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Loss of US Farmland--A National Crisis??

The verbiage in this article is an attempt to bring attention to what I believe is a crisis in US agriculture–i.e., the disappearance of land that could and should be used for food production. Now I realize that land does not “disappear”, but rather it is lost for certain uses, in this case agriculture. And regrettably, this “lost” land is often the most productive for producing human food, and it likely can never be recovered for food production when it “disappears” in such a manner. Data from the below-cited articles that are summarized in the accompanying narratives portend a rather bleak picture for the future sustainability of U.S. agriculture unless corrective action is taken now.

First, an article titled “Here’s How America Uses Its Land by Merrill and Leatherby appeared in the July 31, 2018 online edition of Bloomberg.com. Pertinent statistics (from “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2012" published by USDA-ERS in Aug. 2017) from that article follow.

•   Cropland makes up about 21% (391.5 million acres) of the contiguous 48 states, but the actual land devoted to production of food for US consumption is only about 20% of these acres. The majority of cropland (211.7 million acres or 54%) is devoted to livestock feed production and crops grown for export.

•   About 1/3 of US cropland (127.4 million acres) is used to produce feed for livestock.

•   (LGH sidebar: All of the above cropland acres–whether devoted to human food production, production of feed for livestock, or production of fiber crops–are generally intensely managed for maximum production.)

•   Pasture and rangeland comprise about 35% of US land area.

•   41% of land in the 48 states is used as pasture and crop area to produce feed for livestock.

•   Urban areas comprise only 3.6% of the land in the 48 states, but 4 out of 5 Americans live and work in these areas.

•   The US is becoming more urban at an average rate of about 1 million acres per year, and urban creep outpaces growth in all other land-use categories. As stated above, this land is likely lost to agriculture forever.

•   Access the complete report linked above to find details about methodology and to view graphic displays of all the data contained in the article.

Second, a White Paper titled “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States” by Freedgood, Hunter, Dempsey, and Sorensen was published by the American Farmland Trust. The contents of this report paint a stark picture for the future of America’s agricultural farmland because the availability of productive land for farming in the U.S. is being threatened by current trends of land conversion to non-agricultural uses. A summary of pertinent statistics in that report follows.

•   The U.S. has about 10% of the Earth’s arable soils, the most of any country on the planet.

•   Between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of agricultural land (farms and ranches) in the 48 contiguous states were converted to uses that jeopardize agriculture and future US food production. 4 million of these acres were lost to urban and highly developed (UHD) land use, and 7.1 million acres were lost to low-density residential development (LDR).

•   LDR development is especially egregious because it often fragments the farm land base where it occurs. Also, nearby/adjacent agricultural land in LDR-developed areas was 23 times more likely to be converted to UHD than other agricultural land since new development rapidly occurs on the remaining farmland surrounding LDR areas.

•   Of the 11 million “lost” acres, about 4.4 million acres were classified as “Nationally Significant” (the most productive, versatile, and resilient [PVR] land), or land that is the most suitable for sustainable crop production. This represents about 40% of the agricultural land in the 48 contiguous states.

•   Loss of PVR land drives agricultural enterprises to marginal land that is more environmentally fragile and less productive. Thus, any policy considerations to protect farmland should concentrate on the PVR land first and foremost.

•   USDA reports that the U.S. has developed more than 25 million acres of farmland since 1982; this land is forever lost to agriculture.

•   While agricultural land in the U.S. faces increasing threats from UHD and LRD, consumers expect cheap, plentiful, high-quality foods from America’s farmers. This includes environmentally, ethically, and locally sourced products that are identified as humane, ecologically friendly, organic, and GMO-free. This a is tall order for America’s farmers when faced with a dwindling supply of PVR land on which to produce those products. Thus, a quandary exists and can only get worse unless measures to preserve productive farmland are enacted and enforced.

•   Policy tools that can be used to protect farmland are highlighted. They are: 1) state purchase of agricultural conservation easements; 2) land use planning policies that manage UHD and LDR growth to stabilize and protect the agricultural land base; 3) property tax relief for agricultural land–i.e., tax farmland at its current use for farming instead of its potential use for development; 4) develop agricultural district programs that combine tax relief/incentives and protections from annexation, eminent domain, and unreasonable regulations for contiguous blocks of agricultural land; 5) farm link networks that connect agriculture-devoted landowners with those who want to be farmers and ranchers but who will not inherit land; and 6) leasing programs that make government-owned land available to farmers and ranchers.

•   The bottom line based on the data in this report is this–“loss” of agricultural land, especially PVR-classified land, compromises sustainable agricultural production in the U.S. regardless of what new technology may be in the offing. You just can’t grow food without adequate productive land.

•   Access the complete report linked above to find details about methodology and to view graphic displays of all the data contained in the report.

The world’s population growth has been and will be limited/affected by famine, pestilence, natural disasters, and war, but the effect of these population controllers is declining. For example, pestilence in the form of diseases that affect humans is better managed now by modern medical technology such as vaccines, antibiotics, and pathogen containment (e.g. compare death toll from historic epidemics and/or pandemics to those of modern times). Diseases, insects, and weeds still take their toll on agricultural production, but advancements in technology (pesticides, GMO crops) used to manage and control these pests have reduced their impact. Natural disasters still occur, but their effect on loss of human life has decreased because of early detection and warning devices, flood control measures, and disaster preparedness procedures.  Thus, there are fewer checks on the world’s population growth–i.e., it is increasing because there are fewer uncontrolled or unmitigated natural occurrences to temper that growth.

As indicated in the land “disappearance” narrative above, the acreage of arable land that can and should be permanently set aside for present and future food production is declining in the U.S. The only solution, then, is for technological advances to increase the food supply.  These are occurring, but their adoption is being limited by both social and political forces that question/disparage this new technology to the point that a portion of these advances may not be realized because they are becoming prohibitively expensive to bring to market. 

If the current trends of an unfettered increase in world population and the declining acreage of arable land devoted to agriculture continues, it is reasonable to assume that the world’s food supply will soon no longer support feeding the world’s population, even if infrastructure and economic conditions in the entire world become ideal. In other words, no amount of money will compensate for the decline in food production that will result from a dwindling supply of arable land. There just won’t be enough productive land left to supply the needed food. And remember, this loss of land to agriculture is essentially permanent–i.e., once covered with concrete, asphalt, houses, and commercial structures, there is no turning it back to agricultural land. Thus, what we now have must be protected and even improved so that a continual and plentiful supply of food is forthcoming. Statistics in the above-cited reports certainly underline this conclusion.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, May 2020, larryheatherly@bellsouth.net