Ontario’s economy is supported through the $5.4 billion a year generated from the agricultural activity in the Greenbelt. Buying local also supports the 7000 farms located in the Greenbelt that are largely family owned. But the value of Ontario’s Greenbelt should not be limited to traditional market definitions as it also is rich in natural capital – the ‘invisible’ services performed by earth’s natural ecosystems that help support life.
The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that the natural capital of Ontario’s Greenbelt is worth $2.6 billion annually. Part of this amount is generated by the services rendered by the Greenbelt’s forests and wetlands, which clean the water supply, enhance air quality and support flood control. These ecosystems act as habitat for wildlife, including the pollinators that maintain and enhance the annual crops of fruit and vegetables. The ecosystems in the Greenbelt also help mitigate climate change by storing over 102 million tonnes of carbon in its wetlands, forests and agricultural lands.
Fortunately, the economic and environmental value of the Greenbelt has not gone unnoticed, as an expansion was recently announced by the Government of Ontario. It is very promising to see the value of the Greenbelt recognized and it will be very exciting to see how it will continue to flourish as a result. This expansion of the Greenbelt will not only protect valuable natural ecosystems, it will also ensure that the Greenbelt can continue to be a sustainable source of food for generations to come.
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