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Dossier: Agricultural rezoning in Quebec

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The pressure on Quebec’s agricultural land, a scarce and valuable resource, is alarming. Despite the Act Respecting the Preservation of Agricultural Land and Agricultural Activities, which took effect 40 years ago, our farmland continues to disappear year after year because of urban sprawl and financial and real estate speculation. An estimated 35,000 hectares have been affected over the past 20 years.

Here is everything you need to know about this important issue:

The issue of agricultural rezoning in Quebec

Why is it important to protect our farmland?

Our agricultural land is what feeds us and what will feed future generations. The destruction of our farmland imperils our food security, as nearly everything we eat comes from agriculture. Protecting them is therefore crucial.

Cultivable farmland makes up only 2% of Quebec’s land mass. This scarcity drives up prices, causing additional speculative activity on these lands and putting them further out of farmers’ reach. Once farmland has been paved over, we can no longer recover the living, fertile soil lying underneath. It is a non-renewable resource, since it takes several centuries to regenerate once it has been developed.

Beyond the threat that rezoning exerts on this land, agriculture is also one of the sectors most affected by climate change. Protecting our farmland is therefore a win-win, in that it not only protects our food security but also plays a proactive role in helping mitigate climate change. Learn about climate agriculture and how the agricultural industry can play an important role in tackling the climate crisis by capturing GHG’s in Quebec’s agricultural soil.

Why is there so much rezoning in Quebec?

There is heavy demand for agricultural rezoning in a number of areas: housing developments, municipalities’ need for increased property tax revenues, various economic projects, land occupancy by non-farmers, etc.

There is a demand across Quebec, but especially around the greater Montreal area. A few recent examples of successful or attempted agricultural rezoning initiatives: in the RCM of Montcalm (160 ha), Beauharnois (94 ha), Ste-Marie (84 ha), Vaudreuil-Soulanges (24 ha), Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (187 ha), Quebec City (200 ha), Boisbriand (137 ha), Saint-Constant (8.5 ha), Granby (23 ha) and Saint-Hyacinthe (14 ha), to name only a few!

Équiterre’s position is that we must stop viewing agricultural land, farmed or not, as zones waiting to be urbanized.

Are there any legislative or institutional safeguards in place to protect our farmland?

The province of Quebec is subject to the Act Respecting the Preservation of Agricultural Land and Agricultural Activities, which took effect in 1978. The aim of the act is to prohibit the use of farmland for purposes other than agriculture. The Act also created the Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Québec (CPTAQ).

The CPTAQ’s mission is to preserve the land that is suitable for agricultural development and activities for future generations. The CPTAQ therefore has a major role to play in protecting Quebec’s farmland. It essentially has the decision-making authority to either include or exclude land from an agricultural zone. Any rezoning must be authorized by the CPTAQ or otherwise decreed by the government of Quebec. Since the early 1990s, the CPTAQ has refused to rezone nearly 80,000 hectares (ha).

In 2017, however, the CPTAQ approved three-quarters of the applications submitted, resulting in the disappearance of 2,000 hectares of farmland in a single year. Most of these requests came from the government, municipalities and real estate developers across Quebec.

The CPTAQ is therefore not a panacea when it comes to protecting our farmland. The government can sidestep it by issuing orders or enacting special legislation. In some cases, projects have been allowed to go ahead even against the advice of the CPTAQ and even when experts from the primary ministries concerned have deemed them unacceptable.

What can be done to improve the situation?

A few avenues towards possible solutions:

  • Quebec should complete an exercise in order establish a coherent vision for land use for the province

Équiterre believes that agriculture must be seen as a strategic resource for Quebec and that an overarching vision of agriculture is necessary to protect our farmland. The Alliance ARIANE is proposing just that: a national land use policy for Quebec, a proposal that is supported by Équiterre.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Andrée Laforest has announced a national conversation aimed at establishing a coherent vision of land use in Quebec. However, if development projects that lead to urban sprawl continue to be approved while this conversation takes place, it cannot be taken seriously and will not be productive.

Therefore, we called on the Quebec government to institute a moratorium on agricultural rezoning, while this national conversation was taking place. Équiterre and our partners is working throughout to help craft this national vision for land use, in order to prevent the destruction of our farmland and natural habitats.

We have received over 13,000 signatures of Équiterre’s petition against agricultural rezoning, which was delivered to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in September 2021.

  • Valuing and enhancing our farmland

There are a number of initiatives in place to enhance or protect agricultural land. Examples include the program to compensate rural municipalities for protecting CMM farmland, the agricultural zone development plan (PDZA), greenbelts, farmland re-parcelling strategies, regenerative soil management, land trusts and servitudes, etc.

  • Optimizing urban or white zone land use

The optimization of urban or white zone land use should allow the province to accommodate all the demographic growth that is forecast in most of Quebec’s municipalities. Soil densification and decontamination should be prioritized.

Our vision of agriculture as a strategic resource

Équiterre has always proposed and supported innovative public policy as well as community and corporate actions that foster sustainable agricultural and food systems.

A vital, rare and non-renewable resource, Équiterre believes that our agricultural land should be considered a part of our collective heritage: a true strategic resource.

The foundational elements that guide our work on agriculture are soil health, agricultural land protection, food autonomy, agricultural succession and a new generation of farmers, and dynamic land occupancy.

For more information:

Dossier: Agricultural rezoning in Quebec

Read the letter from Colleen Thorpe, Executive Director of Équiterre