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Will mass immigration mean mass starvation?

“We have increased sprawl which is a real problem, it’s related to bad land use planning. It’s related to bad policies that’ll affect where immigrants settle….it’s a problem, but curbing immigration is really focusing on the wrong, and rather trivial aspect of the problem.” Elizabeth May, leader, Green Party of Canada , May 17, 2006.

In the game of population growth, land capacity is not as relevant as carrying capacity. Antarctica is a big place with lots of room for lots of people, but how many people can it support? Yet Canadian politicians persist in the assumption that their country is a vast tropical cornucopia that needs ever more injections of people to unlock a hidden bounty of even greater wealth. In fact all four party leaders want to exceed current immigration levels by a third or more, despite the fact Canada already has the fastest growth rate of all G8 nations.

That the broadest sector of Canada is either mountainous, permafrost tundra, wetlands, marsh, bog, lake or boreal forest hostile to human habitation is not our toughest sell. That only says that there is little room at Canada’s Ecological Inn, that rather than be billed as a Big Five Star Hotel we should be marketed as a cheap one room motel. The sad salient fact is that 94% of Canada’s land cannot be farmed. Actually, a more plausible figure is that only 5.2% of Canada’s land base is arable, a ration of 3 acres per citizen. That speaks to our carrying capacity.

What should concern us about that pathetic arable portion is where it is situated, how much of it is being lost, how recently it has been lost, and why.

Of the over 5% of Canada’s land base that is devoted to farming, 40% is found on the prairies, but 51% of the best farmland, the Class 1, is found in Ontario. According to Statistics Canada, in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) more than 2,000 farms and 150,000 acres, or 18% or Ontario’s Class 1 farmland were lost between 1976 and 1996. By comparison, in the London region of Middlesex County between 1996 and 2001, 8500 hectares (21,000 acres) were lost.

Since 1966, over 6 million hectares of land in Canada and over 1.5 million hectares of land in Ontario have been lost from agriculture to development. But the key question is, why? (cf. ) It is interesting to observe how the pace of farmland conversion accelerates after 1990 , when Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall under the guidance of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced a new era of substantial increases in immigration levels. Case in point: In the twenty years before 1996, an average of 7500 acres of Class 1 farmland was lost annually in the GTA, but after 1996, in all of Ontario, which is inclusive of areas not subject to population pressures as intense as Metro Toronto, losses averaging 60,000 occurred----a loss rate eight times greater than before the era of mass immigration.

To cite another example from Statistics Canada, from page 126 in Human Activity and the Environment . “Approximately 4700 sq. km. of Class 1, 2 and 3 agricultural land or about 1 sq. km. daily was lost between 1981 and 1996.” But the loss rate increased to 1.3 sq km. daily or 33% between 1991 to 1996.

There is quite clearly a correlation between population growth and farmland conversion, and in Canada 70% of population growth is driven by immigration. Undocumented evidence suggests that in Greater Vancouver and Toronto, as many as 85% of the residents in the new subdivisions that sit on former greenbelts are foreign born. Yet the champions of farm protection such as Ontario Farmland Trust, Ontario Smart Growth, Smart Growth BC or the David Suzuki Foundation will not dare to mention the ugly “I” word. For them, as for the Growth Management Industry, the Greens and the NDP, it is all just a matter of “land use management”.

Yet several American studies have revealed that it is not. A Centre for Immigration Studies report of 2003 established that land use management was necessary but not sufficient, to save farmland, as “sprawl”, that great scapegoat of the environmental movement, accounted for only half, on average, of disappearing rural acreage. A US Bureau of Census study of the 100 largest U.S. urbanized areas concluded in the early 90s that land-use restrictions could not win any lasting, sustainable, protection of agricultural land and natural habitats surrounding cities. Census data established that the sprawl rate was twice as high nationally at 51.5% as the per capita increase in the consumption of land at 22.6%. A city like Denver could contain its per capita land consumption to 8.1% but see its overall land consumption rise by 56.7%--seven times as much. Portland, Oregon was trumpeted as the showcase of smart growth, until too many sheep finally burst the pen and the greenbelt outside city limits got developed. Los Angeles, wrongly tagged as the sultan of sprawl, won an award for increasing its density by 8% for two decades until 1990. Then came 3.1 million immigrants with no where to go and 394 square miles of orchards, natural habitat, rural spaces and farmland were lost to urbanization.

In recent years a report by Smart Growth BC painted a rosy picture of B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), calling it a success story “in the context of North American regional development”. (That is damning it with faint praise!). It was a patent falsehood that from 1973 to the end of 2003, “there has been no net loss of farmland in B.C.” The key to that statement lay in the definition of “farmland”. If it is defined as good soil, then the ALC has been playing a shell game with the trusting public, exchanging coveted marketable farmland under its protection for relatively poorer land in more remote locations. The telling concession from Smart Growth BC comes in these lines: “However the quality of farmland in the ALR has decreased, with 2.8 hectares of prime farmland excluded for every hectare prime farmland included. Likewise, the ALR has shifted to the northern part of the province, with 90% of the inclusions in the north and 72% of exclusions occurring in the south.” Harold Steves, a former MLA who fought for the ALC at its inception, corroborated that point recently on CBC radio by stating that the ALC was adding very poor “Class 6” land from north east BC and the Cariboo and releasing good land from the Fraser Valley.

The lesson that should be drawn from the ALC experience is that even North America’s poster child of land use planning and farm protection could not stand up to population pressure and political manipulation. B C.’s Lower Mainland is the magnet for immigration, not Williams Lake or Fort St. John. Yes of course Premier Gordon Campbell made a calculated decision to weaken the ALC by turning over the decision making from one provincial panel to six smaller regional panels that would be more vulnerable to “community” commercial interests. Predictably these panels down south have complied with what Campbell’s friends have wanted them to do. But without population growth there would be no demand for new housing and big box commercial developments and potential developers would not be knocking at the door demanding that land locked in the ALR be released. Five hundred acres of farmland in Williams Lake lies unmolested because developers know that the 30,000 New Canadians who will fly into YVR- Van International next year ( statistics courtesy of Regional Development, Metro Van ) have no interest in moving to Williams Lake. Not because it is protected by any land reserve or land use bylaws.

One can only marvel at the naïve confidence that the smart growth coalition of environmentalists, planners, progressive developers, and so forth, place in paper fortresses. Despite historical evidence, they believe that dedicated national parks will forever remain inviolate, that greenbelts will never be encroached, or that the sacred will never be touched. Australian writer Mark O’Connor had this warning about that kind of thinking:
“These parks have supposedly been created in perpetuity: yet there is a risk that further shifts in ideology may leave a future government free to revoke national parks. It would by then be able to plead the housing and resource needs of a much expanded population, plus its need of export earnings from lands that would be otherwise going to waste. Developers constantly agitate for governments to become less sluggish in releasing more land.”

The ALC was a significant achievement, but an anomaly, a product of a unique political culture that likely will never be duplicated. It is interesting that no NDP administration in any of the three other provinces that elected them ever implemented similar freezes on development of farmland. And yet mass immigration apologists who argue that farmland loss to development can be prevented by smart growth won’t even wait until this pie-in-the-sky land-use regime is established before they would wantonly inject more than a quarter of a million people into this society annually when it clearly threatens our ability to feed ourselves. A clear case of criminal irresponsibility. One wonders, would they allow cars to pour onto a newly built highway before traffic controls were in place? The reality is, farmland is not currently protected. It is open season and therefore population growth must be stopped now. Immigration and fertility policies must be fashioned in light of that imperative.

A post-carbon world will be unforgiving of transportation costs. Presently 35 times more is spent in fossil energy in transporting a head of lettuce from the Salinos Valley in California to Toronto than in actually growing it . If all the food that Torontonians ate was grown locally in the acres that are now being sold to developers, it would save enough fossil fuels as to be the equivalent of taking 162,000 cars off Toronto’s streets.
In Food, Land, Population and the US Economy , Mario Giampietro and David Pimentel postulated that to achieve a sustainable food system and national economy the United States must reduce its population by one third “or face disaster”. And their research did not even consider the impact of declining fossil fuel production.

It would be prudent for Canada to factor in imminent resource shortages and worst case scenarios. To be on the HMCS Titanic with a captain who stops to pick up additional passengers with an iceberg visible dead ahead is a surreal experience, especially when he, like so many, believes the ship to be unsinkable and with an unlimited carrying capacity. We need to protect our food source and keep it close at hand. And remember the admonition of Canadian writer Ronald Wright, who, in summarizing the collapse of civilizations, remarked, “Don’t build on agricultural land.”

In reviewing this account, my question is directed to myopic policy makers. “Will mass immigration mean mass starvation in Canada?”