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There is no Current Replacement for Productive Farmland

There is a crisis in the offing that will affect long-term food security in this country, and in essence, the entire world. Productive farmland in the U.S. that is now being used to supply the food and fiber to a growing world population is rapidly being covered by urban sprawl, or the expansion of the geographic extent of cities and towns. This happening is often attributed to the need to accommodate an increasing urban population, but in reality it likely results from a desire for increased living space by urban dwellers, and the accompanying residential amenities that this relocated urban population expects in their new environs. However, this increased expansion of cities and towns into outlying areas is not accompanied by the reversion of abandoned metropolitan areas to agricultural production. Therefore, this sprawl that often covers productive farmland in the areas that surround metropolitan areas results in a net loss of land to agriculture that is equal to the amount of land that it covers. This land is essentially lost to agriculture forever–i.e., it likely cannot or will never be used to produce crops again.

The American Farmland Trust (AFT) is an organization that was founded for the promotion of, and devotion to, the wise use and preservation of America’s productive farmland that is used to grow our food and provide key ecological services such as carbon sequestration, protecting water quality, and providing habitat for wildlife and native species. Their latest report titled “Farmland Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future” addresses the need to curtail the conversion of American farmland to non-agricultural uses such as urban sprawl. A summary of the major points from that report follow.

•    It is urgent to safeguard the land that grows our food so that a stable food supply is ensured in the coming decades.

•    From 2001-2016, the U.S. lost or compromised 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland every day. If this trend continues, another 18.4 million acres will be lost to farming between 2016 and 2040. This lost farming acreage will be converted to highly-developed urban uses, and low-density residential areas such as large-lot subdivisions and rural areas with scattered houses.

•    It is predicted that nearly half of the conversion of U.S. farmland at current rates will be that involving Nationally Significant Land, or the nation’s most productive and versatile farmland and ranchland.

•    If policymakers and land-use planners adopt more compact development approaches, much of this irreplaceable farmland will be spared from conversion to non-farm uses.

•    The projected loss of productive farmland is especially egrigious when considered along with the potential for declining yields brought about by climate change, the use of land for energy production, and the largely impossible conversion of urban lands back to productive farmland.

•    Since over 40% of farmland is owned by people over 65, much of present-day farmland will likely change hands in the next 20 years. This will increase the possibility of farmland being sold for development. Plus, the challenge of finding affordable land for farming is keeping many young people from getting started in farming.

•    The report lists three avenues of approach for the coming decades. They are: 1) Business as Usual, which will result in the potential loss of the 18.4 million acres of farmland projected above; 2) Runaway Sprawl, which could lead to 24.4 million acres of lost farmland by 2040 resulting from inefficient and poorly-planned development; and 3) Better Built Cities, which embraces more compact urban development to reduce the loss of productive farmland to development.

•    Results from the three approaches will have a profound and lasting effect on the future of agriculture and food production in the U.S. because land that is lost to agriculture is essentially lost to that enterprise forever.

•    Finally, without proactive policymaking and land-use planning, the current and relentless march of the Business as Usual approach will continue or accelerate into Runaway Sprawl. Both will severely curtail the food production potential in the U.S.

•    Agricultural land that is currently used for food production must be permanently protected to ensure a perpetual supply of food to a growing U.S. and world population. This will involve both Smart Growth and Farmland Protection approaches at all levels of government.

•    Ignoring this impending threat will result in irreversible consequences that will curtail this country’s food production capability, and this will affect both the U.S. and world populations.

The information in this article supplements that in a previous article on this website.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, Aug. 2022,