The next Agriculture Policy Framework needs to compensate farmers and landowners who embrace environmentally sustainable land management, Ducks Unlimited Canada has told the Senate agriculture committee.
Otherwise the alarming loss of wetlands and other critical wildlife habitat will continue its upward spiral, Scott Stephens, DUC’s director of regional operations for the Prairie region told the committee, which is examining landownership.
“Skyrocketing prices and the loss of agricultural land not only negatively impact Canada’s agricultural sector but it also has serious consequences for our country as a whole, as it translates into the loss of critical ecosystem services,” he said.
The next APF presents a great opportunity to rethink how Canada views, governs and grows its agricultural sector, he said.
“The vision we as a country should aspire to is one where those farmers and rural landowners who already embrace environmentally sustainable land management are compensated for delivering critical ecosystem services to Canadians,” Stephens said. “This will, in turn, help protect critical habitats in the larger agricultural landscape upon which they reside.”
At the same time government should support industry initiatives, practices and emerging technologies that help improve agricultural production on the existing land base, he said.
“Such innovations remain key to Canada’s ability to grow a competitive and environmentally sustainable agricultural sector,” Stephens said.
James Brennan, DUC’s director of government relations said the same pressures of rising land values face his organization’s efforts to preserve habitat. So it works at developing partnerships with landowners of cost-share conservation programs or assist farmers to restore natural wetlands.
In the case of a farmer who wants to sell, DUC will buy the property, restore any lost or degraded natural areas on that land and then list the property for sale on the open market along with its restored habitats, which are protected by perpetual conservation easement attached on title, Brennan said.
The program has proved especially popular and successful in the Prairie region, where DUC has purchased 29,000 acres over the past three years and sold 15,000 acres back into private ownership.
“The remaining acres purchased are either currently for sale or are being restored in anticipation of future sale,” he said.
Rising land values are making habitat conservation on private land increasingly difficult, he said.
“This is because the financial incentives we offer through our various conservation programs must, at a minimum, equal current land use values,” Brennan said. “Without this benefit, it becomes unattractive or uneconomical for the producer to undertake any form of conservation or restoration of habitat.”
He noted a property known as Luke’s Club on Lake St. Clair in Ontario was put up for sale in 2014.
“The listing price for the 512 acres of important coastal wetland habitat was $3.9 million, a value based only on its farming potential,” he said. “Because this price was more than three times the value of a comparable Great Lakes coastal wetland habitat, neither DUC nor any other conservation organization could afford this property and thus avoid risks of habitat conversion.”
Development pressures and urban growth are also affecting land values and habitat conservation.
“Farmers who own agricultural lands near major city centres are more likely to sell their properties and take advantage of high prices,” Brennan said. “When this occurs, any residual habitat usually gets converted to residential or industrial development, as does the farmland.”
Nearly one-third, or 19.6 million hectares, of Canada’s agricultural land base functions as important wildlife habitat, he said.
“Thanks to the environmental commitment of 18,000 individual landowners and our other partners, Ducks Unlimited Canada has been able to conserve nearly 6.4 million acres of habitat to date nationwide,” he said.
Despite these efforts however, Brennan said wetland and other habitat loss in Canada is continuing to increase at an alarming rate.
Since the arrival of European settlers, an estimated 70 per cent of Canada’s wetland base has been lost or degraded in the settled regions of our country.
“To this day, we continue to lose more than 29,000 acres of wetlands each and every year,” he said. “The consequences of this ecological loss are significant and are proving to have long-term ramifications not only for Canada’s finances and climate resiliency but also for our agriculture sector’s growth, competitiveness and the necessary public trust that underpins it.”
He also said the loss of these lands means farmers will face more frequent flooding and soil erosion, which will only be magnified by a changing climate.